Shifts in Religious Affiliation (1972-2012)

The changing role of religion in American culture is a popular topic of conversation among religious leaders.  Those leaders situated within Mainline Protestantism (a tradition I claim as my own) are talking more openly than ever before about decline.  Even the names used to describe the tradition increasingly recognize that the decline is both about diminishing numbers of adherents (Oldline) and a more marginalized role (Sideline).  While I am encouraged by increased attention given to the topic, I am often discouraged by just how frequently people advance arguments based on faulty data.  It is important to know not only how the Mainline has changed, but how such changes compare to overall shifts in American religion.

The chart below illustrates the shift over the most recent forty year period based on data from the General Social Survey (1972-2012).

Religious Affiliation GSS













So What?

While individuals within denominations tend to speak about how their own denomination has fared by referencing either the number of adherents lost during a given time period (e.g., fell from 2.2 million to 1.1 million) or the percentage of adherents lost since a certain date (e.g., 50% decline), a better measure is what percentage of the US adult population their membership reflects over time since it takes into account changes in the country’s population.

During the last forty years, Mainline Protestants have declined more significantly than any other group.  The reality is that Mainline Protestants have gone from being roughly 3 out of every 10 American adults to 1.5 in 10.  By comparison, Evangelical Christians experienced growth during the 1980s and 90s before experiencing decline in the 2000s.  The most stable of all Christian traditions during the last four decades is Catholic.

  • Review how your religious group has fared over the last 40 years, especially in comparison to other groups.  Is what you observed consistent with what you assumed? If not, what specifically did you learn from this exercise?
  • Review how all religious groups have changed over the last 40 years.  In a single sentence, describe the changing landscape of American religion from 1972-2012.
  • How might this information be helpful to you? your local congregation?


For further reading on the topic, consider these posts on So What Faith


  1. It would be interesting to see how many, from all Christian denominations, are not represented in this graph because they now attend small, non-denominational meetings that do not fit into any of these categories.

    That would be me and dozens of others I know who attend one or more non-denominational groups. We have rejected the accepted Christian denomination paradigm where the “Law”, or their law, seems to be more important than Jesus.

  2. Vin, based on participants responses to survey questions they would not be left out but would be placed in the category that fits the profile of their self-reported affiliation. In most cases non-denominational meetings are classified in the Evangelical category. I certainly agree that their is increasing fluidity in the language used to describe large groups within Christianity yet understand the value of crafting such (artificial) groupings for the sake of research, especially sociologically.

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