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Study Says Baptists Losing Ground in America’s Religious Landscape

Americans are leaving Baptist churches at nearly twice the rate that others are joining them, according to details of a study released Monday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey portrayed American religion in flux, with 44 percent of Americans now professing a religious affiliation that is different from the one in which they were raised.

That competition has created net winners and losers. No group is simply losing or gaining members, the study said, but all are gaining and losing members at the same time. Those that gain more than they lose are growing, while those who lose more than they gain are in decline.

More than 8 percent of the U.S. adult population was raised Baptist but is no longer Baptist, the study said.

Nearly 21 percent of Americans surveyed said they were Baptists in their childhood, compared to 17.2 percent who said it is their current religion, a loss of 3.7 percentage points.

Those losses have been offset some by attracting new adherents from other faiths. Some 4.5 percent of the adult population was raised as something other than Baptist but has since joined a Baptist church.

Those gaining the most in the religious shuffle were non-denominational Protestants–just one in four current members churches grew up in those churches–and more than one-in-six American adults (16.1 percent) not currently affiliated with any particular religious group.

Despite their losses, Baptists had one of the highest retention rates of Protestant families. About 60 percent of people raised Baptists did not change from the church of their childhood.

The group experiencing the greatest net loss was the Catholic Church. More than 31 percent of U.S. adults said they were raised Catholics, while just under 24 percent identify as Catholics today, a loss of 7.5 percentage points.

The Catholic percentage of the population has remained stable at about 25 percent, however, in part because people who have left the Catholic Church over the years have been replaced by large numbers of Catholic immigrants coming into the United States from Latin America.

The study confirmed that the U.S. is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country. Protestants account for 51.3 percent of the adult population and 65 percent of Christians in the U.S.

The largest of the Protestant families in the U.S. is the Baptist family, which accounts for one third of all Protestants and nearly one fifth of the total U.S. adult population. Baptists also account for nearly two-thirds of members of historically black Protestant churches.

Because of its diversity, the study’s authors described American Protestantism not as a single religious tradition but three distinct religious traditions–evangelical Protestant churches, mainline Protestant churches and historically black Protestant churches. Baptists are represented in all three.

Evangelical Protestants–sharing religious beliefs like accepting Jesus is the only way to salvation and heavy emphasis on bringing other people to faith–include the Southern Baptist Convention, Independent Baptists, Free Will Baptists, General Association of Regular Baptists, Baptist Bible Fellowship, Seventh-Day Baptists and others.

Churches in the mainline Protestant tradition–sharing other doctrines like a less-exclusionary view of salvation and strong emphasis on social reform–include American Baptist Churches in U.S.A., Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Alliance of Baptists.

Churches in the historically black Protestant tradition–uniquely shaped by experiences of slavery and segregation that put their religious beliefs and practices in a special context–are grouped separately. Larger groups include the National Baptist Convention, USA, National Baptist Convention of America, Progressive National Baptist Convention and National Missionary Baptist Convention.

Baptists comprise 41 percent of evangelical Protestant churches, 10 percent of mainline Protestant churches and 64 percent of historically black Protestant churches, the study said. The largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, accounted for 6.7 percent of the total U.S. population and 13.1 percent of all Protestants.

Evangelical Baptists are more likely to be married, 60 percent, than Baptists in the mainline (49 percent married) or historically black tradition, which has a marriage rate of 30 percent. Divorce rates for both the mainline ABC/USA (16 percent divorced or separated) and evangelical SBC (13 percent) were both higher than the 12 percent in the U.S. population as a whole.

Based on interviews with 35,000 Americans–and not numbers reported by religious bodies–the SBC is estimated to be 85 percent white and 8 percent black, according to the study. The ABC/USA is 81 percent white, 4 percent black, 2 percent Asian, 7 percent Latino and 6 percent other or mixed.

Southern Baptists tend to be wealthier than American Baptists. One in four Southern Baptists earns $75,000 a year or more, compared to 17 percent of American Baptists. At the other end of the scale, 46 percent of American Baptists earn less than $30,000, compared to 30 percent of Southern Baptists.

Half of the historically African-American Baptist members earn less than $30,000 a year and another 25 percent are paid between $30,000 and $49,999. Just 8 percent of historically black Baptists earn more than $100,000 a year, compared to 10 percent in the mainline Baptist heritage and 13 percent in the evangelical Baptist tradition.

Southern Baptists are getting older, with 49 percent of SBC members aged 50 and older and 13 percent between 18 and 29. Twenty-two percent of Southern Baptists attended college and 14 percent are college graduates.

Two thirds of Southern Baptist adults are childless. Thirteen percent have one child, 13 percent have two, 4 percent have three and 3 percent have four or more. Mormons and Muslims are the groups with the largest families. More than one in five Mormon adults and 15 percent of Muslim adults in the U.S. have three or more children living at home.

Southern Baptists are concentrated in the South, where 76 percent of adherents live, while American Baptists are spread out 19 percent in the Northeast, 26 percent in the Midwest, 39 percent in the South and 16 percent in the West.

Baptists as a group are 45 percent male and 55 percent female. The gender gap is smaller in the evangelical tradition–48 percent male and 52 percent female–than in the mainline (44 percent male, 56 percent female) or historically black (40 percent male and 60 percent female) traditions.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.