Americans underestimate Protestant population

Americans underestimate Protestant population September 23, 2012

A few months ago we looked at a survey that showed that the vast majority of Americans have no idea whatsoever what percentage of the population is gay.

Mainstream studies indicate that percentage is somewhere in the low single digits, but Americans believed — on average — that 25 percent of the population is gay. Yes, 25 percent. This includes data showing that 35 percent of Americans think that more than 25 percent of the population is gay.

I’ve long wondered why it is that Americans are so wrong on this, but I can’t help but think that the mainstream media plays a significant role.

I was reminded of that study when I read this Religion News Service report showing that Americans are way off when estimating the percentage of Americans who belong to various religious groups:

The typical American underestimates how many Protestants there are in the U.S., and vastly overestimates the number of religious minorities such as Mormons, Muslims, and atheist/agnostics, according to a new study.

Grey Matter Research and Consulting asked 747 U.S. adults to guess what proportion of the American population belongs to each of eight major religious groups: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, atheist/agnostic, believe in God or a higher power but have no particular religious preference, and any other religious group.

The average response was that 24 percent of Americans are Catholic, 20 percent are Protestant, 19 percent are unaffiliated, 8 percent are Jewish, 9 percent are atheist or agnostic, 7 percent are Muslim, 7 percent are Mormon and 5 percent identify with all other religious groups.

Respondents were correct on Catholics — 24 percent of the country is Catholic. But according to the 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 51 percent are Protestant, 12 percent are unaffiliated, 2 percent are Jewish, 4 percent are Atheist/Agnostic, less than 1 percent are Muslim, 2 percent are Mormon and 4 percent identify with all other religious groups.

The article quotes Ron Sellers, the president of the research firm, theorizing that the word “Protestant” might have thrown people off. But this was the part that got me interested:

Sellers also mentioned that with Mitt Romney running for president as a Mormon and the current emphasis on Islamic-American relations, “smaller faith groups also may be getting disproportionate media coverage.”

This is undoubtedly true. But do we take this to an extreme? No one would claim that Mormonism and Islam or various tiny religious groups shouldn’t get disproportionate coverage at times — but I am sometimes surprised at the lack of good reporting on the majority of religious adherents in the coverage. If the coverage is disproportionate to the point that it is negatively affecting people’s understanding of the real world, that might be an argument for a bit more evenly distributed religious news coverage. Particularly since there are gobs of stories that go under-reported as it is.

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15 responses to “Americans underestimate Protestant population”

  1. I think another reason for such an ignorance of the American people when it comes the actual number of certain groups in the country is due to representation in entertainment. If I was to just go by primetime network programming I would be left to assume that there was almost an equal number of gay couples looking to adopt kids and get married, as there were heterosexual couples. I would also be left to assume that there are few if any evangelicals in America since I can’t think of one on a network show right now (I could be wrong as I have not sampled all network programming).

    TV and media both paint a disproportionate size of must groups in the USA.

    • Exactly! I find I cannot watch tv, some even shows I used to like because for whatever reason the people on the show I absolutely can NOT relate to. It is not what I see in the world I live in…and I am faculty at a state university. For crying out loud, the demographic representation is so off it makes it hard to relate. And hollyweird confuses innovation with eccentricity apparently. But if we are so ill informed we get our “sense” of things from tv shows and the journalists…we are NOT being educated.

  2. I’ve known Baptists – and some evangelicals – who don’t consider themselves Protestants, which left me thinking that in this article “Protestant” really means “not-Catholic”. That’s probably okay for a little poll and a little article like this, but you have to wonder where the Orthodox fit in: as Protestants or “other religious groups”.

  3. I think the term we are searching for here is ‘innumerate’. (Could we have the italic and bolding functions?) Many people simply do not get the hang of using numbers let alone statistics. This has always amazed me but it is a sad fact of life. This survey is just another example. What would happen if the respondents were told that there estimates had to equal 100?

    Technical point: I was taught that Lutherans and Episcopalians are Protestant. Reformed is the correct descriptor for the other groups.

    • I’m not sure where you were taught that, but it’s very far from generally-accepted usage.

      “Reformed” is often used, very specifically, to describe churches with a Calvinist theological heritage — such as the members of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. That means Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ and similar bodies, and of course the Reformed Church in America. There are quite a number of Anglicans, including Episcopalians, who are uneasy with the word “Protestant” to describe themselves.

      The word “Protestant” has a convoluted history, but is generally used to describe the groups that emerged directly out of the 16th-century Reformation — Lutheran (who called themselves “Evangelicals”), Calvinist (who called themselves “Reformed”), Anglican and (sometimes) Anabaptist. It is often extended to later developments out of these families, such as Baptists and Methodists. Romanians use the convenient term “neo-Protestant” to describe these groups and those which have developed since then; I wish the expression were current in the West as well.

  4. Yes, there are gobs of stories that go unreported, at least at the national level, but we see lots at the local level. Some are the requisite holiday articles, but many address what’s going on in the community–a community which includes many Christian denominations as well as various minority faiths. The key question, always, should be whether what’s written is newsworthy or whether it’s an attempt to divvy up the pages to reflect demographics. It is also newsworthy for the media to educate, which may be why minority faiths often receive more coverage.

    Link to the study:
    The write-up is a little thin; perhaps they’d provide more information upon request.

  5. I wonder how many people think “Protestant” means “mainline Protestant,” and that they’d put evangelicals or “born-again” Christians in a different category. In any case, I’d suspect that many people don’t know what “Protestant” is, since many adherents are likely to be referred to by denomination or category of Protestant.

  6. I also wonder whether Evangelicals’ attempt to brand themselves and the disproportionate focus on them in news stories has muddled the Protestant label. Polls have always shown that people overestimate the number of Jews and its not surprising the same thing is happening with Mormons and Muslms.

    • Mike, you raise a good point. Another factor we can consider is the concentration of Jews, Mormons, etc. in those markets where major media headquarters reside. The New York-Washington, DC corridor houses a larger diversity of adherents to the religions we are discussing. That area also is home to the headquarters for ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and a myriad of other broadcasting companies. The same is true on the West Coast with Los Angeles and San Francisco. So, portrayals of religion in our society reflect the cosmopolitan nature of major broadcasting companies’ locations.

      For the record, I make it my practice to follow newspapers online each day from both small and large markets to get a wider scope in coverage.

  7. The more I think about this question, the more I think that this is too hard a problem for most people to solve. I mean, really, how does someone go about answering this question? By looking at their own lives? Which part of their lives? Presumably their church/synagogue/mosque life is pretty unrepresentative, so how about their work life? That has strong geographic biases. Without specialized knowledge, I don’t think it’s answerable. I consider myself pretty well-informed, and I didn’t even have a guess as to the number of Protestants in the US until I read it above.


  8. I’d love to see a breakdown of responses by the religious self-identification of particular takers of the poll. Are estimates by Jewish respondents of the percentage of Jews in the total population more or less accurate than those of non-Jews? Are Catholics (who at least in earlier generations might have been socialized to think of themselves as something of a beleaguered minority in a Protestant-dominated country) more likely than others to give a Protestant estimate that is higher than their Catholic estimate?

  9. On first attending the Brooklyn Sunday School parade, my sister exclaimed “I didn’t know there were this many Protestants in the world!”

  10. A little off the subject, this thread and particularly Dalea’s comment sent me to brush up on the history of Anglicanism (and the Episcopal Church). Evidently the via media morphed from being between Lutheran and Calvinist theology to being between Protestant and Roman Catholic practice. The Episcopal Church in this country was established as PECUSA, and the historic Pohick Church in Virginia, in particular, is very plain. The “P” for Protestant was dropped about 30 years ago. However, without asking the question I’d assume that most Episcopalians and Anglicans I know would self identify as Protestants.

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