Americans spurn church as land of evangelicals loses its Christian faith

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IT'S A religious awakening in a land where Bible thumpers have held sway for centuries and Christian evangelicals have dominated White House politics for almost a decade.

Americans are turning away from the Church at a rate never seen before, according to the surprising results of a major study of the country's religious landscape. And many of those who remain are switching between faiths as freely as flicking television channels.

The findings of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life highlight the "volatility" of what it calls the US religious marketplace.

"It seems in keeping with the high tolerance among Americans for change," said Luis Lugo, the director of the Pew Forum, which monitors public attitudes and policy towards the nation's many diverse faiths.

"People move a lot, people change jobs a lot. It's a very fluid society."

Some of the figures might come as a shock to outsiders, who have always seen the US as a devoutly religious nation led for the last eight years by President George Bush, who is firmly on the Christian right.

Although the Pew Forum found that more that 78 per cent of Americans describe themselves as having some kind of Christian affiliation, the rate of those with no ties to any church or faith was rising quickly, and older churchgoers are dying off far faster than new converts can be recruited.

In addition, more than 44 per cent of adults had left the faith they were brought up in, often for another denomination, while one in four people aged 18 to 29 had no religious affiliation at all.

"In the past, certain religions had a real holding power. Right now there's a dropping confidence in organised religion, especially in the traditional religious forms," said Roger Finke, a sociology professor from Penn State University, who acted as a consultant for the survey.

Church leaders of the Protestant and Catholic populations should be alarmed by the figures, experts say. Protestantism, for so long the dominant faith among American Christians, is in danger of losing its majority following for the first time, claiming barely 51 per cent of the 35,000 adults surveyed.

"The Protestant population is characterised by significant internal diversity and fragmentation," the study concluded, pointing to large-scale switching from traditional Methodist and Baptist denominations to evangelical and black Protestant churches, among others.

The Catholic Church, riven by recent sex-abuse scandals that have cost it millions of dollars in compensation, fared even worse.

Of the one in three who said they were brought up as Catholics, fewer than one in four is still practising today. It means 10 per cent of Americans are former Catholics.

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