By naming devout, conservative Catholic U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan to be his running mate, former governor Mitt Romney, once a Mormon bishop, did more than ensure the USA will have a Catholic vice president in 2013.

He established the first Republican ticket without a Protestant since 1860, when Abraham Lincoln, who belonged to no church, chose Maine Sen. Hannibal Hamlin, a Unitarian as his running mate, says Mark Silk, professor of religion and public life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.

Yet today’s GOP ticket — two Christians who are neither evangelical nor mainline Protestants — isn’t a major marker of social change, University of California history professor David Hollinger says.

For a real sign of the decline of American mainline Protestantism, Hollinger looks to the Protestant-free U.S. Supreme Court: six Catholics and three Jews. The Romney-Ryan ticket is well in line with today’s wider, less brand-specific Christian culture, he says.

The number of Americans who identify with a Protestant denomination has been steadily slipping from over 60% in the 1970s to 52% in 2010, says Duke University sociology professor Mark Chaves, who tracks religion statistics in the national General Social Survey, conducted biannually by the National Opinion Research Center.

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