Half a century later, this has changed. According to a recently released survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, less than 50 percent of Americans today claim to be Protestants. The majority has become a minority.
The obvious question: Where did they go? The answer: nowhere, according to the Pew findings. Instead of joining other religious groups, they have joined none. Nearly 1 out of 5 Americans today claim no religious identity.
These are the “Nones.” They are the second largest religious category after Catholics. Nationally, they even outnumber Southern Baptists.
Who are the Nones? Everyone. They are found in every age group and every social and economic category. Just more than 30 percent are under the age of 30, which means nearly 70 percent aren’t — a huge percentage of people in middle and older age, in other words. They are found in every educational category, and their increase is as great in the lower-income levels as in the upper.
The implications of this trend are many.
Growing evangelical denominations need to be aware that their increases more often come from “raiding” each other rather than going out and converting those who aren’t religious. The steady growth of the Nones suggests that evangelical efforts are not having the impact on the unaffiliated that church leaders claim.
The political implications are equally interesting.
According to the Pew study, Nones are statistically tied with white evangelicals (19 percent) but hold opposite views on social issues such as abortion and same-sex unions. On the other hand, they are much more conservative when questioned about the size and reach of government.
It seems a new element has appeared on the political landscape, one that could have the same impact that interest groups such as the religious right have had in the past. Though Nones are unorganized, they are there, and political parties that once patterned their platforms to satisfy other large voting blocs will have to take these voters into consideration.