Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY
For decades, if not centuries, America's top religious brand has been "Protestant." No more.
In the 1960s, two in three Americans called themselves Protestant. Now the Protestant group -- both evangelical and mainline -- has slid below the statistical waters, down to 48%, from 53% in 2007.
Where did they go? Nowhere, actually. They didn't switch to a new religious brand, they just let go of any faith affiliation or label.
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released an analytic study today titled, Nones on the Rise, now that one in five Americans (19.3%) claim no religious identity.
This group, called "Nones," is now the nation's second-largest category only to Catholics, and outnumbers the top Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptists. The shift is a significant cultural, religious and even political change.
Count former Southern Baptist Chris Dees, 26, in this culture shift. He grew up Baptist in the most religious state in the USA: Mississippi.
By the time he went off to college for mechanical engineering, "I just couldn't make sense of it any more," Dees says. Now, he's a leader of the Secular Student Alliance chapter at Mississippi State and calls himself an atheist.
Today, fueled by young adults like Dees, the Nones have leapt from 15.3% of U.S. adults in 2007, according to Pew studies.
One in three (32%) are under age 30 and unlikely to age into claiming a religion, says Pew Forum senior researcher Greg Smith. The new study points out that today's Millennials are more unaffiliated than any young generation ever has been when they were younger.
"The rise of the Nones is a milestone in a long-term trend," Smith says. "People's religious beliefs, and the religious groups they associate with, play an important role in shaping their worldviews, their outlook in life and certainly in politics and elections."
The study comes amid an election campaign where the Republican Party, placed Protestants on their presidential ticket for a century, has nominated a Mormon with a Catholic running mate.
Currently, the U.S. Supreme Court includes six Catholics and three Jews: Whoever wins in November may deal with naming a justice in the next four years.
Rev. Eileen Lindner, a Presbyterian pastor and editor of the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, observes, "We are still twice as likely to be affiliated with a religion than Europeans, but there is strong evidence that our religious institutions, as we configured them in past centuries, are playing a less significant role in American life."
Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptists Theological Seminary in Louisville, saw a welcome clarity in the report, even if he didn't like the new picture in focus.
"Today, there's no shame in saying you're an unbeliever, no cultural pressure to claim a religious affiliation, no matter how remote or loose," Mohler says. "This is a wake-up call. We have an incredible challenge ahead for committed Christians."
Wanda Melchert, whose great-grandparents helped found Vang Lutheran Church in rural North Dakota a century ago, sees her church about to shut its doors and become part of a local heritage museum. The congregation worships elsewhere now.
"Out here in the middle North Dakota, religion is still very important and families still teach their children. There's a strong faith base still here," she says. But when Melchert looks at the changing national picture of religion, she says, "we're praying about this. We feel there's a great need for people to turn back to God. When we lose that, it's dangerous for our country."
However, Rev. Martin Marty, a historian of religion and professor emeritus of the University of Chicago, says he wrote a book half a century ago on varieties of unbelief and has long thought that religious cohesion "has long been overstated."
Says Marty: "The difference is now we have names for groups like Nones."