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  Chapter Six:

  Religious Membership
  Roman Catholics
  Other Religions
  Religious Attendance
  Religious Attitudes


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Conservative Protestant denominations grew, while mainstream Protestant denominations declined.
The chart shows the relative membership growth of the two largest Protestant denominations, the United Methodists and the Southern Baptists. Although both are large, disparate groups, the Southern Baptists are generally more evangelical and fundamentalist than the more mainstream United Methodists. While Methodist membership declined from 5.5 percent of the population in 1900 to 3.1 percent in 1998, Southern Baptist membership more than doubled during that period, from 2.2 percent of the population to 5.9 percent. 

The Methodists were traditionally dominant in “the North of the South and the South of the North,” while the Southern Baptist province occupied nearly the whole area below the 37th parallel (near the line between Virginia and North Carolina) from the Atlantic Ocean to the Rocky Mountains. 

The decline of other mainstream Protestant denominations—Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal, and the United Church of Christ—mirrored that of the Methodists. All of them had fewer members in 1998 than in 1965. Lutheran membership declined steeply and the others more moderately. 

Similarly, the rapid membership growth of other churches on the right of the Protestant spectrum—Pentecostal, Evangelical, Nazarene, the several Gospel fellowships, and the smaller Baptist groups—matched that of the Southern Baptists. 

Statistics on church membership take no account of the emergence of the “electronic church”—the millions of viewers of televised religious programs supported mainly by voluntary contributions. The rise of the televised church was part of the shift away from mainline denominations with increasingly liberal views on political and social issues, and toward evangelical churches that emphasized the born-again experience, a more literal interpretation of the Bible, and a “pro-life” position on abortion. 

The liberal tendencies in mainline churches, combined with the conservative countercurrent among evangelicals and fundamentalists, produced a marked increase in political participation by churches and church-related organizations. It appears that the liberal positions of mainline churches were less acceptable to their members than the conservative positions of evangelical and fundamentalist groups were to theirs.

Chapter 6 chart 2

Source Notes
Source Abbreviations

HS series H 803 and H 805; SA 1976, table 76; SA 1988, table 88; SA 1996, table 87; SA 1998, table 89; and SA 1999, table 88. See also WA 2000, page 692; SA 1999, table 88; and WA 1999, page 684. See Theodore Caplow, American Social Trends (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1991), pages 66–75.


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