Gen Z is the least Christian generation in American history, and as they come into their own, their influence is reshaping culture and politics. The era of the religious right is drawing to a close.
Gen Z is the least Christian generation in American history. What happens when they start flexing their political muscle?
I’m a millennial, born in 1982. Back when we were the new kids on the block, we used to be the least religious generation America had ever seen. But Gen Z has claimed the crown.
According to polling data from Barna Research, 35 percent of Gen Z is atheist, agnostic or nonreligious. That’s more than one-third, far more than any previous generation.
This might not sound that encouraging, since it still means believers outnumber nonbelievers by nearly 2-to-1. However, this statistic goes farther than you might expect. In fact, only 35% of Gen Z says they never doubt the existence of God—and that number is trending down!
A poll published by the Deseret News backs up these findings. It finds that rates of church attendance and prayer among younger generations are dismally low:
Of Americans ages 18 to 29, only 21% report going to church at least weekly and just 27% say they pray daily. Even more concerning is this finding: Only 31% of young adults say they believe in God as described by the Bible.“Perspective: We’re watching ‘post-Christian America’ unfold in real time.” Jennifer Graham, The Deseret News, 21 March 2022.
Since this newspaper is a subsidiary of the Mormon church, these pessimistic (for them!) conclusions have even more weight. It’s a declaration against interest, as legal scholars say.
The first hints of Gen Z’s power
Throughout the 2000s and the 2010s, this had only a minor impact on American politics. No matter how secular Gen Z was, most of them were too young to vote. However, in the 2020s, this is beginning to change.
The first sign of Gen Z’s political power may have been 2020. Young voters turned out in massive numbers, and they voted blue by a landslide margin. Their votes likely sealed Trump’s defeat.
The 2022 midterms, too, shattered historical precedent in how well they went for the incumbent Democrats. Once again, Gen Z turnout was a big factor.
RELATED: America’s post-Christian future
Gen Z is on the leading edge of a trend that’s reshaping American culture and politics. According to Prof. Phil Zuckerman:
About six months ago, Americans’ belief in God hit an all-time low.
…Up close, the trend looks even more dramatic. Only about half of Americans believe in “God as described in the Bible,” while about a quarter believe in a “higher power or spiritual force,” according to a Pew poll. Just one-third of Generation Z say they believe in God without a doubt.
Congregational membership, too, is at an all-time low. In 2021 Gallup found that, for the first time ever, fewer than half of Americans – 47% – were members of a church, synagogue or mosque.
Yet another crucial measure of institutional religion in the U.S., the percentage of people identifying as religious, is also at a low: About 1 in 5 adults now say they have no religious affiliation, up from 1 in 50 in 1960.
In short, when it comes to three key realms of religious life – belief, behavior and belonging – all are lower than they have ever been in American history.“3 big numbers that tell the story of secularization in America.” Phil Zuckerman, The Conversation, 27 February 2023.
The most significant part of this story is the decline of white Christian America. For two hundred and forty years, white Christians were the dominant class in the United States. They made up an absolute majority of the population and held a supermajority of the political power. No more.
White Christians are no longer the majority
In 2016, for the first time ever, white Christians fell below 50% of the U.S. population. And their numbers are still falling, now down to 42%.
This chart from Robert P. Jones of PRRI shows the sea change in American religious identity. Across the generations, Judaism and non-Christian religions have stayed roughly the same size or grown slightly, as have Hispanic and Black Christians. The sharpest declines have hit white Catholic, white mainline Protestant, and white evangelical churches:
All flavors of white Christianity are half as numerous among Americans between 18 and 29 as they are among those 65 and older. And the steepest declines are concentrated among white evangelicals. Again according to Jones:
As recently as 2006, white evangelical Protestants comprised nearly one-quarter of Americans (23%). By the time of Trump’s rise to power, their numbers had dipped to 16.8%. Today, white evangelical Protestants comprise only 13.6% of Americans.“Five Charts that Explain the Desperate Turn to MAGA among Conservative White Christians.” Robert P. Jones, 8 March 2023.
As he notes, the number of white evangelicals—who skew more conservative and more fundamentalist—is now very similar to the number of white mainline Protestants—those wishy-washy, liberal, lukewarm compromisers!
This disproves the claim, long made by evangelical spokespeople, that their uncompromising faith in the Bible would give them an advantage over mainstream churches that float on the shifting tides of popular sentiment. That turned out to be mere wishful thinking. All these denominations alike are graying and shrinking, while the nonreligious are growing by leaps and bounds.
A doomed attempt to hold back the future
Even if white Christians rarely admit it, they know they’re dwindling and dying off. That’s the reason for their rage, their malice, and their growing extremism. All of it is driven by sheer panic over their approaching irrelevance.
The power and influence that the religious right once enjoyed is slipping away from them, and they’re trying to hold on to it by any means necessary. That accounts for their increasingly heavy-handed attempts to crack down on teachers, censor books, punish undesirable speech, and stop their political opponents from voting. It’s a brute-force attempt to impose their views on the larger culture.
However, these noxious policies aren’t having the desired effect. Instead, they’re cementing their own reputation as intolerant and cruel and further driving younger people away. It’s reinforcing the pattern that’s already in place. As Robert P. Jones says: “In terms of its racial and religious composition, the Democratic Party looks like 20-year-old America, while the Republican Party looks like 80-year-old America.”
In their doomed effort to hold back the future, conservative white Christians are bringing it into being that much faster. Like the tragic figures of mythology, their attempts to thwart a predicted fate are creating that very fate for themselves. It’s an irony that we nonreligious folk ought to appreciate. The power of the religious right is dwindling, and we’ll all be better off for it. The future belongs to the secular, and it will be an era of freedom, pluralism, and reason ascendant.