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Religion survey finds fewer U.S. Christians

The number fell to 76% from 86% in 1990. More generic labels rose dramatically.

WASHINGTON - The number of Americans who call themselves Christians has dropped dramatically over the last two decades, and those who do increasingly identify themselves without traditional denomination labels, according to a major study of U.S. religion to be released today.

The survey of more than 54,000 people conducted between February and November of last year showed that the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Christian has dropped to 76 percent of the population, down from 86 percent in 1990. Those who do call themselves Christian more frequently describe themselves as "nondenominational," "evangelical," or "born again," according to the American Religious Identification Survey.

The survey was conducted by researchers at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and funded by the Lilly Endowment and the Posen Foundation. Conducted in 1990, 2001, and last year, it is one of the nation's largest major surveys of religion.

The increase in people labeling themselves in more generic Christian terms corresponds strongly with the decline in people identifying themselves as Protestant, the survey found.

People calling themselves mainline Protestants, including Methodists and Lutherans, have dropped to 13 percent of the population, down from 19 percent in 1990. The number of people who describe themselves as generically Protestant went from about 17 million in 1990 to 5 million.

Meanwhile, the number of people who use nondenominational terms has gone from 194,000 in 1990 to more than eight million.

"There is now this shift in the non-Catholic population - and maybe among American Christians in general - into a sort of generic, soft evangelicalism," said Mark Silk, who directs Trinity's Program on Public Values and who helped supervise the survey.

The survey substantiated several general trends already identified by sociologists: the slipping importance of denomination in America, the growing number of people who say they have no religion, and the increase in religious minorities including Muslims, Mormons, and such movements as Wicca and paganism.

The only group that grew in every U.S. state since the 2001 survey was people saying they had no religion; the survey says that group now constitutes 15 percent of the population. Silk said that group was likely responsible for the shrinking percentage of Christians in the United States.

Northern New England has surpassed the Pacific Northwest as the least religious section of the country; 34 percent of Vermont residents say they have no religion. The report said the country has a "growing nonreligious or irreligious minority." Twenty-seven percent of those interviewed said they did not expect to have a religious funeral or service, and 30 percent of people who married said their service was not religious. Those questions were not asked in previous surveys.

The survey reflects a key question that demographers, sociologists, and political scientists have been asking in recent years: Who makes up this growing group of evangelicals?

Forty-four percent of America's 77 million Christian adults say they are born again or evangelical; 18 percent of Catholics also chose that label, as did 40 percent of mainline Christians.

"If people call themselves evangelical, it doesn't tell you as much as you think it tells you about what kind of church they go to," Silk said. "It deepens the conundrum about who evangelicals are."