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The Protestants

Today, a solid half of all Americans identify themselves as Protestants, but the Protestant heritage in the United States extends well beyond numbers. For the first two centuries of English-speaking habitation of the United States, encompassing the entire colonial era and the first fifty years of independence, Protestants made up virtually the entire population. Protestant values, particularly regarding the importance of individual freedom, self-reliance, hard work and thrift, had a deep effect on the development of American capitalism. Protestant values also shaped America’s deeply pragmatic approach to education as a means of self-improvement. Today’s emphasis on lifelong learning is one of the results. When non-Protestant immigrants assimilated into American society, they often unknowingly adopted Protestant values, even as their theological views varied. The process continues today.

Protestants have traditionally controlled both political and economic power in the United States, although in such a pluralistic society, there are always exceptions. John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, was the only non-Protestant ever to serve as an American President, and his Catholicism nearly cost him the 1960 election. The first Roman Catholic Vice President came even later, with the election of Joe Biden in 2008.

American Protestantism exhibits a wide range of theological opinion, ranging from the idea that the bible is a guide to the certainty that the book is the revealed word of God. This chapter describes a number of the larger national denominations. Many, perhaps thousands, of unaffiliated Protestant churches exist in the United States, however, ranging from urban storefronts to immense “mega-churches.” In fact, of the more than 1000 churches that qualify as mega-churches (average weekend attendance of more than 2,000), more than half have no denominational affiliation. All this goes to show that American Protestantism is an extremely complex subject.

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