Survey finds Christianity on the decline -- even in the South

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Survey finds Christianity on the decline -- even in the South Christian faith still flourishes in the Bible Belt -- but there, like elsewhere, it's in decline.

That's one of the findings of the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey released this week. The study is especially valuable because it tracks trends over time -- previous reports were done in 1990 and 2001 -- and draws on a rich volume of data (in 2008, questionnaires of 54,400 people).

The big finding of the report is that Protestant Christians are in decline:

The percentage of Christians in America, which declined in the 1990s from 86.2 percent to 76.7 percent, has now edged down to 76 percent. Ninety percent of the decline comes from the non-Catholic segment of the Christian population, largely from the mainline denominations, including Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians/Anglicans, and the United Church of Christ.

The number of Catholics is declining as well, but not nearly as much largely because losses in the Northeast have been balanced out by a growth of Catholics -- fueled by new immigrants -- in the South and Southwest. (Perhaps Christians have Latinos and other new immigrants to thank from keeping church values alive.)

What's happening in the South is especially interesting. As USA Today illustrates with some very handy flash charts, Southern states still score high in terms of their 'religious-ness,' although it's not as clear-cut as you'd think. For example, the number of respondents claiming 'no religion' grew 7% between 1990 and 2008 in Alabama, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia.

But at the same time, Protestant religions have seen a dramatic fall in the South. Between 1990 and 2008, the number of non-Catholic Christians has dropped in every Southern state except Louisiana. (As the Institute pointed out in a study last year, faith groups bolstered their standing in Louisiana with their heroic response to Katrina and other disasters.)

A RUSTING BIBLE BELT?

Percent Decline of Non-Catholic Christians, 1990 - 2008

Texas: -20% South Carolina: -15% Georgia: -14% Florida: -13% North Carolina: -13% West Virginia: -13% Kentucky: -13% Tennessee: -13% Virginia: -13% Alabama: -9% Mississippi: -8% Arkansas: -6% Louisiana: +8%



Sources: 2008 American Religious Identification Survey; USA Today, compiled by Institute for Southern Studies 3/09

The only group showing growth during that time frame in every state? 'The Nones,' according to the survey -- those who claim to hold no particular religious belief.