There’s a landmark new report from the Public Religion Research Institute, a fine organization that I’ve often cited in the past. The report is based on data from the American Values Atlas, a survey of more than 100,000 Americans conducted in 2016. Its title is “America’s Changing Religious Identity“, but its conclusions are more dramatic than that anodyne title would indicate:
White Christians, once the dominant religious group in the U.S., now account for fewer than half of all adults living in the country. Today, fewer than half of all states are majority white Christian.
In 1976, a mere forty years ago, an 80% supermajority of Americans were white Christians, and a 55% majority were white Protestants. Today, those numbers are 43% and 30%.
This has never happened before in American history. Until the last few decades, our national mythology has painted us as a nation of, by, and for white Christians, especially Puritan-esque white Protestants. But that image no longer reflects reality. We’re an urban, a multicultural and, increasingly, a secular society, and these trends are strengthening with every rising generation. Meanwhile, white Christians are literally the America of yesteryear: they’re aging, graying, and dwindling. What happens when the mythology collides with the reality?
The other thing that’s unprecedented about this is how rapidly the change has taken place. In demographic terms, it’s less like the slow shift of the tide and more like the inrush of a tsunami. Forty years ago is half a single lifetime, meaning there are millions of people who witnessed it happen around them. And the bulk of the change has come even faster than that:
Much of the decline has occurred in the last few decades. As recently as 1996, white Christians still made up nearly two-thirds (65%) of the public. By 2006, that number dropped to 54%, but white Christians still constituted a majority. But over the last decade, the proportion of white Christians in the U.S. has slipped below majority.
The most striking illustration of America’s changing demographics is that, just ten years ago, 39 states were majority white Christian. Now, fewer than half are. If you’re looking for somewhere to move to ride out the Trump years, PRRI has some suggestions:
There are 20 states in which no religious group comprises a greater share of residents than the religiously unaffiliated… More than four in ten (41%) residents of Vermont and approximately one-third of Americans in Oregon (36%), Washington (35%), Hawaii (34%), Colorado (33%), and New Hampshire (33%) are religiously unaffiliated.
The decline of white Christianity is across the board, not limited to any specific faith or creed. When it started to become a trend, conservative white evangelicals believed they’d be immune, because they knew what they stood for and did so without apology, unlike those wishy-washy liberals. They were wrong:
White evangelicals managed to avoid the first wave of white Christian decline in the 1990s and into the early years of the 21st century. But between 2006 and 2016, the proportion of white evangelical Protestants has fallen six percentage points, from 23% to 17%. [NB: It sounds more dramatic when you say, truthfully, that white evangelicals have lost one-quarter of their strength in ten years.]
Part of what we’re seeing is the story of America becoming more diverse. There are fewer white Christians, but more Christians of other ethnicities. Catholicism is an example of this transformation, as the church’s center of demographic gravity shifts from the Northeast to states with larger Hispanic and Latino populations in the Southwest. Non-Christian religious groups, like Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, are also growing, although in absolute terms they remain a tiny minority of the population.
But an equally important part of the story is that America is, in truth, becoming less religious. The number of people who are religiously unaffiliated – atheist, agnostic, or simply nothing in particular – now accounts for one-quarter of Americans. That number has tripled (!) since the 1990s. Among people under 30, the figure is even more pronounced: 38%, or nearly four in ten. And while some of the unaffiliated describe themselves as generically religious, the majority don’t:
There are notable differences among the unaffiliated in terms of their religious identity. Only about one-quarter of the unaffiliated identify as atheist (14%) or agnostic (13%), while fewer than one in five (16%) identifies as a “religious person.” The majority (58%) of Americans who are not religiously affiliated do not identify as a religious person.
Even as America becomes less religious, many of the unaffiliated shrink from the terms “atheist” and “agnostic”, which still have negative stereotypes attached to them. But a healthy majority identify as secular, i.e., possessing no religious belief. This refutes the gloomy prediction, seen in comments on this site and elsewhere, that the secular movement is destined to fail because humans are genetically programmed to be religious. Evolution doesn’t happen fast enough to account for a change like this. America’s transformation is a living demonstration that religiosity is driven by cultural factors, not DNA.
And what cultural factors could those be? One of the obvious ones is religious intolerance of gay rights, as noted by Patheos’ Hemant Mehta in a passage worth quoting:
We know that white evangelicals hold just about all the political power right now and drive much of our current policy decisions. But they’re hanging on for dear life. At least in terms of power. Their decisions over the past decade — notably their opposition to LGBTQ rights — have squandered away any goodwill they had among young people who might have given them a chance at one point.
Or as Amanda Marcotte puts it on Salon, quoting PRRI’s Robert Jones:
“It’s not just that conservative white Christians have lost this argument with a broader liberal culture,” he noted. “It’s that they’ve lost it with their own kids and grandchildren.”
The Nashville Statement was a reaction to this. So too, in a slightly different way, was Donald Trump and the Nazi march in Charlottesville. All of them stem from the same root; they represent eruptions of anxiety among conservative white Christians who realize the world is leaving them behind.
But they’ve made a devil’s bargain. In a last-ditch attempt to cling to power as long as possible, they’ve thrown in their lot with the worst elements of America. They’re anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-equality, anti-refugee. They’ve reembraced the racism and white supremacism of their past. They’ve made Christianity synonymous with all these evils, and that’s something that young voters aren’t likely to forget. The compromises they’ve made to hang on to power will reverberate – and in the next forty years, we may see America changed even more rapidly and dramatically than in the forty before.