It's Time to Recognize that America Isn't "Protestant" Anymore Print
Written by Sherry   
Tuesday, 11 January 2011 22:34

There were several different topics that I would have liked to cover during my post-Christmas blogging binge but I just didn't make it. They are all relevant to our current discussions and news stories so I thought I'd try to make it happen now that I'm home.  Again, I'll be quoting from the magnificent Atlas of Global Christianity which I would encourage Catholic libraries and readers with a scholarly bent to purchase.

1) The 20th century collapse of historic Protestantism in North America.

In our debates, we often talk about America as a deeply Protestant country.  Indeed, I have sometimes heard it said that in the US, even Catholics are really Protestant in worldview, so powerful is the mark of Protestantism on this culture.

But if we only look at the other dominant religious community in terms of what they are not (namely us), we will miss the fact that what they are and how they understand themselves has changed dramatically over the past 100 years.   The majority aren't Protestant anymore in the sense that Protestants would have meant in 1910. Here's what I mean.

Even though historic Protestant denominations (Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, etc.) only made up 18.8% of all Christians in the world in 1910, a map showing the dominant religion in North American countries in that year looked like this (purple stands for historic Protestants):


Throughout North America, historic, creedal, denominational Protestantism was dominant.

A century later, the sea of North American purple was giving way to a complicated and surprising reality.


Catholicism had become the largest national faith in Canada.  Independent Christianity, that new kind of Christianity which no longer looks to historic Protestant creeds or denominations, which sprang up in the 20th century and regards itself to be "post-Protestant", has taken the lead in the US.  The US is one of the five largest centers of Independent Christianity and the only one in the west. About 75 million Independent Christians live in the US.

If we dive in and look at the dominant faith in every state and province in 2010, we'll see that the situation is considerably more complicated.




Although Independent Christians outnumber Catholics at the national level in the US, Catholics are the largest religious group in 30 states.  Independents dominate at the state level only in Texas and "Marginal" Christians (Mormons, etc.) are largest in Utah and Idaho. Non Protestant Christianity dominates in 2/3 of American states.

Here's another way of looking at the same trajectory. (The numbers are from the AGC.)

1910 (Christians in North America)

62%  Protestant

22%  Catholic

10% Independent Christians

4% Anglican

1% Orthodox

1% Marginal

In 1910, classic Protestant denominations (Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, Baptists, etc.) and Anglicanism (the Episcopal Church) together dominated the landscape.  They comprised 66% of American Christians.  Catholics and Orthodox together made up 23%.


2010 (Christians in North America)

25% Protestant (60% drop)

35% Catholic (60% rise)

31% Independent (210% rise)

1%  Anglican (75% drop)

3% Orthodox (200% rise)

5% Marginals (400% rise)

Classic Protestantism and Anglicanism have dropped like a stone and now only make up 26% of American Christians. Catholics and Orthodox grew dramatically and together now comprise 38% of all Christians in North America.  The new post-Protestant groups have come out of nowhere (Independents and Marginals) and now make up 36% of Christians.

Independents and Marginals still have Reformation DNA because they emerged in reaction to classically Protestant Christianity but most do not see themselves as "Protestant" in the way the term was used in 1910.  They are the more or less estranged children and grandchildren of historic Protestantism who no longer feel bound by historic Protestant creeds or consensus.  We continue to see them as "other" because we are highly sensitive to their still existing Reformed assumptions, but their recent past and their future trajectory is away from historic Protestantism.  Because they are passionately evangelizing and masters of the media - old and new - they are growing faster than all other Christian groups.

Today, the dominant form of non-Catholic Christianity is this country has changed dramatically and they are not much interested in the historic debates of the 16th century.  Which means that when Catholic commentators say that in the US, "even Catholics are Protestant", we need to remember that the content of the word "Protestant" has changed dramatically.  We would be more accurate to say, in the US, even Catholics are Independents.