Protestants with a strong religious identity continue to increase as Catholics with a strong religious identity continue to decline, according to a March study by the Pew Research Center. The proportion of Catholics reporting strong religious affiliation declined by almost twenty percentage points over the last few decades, from 46 percent of Catholics in 1974 to 27 percent in 2012. Protestants reporting strong religious affiliation increased more than ten percentage points during the same period, from 43 percent to 54 percent.
The contrast between Protestant and Catholic trends is not as straightforward as the numbers suggest. The data tell us more about intra-ecclesial changes than they do about inter-ecclesial comparisons. The data on Catholics indeed suggest reasons for some concern, but the data on Protestants are not quite as rosy as they initially appear.
Let’s start with the Protestants. The increase in the proportion of Protestants who report a strong religious identity may result not from an overall increase in the number of strong Protestants, but rather from a decline in the number of “weak” Protestants. These folks could have dropped out entirely from counting as Protestants—either now reporting no belief or reporting adherence to another religion. Thus the proportion of Protestants reporting a strong religious affiliation will appear larger, even though the absolute numbers have not changed at all.
The Pew Research Center chart below on “Protestants as a Share of the Adult Population” seems to confirm this claim. The proportion of the American population calling themselves strong Protestants has remained more or less steady at around 27 percent since 1974. During that time, however, the percentage of less strong “Other Protestants” declined by over one-third, from 36 percent of the adult population to 23 percent. While the absolute number of strong Protestants would have increased along with the overall increase in the U.S. population during this period, the decline in “other Protestants” accounts entirely for the reported increase in the proportion of Protestants with a strong religious affiliation.
While strong Protestants haven’t gained in the overall population, despite gaining proportionally among self-identified Protestants, they also haven’t lost ground in the overall population during this period. The news may not be as good as it seems, but neither is it as bad as it might be—which is to say, as bad as it is for Catholics.
Strong Catholics have lost ground, both proportionally among Catholics and also in the entire population. As can be seen in the chart below, the proportion of strong Catholics in the overall U.S. population has declined about 40 percent from 1974, from twelve percent of the entire adult population to seven percent. While the five-percentage point decline in the proportion of strong Catholics almost mirrors the four-percentage point increase in “other” Catholics, I suspect from other reports that the turnover is greater than the General Social Survey numbers pick up, with an increase in the Hispanic population in the U.S. masking the loss among Catholics of Anglo origin because of the relatively greater Catholic identification among Hispanics.
There seems to be some question whether Hispanics will continue as a group to make up for the loss of Anglo members in the U.S. Catholic Church. In a recent cover story, Time magazine reported (drawing on different data from Pew) that while currently two-thirds of Hispanics in the U.S. are Catholic, the expectation is that only 50 percent will be Catholic by 2030. “Among young Latinos,” Time reports, “the drift away from the Roman Catholic Church is even more rapid.”
Do Catholics have any reason for optimism? To be sure, a dynamic, vibrant pope from Latin America might excite Catholics about their faith, particularly young Hispanics in both Latin America and the U.S. Further, while strong Catholic identity may be declining overall in the U.S., my impression is that there is a steady stream of converts from Protestantism to Catholicism at elite levels. Some of these converts are Evangelicals; others are from mainline denominations, or even from no religion at all.
A trickle of high-profile converts cannot numerically offset the laity leaving Catholicism for other churches or no church at all, but their conversions—often made with some reference to perceived Catholic intellectual vibrancy—may reflect a strength in the Catholic Church not captured by the numerical measures.
That said, while the movement into the Catholic Church at elite levels is often discussed separately from the movement out of the Catholic Church at the popular level, I wonder whether both are, in part, a reflection of the same cause: the evaporation of much of the traditional social stigma of being a Catholic in the U.S. The effect would be most direct at the elite level. Decreasing prejudice clears the way for conversions among elites, at least at the margin, by decreasing the social and economic penalties.
But likewise, in the more common case of laypeople joining Protestant churches, I wonder whether anti-Catholicism in the past might have constructed a hedge that served as much to keep Catholics “in” their Church as a result of their exclusion from fully interacting with Protestants in American culture. This might plausibly have created a psychology of “us versus them” that may have helped—again, at the margin—to sustain commitment to Catholicism.
The removal of much of the hedge of prejudice against Catholicism in the U.S. could thereby allow easier entry into the Catholic Church at the very same time it allows easier exit from the Catholic Church relative to earlier times.
The implication of the Pew report seems to be status-quo holding for Protestantism: It is maintaining its core members while losing its more peripheral members (hence core members make up a greater proportion of Protestants, even though core members are not increasing numerically faster than population growth). The implication is more concerning for Catholics: Even though overall numbers are maintaining, core membership is declining.
James R. Rogers is department head and associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. He leads the “New Man” prison ministry at the Hamilton Unit in Bryan, Texas, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Texas District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
“Doing the Math on Religious Affiliation,” James R. Rogers