LOS ANGELES — Protestants, whose ideals of hard work, individualism and democratic governance have fundamentally shaped the national character no longer make up a majority of Americans for the first time in history, according to a study released Tuesday.
The study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that Protestants now make up 48 percent of Americans, compared to nearly two-thirds during the 1970s. The decline, concentrated among white members of mainline and evangelical denominations, is amplified by an absence of Protestants on the U.S. Supreme Court and the Republican presidential ticket for the first time.
"It's a slow decline but a noticeable one," said Cary Funk, a Pew senior researcher. Funk said a major factor driving the decline is an increase in religiously unaffiliated Americans to 20 percent, up from 15 percent five years ago.
Two-thirds of Americans still say they believe in God, she said. But they overwhelmingly expressed disenchantment with religious organizations for being too concerned with money, power, rules and politics.
The study did not give reasons why fewer Americans now identify with any religion. But it presented theories that included political backlash against the religious right, delays in marriage, broad social disengagement and secularization related to economic development.
Some analysts said a softening of American religiosity could affect such areas as charitable giving and volunteerism, which traditionally have been driven by churches.
Others, however, said that ideals originally identified as Protestant and Puritan have become firmly entrenched as secular American virtues. The idea of America as a "city set on a hill" — a biblical phrase — with a special destiny to lead the world to freedom and democracy remains a bedrock civic value, said Richard Land of the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination.
"America is a nation with the soul of a church, and that soul is Puritan-Protestant," said Land, president of the convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "But in terms of defining the purpose of the nation, it's been secularized long ago."
The study was based on a national survey of 2,973 adults conducted from June 28 to July 9 using land lines and cellphones. An additional 511 interviews were conducted with religiously unaffiliated adults.
In a counterweight to evangelical Christians who tend to back Republicans, the vast majority of religiously unaffiliated Americans — who number 46 million — vote Democratic and are politically liberal, the study found. Two-thirds support President Barack Obama, compared to 27 percent for Republican nominee Mitt Romney. A majority of the unaffiliated support legal abortion and same-sex marriage.
The trend toward dropping away from organized religion was evident across gender, income and educational levels. But it was most apparent in the Northeast and West, and among the young, the study showed. A third of adults younger than 30 have no religious affiliation, compared to 9 percent among those 65 and older.
Mark Chaves, a Duke University sociologist of religion, said some young people turn back to churches when they marry and have children.
Land said Southern Baptists have stagnated in growth after increasing for many years, in large part because of a declining birthrate among whites, the traditional mainstay of the denomination. Only the infusion of blacks, Latinos and Asian-Americans — who now make up 20 percent of members — have kept the Southern Baptists from dropping by as much as 10 percent, he said.
The United Methodist Church, the nation's largest mainline Protestant denomination, declined to 7.6 million in 2009 from 8.3 million a decade earlier. That drop is mirrored by the church's California-Pacific Conference, which has declined from 120,000 members and 415 churches about 15 years ago to 81,000 members and 356 churches today, said the Rev. Gary Keene, executive assistant to Bishop Minerva Carcano.
Keene said the Methodists hope to turn things around by recruiting younger, more entrepreneurial pastors, focusing more on service projects and experimenting with different forms of church.
One minister, the Rev. Nicole Reilley, has helped start 12 new "house churches" during the past year aimed at young adults who work on a community service project and socialize twice a month, and meet to study Scripture, pray and share communion twice a month.
Another Methodist minister, Dan Lewis, holds a weekly "french fry ministry" in Claremont, Calif., for young adults who gather to eat, talk and have fun. His congregation, which stresses a welcoming and inclusive environment for gays and biracial families, has reversed previous declines and is growing slowly, now numbering about 400, he said.