Spotlight on the United States
The United States is the world’s third most populous country, but it has by far the largest Christian
population. With nearly a quarter of a billion Christians, the U.S. dwarfs even Brazil, which has the world’s
second-largest Christian community (more than 175 million). About 80% of the U.S. population identifies
as Christian, and U.S. Christians represent 11% of the world’s Christians.
Since the birth of the nation in 1776, the vast majority of religious Americans have been Christian.
The settlers who colonized the Eastern seaboard between New France in the north and Florida in the
south came largely from majority-Protestant Northern Europe, especially England, Scotland, Wales, the
Netherlands, Scandinavia and Northern Germany.
American Christianity went from being dominated by a few established Protestant denominations in
the founding era to today’s highly diverse mix, with innumerable Protestant groups, a large Catholic
population and significant numbers of Orthodox and other Christians. In 1776, the vast majority
of Americans active in a religious body belonged to only a handful of Protestant denominations:
Congregationalist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Baptist and Quaker. By the mid-19th century, however,
the picture had changed. The Methodist Church had become by far the largest Protestant denomination
by 1850. And before the end of the 19th century, Roman Catholics — who represented a small portion of
the population in 1776 and only 5% in 1850 — became America’s largest single Christian group, although
Protestants collectively still greatly outnumbered Catholics. By 1906, the U.S. was home to 14 million
Catholics, who represented 17% of the population.1 Today, fortified by a steady flow of immigrants from
mostly Catholic Latin America, Catholics in the U.S. number more than 74 million, about 24% of the U.S.
population. The Southern Baptist Convention is now the largest U.S. Protestant denomination.2
Other factors, too, have diversified America’s religious landscape. Other Christian groups such as Mormons
and Jehovah’s Witnesses, many of which were founded in the United States in the 19th century, have
grown dramatically and together number nearly 11 million adherents, or about 3% of the U.S. population.
The U.S. is also home to nearly 2 million Orthodox Christians. Membership in long-established Protestant
churches, such as Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Methodists, has declined, while
membership in newer evangelical and pentecostal churches has grown. Today, the U.S. has more
evangelical Protestants than any other country in the world.
At the same time, the proportion of Americans who are Christian has declined in recent years, from
well over 90% in 1900 to almost 80% today. This has happened for a variety of reasons, including the
growth in “unaffiliated” Americans (atheists, agnostics and those who say they do not have any religion
in particular), as well as postwar non-Christian immigration from the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle
East-North Africa. In addition, a nation whose population was overwhelmingly Protestant a century ago
has had, in recent years, a declining Protestant majority (51% in 2007, according to the Pew Forum’s U.S.
Religious Landscape Survey).3
1 Historical data in this and the preceding paragraph are drawn from Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of
America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, Rutgers University Press, 2005. (return to text)
2 Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted in 2007 and published
in 2008. (return to text)
3 Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted in 2007 and published
in 2008. (return to text)