White Christian America Is Dying

The American religious landscape is being remade, most notably by the decline of the white Protestant majority and the rise of the religiously unaffiliated.

I begin the book with an obituary for White Christian America, and I conclude the book with a eulogy. This construction is consistent with the book’s stark title. My argument in the book is that we have already experienced the passing of White Christian America. While this claim is grounded in demographic changes, it is also supported by the fading power of major institutions, such as the National Council of Churches or the Christian Coalition of America. There are no indicators that the country will see the likes of White Christian America as a dominant cultural force again.

 

Robert P. Jones is the founding CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). His new book, “The End of White Christian America,” has been called “quite possibly the most illuminating text for this election year.” He kindly answered some questions about the book via email. Below is a lightly edited version.

Let’s start with a graph from the book. I think this won’t strike many readers as surprising, but tell us what you see and how you interpret it.

Like an archaeological excavation, the chart sorts Americans by religious affiliation and race, stratified by age. It shows the decline of white Christians among each successive generation.

Today, young adults ages 18 to 29 are less than half as likely to be white Christians as seniors age 65 and older. Nearly 7 in 10 American seniors (67 percent) are white Christians, compared to fewer than 3 in 10 (29 percent) young adults.

Although the declining proportion of white Christians is due in part to large-scale demographic shifts — including immigration patterns and differential birth rates — this chart also highlights the other major cause: young adults’ rejection of organized religion. Young adults are three times as likely as seniors to claim no religious affiliation (34 percent versus 11 percent, respectively).

What’s the broader implication of this generational pattern?
The American religious landscape is being remade, most notably by the decline of the white Protestant majority and the rise of the religiously unaffiliated. These religious transformations have been swift and dramatic, occurring largely within the last four decades. Many white Americans have sensed these changes, and there has been some media coverage of the demographic piece of the puzzle. But while the country’s shifting racial dynamics are certainly a source of apprehension for many white Americans, it is the disappearance of White Christian America that is driving their strong, sometimes apocalyptic reactions. Falling numbers and the marginalization of a once-dominant racial and religious identity — one that has been central not just to white Christians themselves but to the national mythos — threatens white Christians’ understanding of America itself.

One thing you describe is how the decline of white Protestantism isn’t just about the decline of mainline denominations like the Episcopal, Methodist or Presbyterian Churches. It’s also about the decline of evangelical Protestantism. This conventional wisdom that traditional Gothic cathedrals are empty but the suburban mega-churches are bursting isn’t quite right.

Up until about a decade ago, most of the decline among white Protestants was confined to mainline Protestants, such as Episcopalians, United Methodists, or Presbyterians, who populate the more liberal branch of the white Protestant family tree. The mainline numbers dropped earlier and more sharply — from 24 percent of the population in 1988 to 14 percent in 2012, at which time their numbers generally stabilized.

But over the last decade, we have seen marked decline among white evangelical Protestants, the more conservative part of the white Protestant family. White evangelical Protestants comprised 22 percent of the population in 1988 and still commanded 21 percent of the population in 2008, but their share of the religious market had slipped to 18 percent at the time the book went to press, and our latest 2015 numbers show an additional one-percentage-point slip to 17 percent.

These indicators of white evangelical decline at the national level are corroborated, for example, by internal membership reports during the same period from the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest evangelical Protestant denomination in the country. It has now posted nine straight years of declining growth rates.

As a result, both white mainline Protestants and white evangelical Protestants are graying. In 1972, white Protestants’ median age was 46 years old, only slightly higher than the median age of the American population (44 years old). Today, white Protestants’ median age is 53, compared to 46 among Americans as a whole. Notably, by 2014, there was no difference between the median ages of white evangelical and mainline Protestants.

What about Catholicism? You focus on the decline of white Protestantism. Where do Catholics fit in this story?

Catholics simply do not fit neatly into the story of White Christian America. In the book, I use White Christian America as a metaphor for the dominant cultural and institutional world built primarily by white Protestants, which until recently set the terms and tone for national debates and served as a kind of “civil glue” for the country, to borrow a term from E.J. Dionne.

While anti-Catholic sentiment has generally cooled today, it remained strong up through the 1960s, as President John F. Kennedy’s campaign demonstrated. In the 19th and early 20th century, many Catholics were seen as neither “white” nor “Christian.” For example, Irish immigrants were often classified by U.S. immigration officials not as “Caucasian” but as “Celts.” And even the more liberal mainline Protestants saw Communists and Catholics as the twin threats to American democracy up through the middle of the 20th century.

I think the decline in the “white” part of “White Christian America” is well known, given the country’s obviously increasing ethnic diversity. But let’s talk about the decline of the “Christian” part and particularly the increasing number of people who aren’t affiliated with any religious tradition. Why are the ranks of the unaffiliated increasing?

The rise of religiously unaffiliated Americans over the last few decades is one of the most important and dramatic shifts in American religious history. As recently as the 1990s, less than 1 in 10 Americans claimed no religious affiliation. By 2014, the religiously unaffiliated rivaled Catholics’ share of the religious marketplace, with each group making up 22 percent of the American population.

Looking ahead, there’s no sign that this pattern will fade anytime soon. By 2051, if current trends continue, religiously unaffiliated Americans could comprise as large a percentage of the population as all Protestants combined — a thought that would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago.

The reasons for the growth of religiously unaffiliated Americans are complex. First, it should be noted that the growth of this group has come almost entirely at the expense of white Christian denominations, both Protestant and Catholic. African American Protestants have maintained their market share, and the ranks of Latino Catholics, Latino Protestants and Asian-Pacific Islander Protestants have been growing.

When PRRI surveys have asked religiously unaffiliated Americans who were raised religious why they left their childhood religion, respondents have given a variety of reasons — stopped believing in teachings, conflicts with science, lack of time, etc. — but one issue stands out, particularly for younger Americans. About 70 percent of millennials (ages 18-33) believethat religious groups are alienating young adults by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues. And 31 percent of millennials who were raised religious but now claim no religious affiliation report that negative teaching about or treatment of gay and lesbian people by religious organizations was a somewhat or very important factor in their leaving.

You are not particularly sympathetic to the perspective of the “New Atheists,” like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins. But you could imagine that they’d read your findings about the growth in the religiously unaffiliated as a vindication. After all, why would the ranks of the unaffiliated be increasing if they weren’t fundamentally skeptical about the existence of God, or deeply opposed to theistic religion generally? Are the unaffiliated really non-believers? What does PRRI’s data tell us about them? 

The rising number of religiously unaffiliated Americans has more to do with people being less likely to claim a formal connection with organized religion than it does with widespread doubts about the existence of God. While there has been an uptick in the number of Americans who identify as atheist or agnostic, this has not been the main driver of growth of the religiously unaffiliated.

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