New Religious Landscape Survey Explains A Lot About The Politics of White Christian Nationalism

By Paul Brandeis Raushenbush

The religious landscape in America is changing — fast. And it is mostly bad news for the White Christian base that elected Donald Trump to the presidency.  

The 2016 American Values Atlas was created by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), which claims that the Atlas is the single largest survey of American religious and denominational identity ever conducted. Titled “America’s Changing Religious Identity” the report opens with this stunning introduction:  

“The American religious landscape is undergoing a dramatic transformation. 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.”

While the poll is full of interesting information, the major takeaway is that the number of Americans who identify as White Christians has fallen precipitously in just a short period of time, and that this trend only seems to be accelerating. Here are just a few of the findings:

  1. White Christians now account for fewer than half of the public. Today, only 43% of Americans identify as white and Christian, and only 30% as white and Protestant. In 1976, roughly eight in ten (81%) Americans identified as white and identified with a Christian denomination, and a majority (55%) were white Protestants.
  2. White evangelical Protestants are in decline—along with white mainline Protestants and white Catholics. White evangelical Protestants were once thought to be bucking a longer trend, but over the past decade their numbers have dropped substantially. Fewer than one in five (17%) Americans are white evangelical Protestant, but they accounted for nearly one-quarter (23%) in 2006. Over the same period, white Catholics dropped five percentage points from 16% to 11%, as have white mainline Protestants, from 18% to 13%.
  3. America’s youngest religious groups are all non-Christian. Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists are all far younger than white Christian groups. At least one-third of Muslims (42%), Hindus (36%), and Buddhists (35%) are under the age of 30. Roughly one-third (34%) of religiously unaffiliated Americans are also under 30. In contrast, white Christian groups are aging. Slightly more than one in ten white Catholics (11%), white evangelical Protestants (11%), and white mainline Protestants (14%) are under 30. Approximately six in ten white evangelical Protestants (62%), white Catholics (62%), and white mainline Protestants (59%) are at least 50 years old.

It is plain that America’s demographic profile is shifting from having one dominant religious tradition, namely White Christian, to one with many different traditions along with a growing number of people, mostly younger, who don’t identify with any. This change is welcome by those of us who believe that America is stronger when it fully embraces its pluralism and diversity; while it is terrifying for others for whom this transformation means a loss of power, privilege and a way of life.

This may help explain why the Evangelicals who sit on the President’s Advisory Board are not speaking up against Trump’s actions since his inauguration including the Muslim travel ban, the ban on Trans people in the military, his waffling after white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, the pardoning of Arpaio who openly targeted Latinx people, and the ending of DACA.  All of these actions point towards policies bent on excluding non-Christians, denigrating people of color, Trans people, and the potential deportation of 800,000 young people, many of Latinx backgrounds.

As many have noted, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, is being translated policy wise into: Make America White (and Christian) Again.

Aside from the clear immorality of Trump’s agenda, it is like spitting into the wind — it only flies back in your face.  Instead, the great, sacred task ahead is to recognize that America’s beliefs and the demographic makeup of our people is changing, and that our future as a nation is to embrace that change, ensuring dignity and a just society for all people of whatever religion, race, nationality, immigration status, sexuality or gender. And yes, this includes White Christians who, as Dr. Robert Jones, CEO of PRRI has said, may not be able to sit at the head of the long table anymore, presiding as the patriarch, but who will be welcome at the wide and round table, sitting as one of many traditions all equally.

According to PRRI the 2016 American Values Atlas includes: “a sample of more than 101,000 Americans from all 50 states and includes detailed information about their religious affiliation, denominational ties, political affiliation, and other important demographic attributes.”

Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush is Senior Vice President at Auburn and Editor of Voices.

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