Following a string of recent developments that suggest waning Protestant power – like the first Supreme Court with no Protestant justices, and a Protestant-free Republican presidential ticket –a new Pew survey finds that Protestants are no longer the majority in the United States.
The Protestant population has declined from 53% of the U.S. population in 2007 to 48% this year, according to the survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, released Tuesday.
The results mark the first time since Pew has been tracking the country’s religious demographics that the share of Protestant Christians in the United States has dipped significantly below 50%.
The largest decline among Protestant subgroups tracked by Pew was among white mainline Protestants, whose proportion of the population dropped 3 percentage points, from 18% to 15%.
At the release of the Pew survey, John Green, a senior adviser at Pew, quoted historian Robert Wuthnow in characterizing the changes as part of a wider “restructuring of American religion.”
“The core of this phenomenon is many of the older distinctions that characterize American religion … are being replaced with a new kind of religion,” Green said.
The study also found that the fastest growing “religious group” in the country is people who are not affiliated with any religion.
The decline of Protestant hegemony has been on display in recent developments in politics and government.
John Paul Stevens, who retired from the Supreme Court in 2010, was the last Protestant to serve on the Supreme Court. President Barack Obama replaced him with Elena Kagan, who is Jewish. The court is now made up entirely of Jews and Catholics.
Among the presidential and vice-presidential candidates, only Barack Obama is a Protestant.
Mitt Romney is a Mormon, while running mate Paul Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden are both Catholic.
The Republican ticket is the first Protestant-free presidential ticket in decades.
William Galston, senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, told CNN that the GOP ticket “really symbolizes the passing of an era.”
“All the groups that make up the new American population, as opposed to the population of 50 years ago, are now participating on equal” terms, in politics and American society in general, Galston said.
The Pew findings echo those of other surveys that track religious trends. The General Social Survey, conducted by the University of Chicago, has also shown a downward trend in American Protestantism.
According to Pew, Protestants are still the largest religious group in the United States, followed by Catholics, who make up 22% of the country, and the unaffiliated, who account for almost 20%.
“There are vast implications for this change for American society,” Green said. “The trends that we have been observing are likely to continue for at least several decades, if not longer than that.”
The Pew report is based on a telephone survey from June 28-July 9, 2012, that included a national sample of 2,973 adults. The margin of error ranges between two and four percentage points.