Paging Cotton Mather

Does anyone remember Cotton Mather, 1663-1728?

How about Jonathan Edwards, 1703-1758?

The 47 girls in my parochial high-school class probably do, because we were required to read their Puritan, pre-Revolutionary sermons and other writings — grim, unforgiving and deathly boring as they seemed to us and to many modern readers. We were tested on them, too, and we must have passed since we all managed to graduate.

At any rate, we were well schooled in early Puritan writers and their impact on both American religious life and on American character and culture, both then and now. One of our nation’s most dearly held values is not called the Protestant work ethic for no reason. Our nation was built on Puritan thinking, and while most of us no longer wear only black or refer to others by “thee” and “thou,” we still hear the voices of Mather, Edwards and their Puritan/Protestant brethren echoing in our nationa10-17-12-margaret.gifl debates, including this year’s Presidential contest.

The Protestants — ie. people protesting the religions in the lands from whence they came — laid the foundation for the nation we and the rest of the world know as the United States of America. Their concept of this nation as “a city on the hill” with a special place in the world and a destiny to lead others toward freedom and democracy has been used by American politicians of all stripes for more than two centuries. Their concept of voluntarism and charitable giving to those in need continues to set Americans apart from many other nations.

Fast forward to the fall of 2012.

Maybe it is because of my early acquaintance with the Reverends Mather and Edwards, but for whatever reason, I was bowled over to read earlier this month that only 48 percent of Americans now consider ourselves to be Protestants. What is more, the trend seems to be not only well underway but accelerating. Without overwhelming you with numbers, the Pew Research Center found the percentages of Americans who identify ourselves as Protestants fell from 53 percent in 2007 to 48 percent this year while unaffi liated from rose15 to 20 percent. Other faiths, including atheists and agnostics, rose slightly, from 4 to 6 percent. Catholics dropped only one point, down from 23 to 22 percent. Obviously, the growth in religiously unaffi liated Americans is the real driver of this change.

Declining religious affi liation and growing secularism have long been trends in Western Europe, and here is confi rmation that they have indeed leapt across the big pond.

In fairness, you and I are living in the Southern Bible Belt, with its heritage of conservative, evangelical Protestantism in religious institutions with hand-carved pews with centuries of ministry and in tents and storefront churches born yesterday whose members sit in folding chairs. It is hard not to feel the presence of religion in our community, in which blue laws are just barely a thing of the past and where men and women in suits and hats are common sites on Sundays after church.

There is no disputing, though, that things are changing, even here. Southern Baptists, our nation’s largest Protestant denomination have seen a slowing of growth, and the United Methodist Church has lost more than half a million members over the last decade.

Outside the Bible Belt, the change is more apparent. According to the Pew Research Center, the shift away from mainline religion is seen across gender, education and income levels, and is most obvious in the Northeast and West. Young people are less religiously inclined than older adults, as one might expect, with fully a third of adults under 30 claiming no religious affi liation while only 9 percent of those over 65 saying that.

You can take all of this as good news, bad news or just plain news depending on your own religious inclinations, but it was a jolt to me.

Even the Reverends Mather and Edwards, rigid as they were, would likely have understood that life evolves and that their brand of Puritan Protestantism would not remain the same. I doubt, though, that they could have imagined the mega churches of today with no creeds or canons of belief but with state-of-the-art fi tness centers and accredited daycare centers. Nor would they have grasped the mercenary ministers so brilliantly skewered in the 1970s by the comedian Flip Wilson portraying the Reverend Leroy, which — by the way — is well worth a trip to YouTube if you need a good belly laugh.

There is good news, too, at least in my view. The Pew Research Center found that two-thirds of us do express belief in God, whatever that means to us individually, but say we are disenchanted with organized religions’ emphasis on rules, money, power and politics.

Why am I not surprised?

Photo: A recent Pew Research Center poll found that the number of Americans who identify themselves as Protestant has fallen.

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