Anyone not already familiar with the term “majority-minority” should add it to their vocabulary very soon. That is particularly true for anyone planning for the future of US churches.

Through US history, non-Latino whites have always constituted a substantial majority of the population, sometimes 85 percent or more, depending on how we count Native Americans. That proportion has fallen steadily since the 1960s, and at the turn of the new century, some states achieved the status of majority-minority, meaning that no one group – certainly not whites – enjoyed an overall majority. California, Texas, Hawaii and New Mexico were the first to cross this threshold, but by 2050, that situation will apply in the whole country. This past month, the US Census Bureau made the historic pronouncement that – as the New York Times headlined – “Whites Account for Under Half of Births in U.S.” By 2050, a reasonably projection is that Latinos will make up 25-30 percent of the national population, Asian-Americans another 8 percent, and people of African descent perhaps 15 percent. Adding to the complex picture, these balances will not be equally distributed across the generations: the country will have a great many older Whites, and younger Latinos.

We can explore the implications of this in any number of directions, but as far as I know nobody has yet thought through the religious implications. At the least, this new picture vastly intensifies the pressure on churches to achieve greater integration, to reach out beyond their traditional ethnic constituencies. But how should they do this? Should they try for straightforward full integration, or else seek to set up free-standing Latino or Asian-oriented services besides the “normal” (!) Anglo events? Decades of debate and controversy lie ahead of us.

I do make one obvious point, which is that we should not see this picture in terms of simplistic conflict, of “white” and “non-white,” as if each of those terms represents a solid political, cultural or economic bloc. The whole concept of “whiteness” has evolved and expanded throughout US history. Once, the Irish were not white, but then they were (and thought they always had been). Then the Italians underwent the same process. Then Jews. And the line between “whites” and “Latinos” is, and always has been, highly fungible, all the more so as linguistic differences fade.

We also live in a time of rapid social interaction and ethnic mixing, which will in its turn undermine hard and fast concepts of whiteness. To take an anecdotal example, I spend a great deal of time on college campuses, where it is very common indeed to see young white men with their East Asian girlfriends (much less frequently do we see Asian men with white girls). Some of these relationships will not survive their college years, but many will, so that in coming decades we are likely to see the birth of a great many mixed white-Asian children. In past years, they would have received various labels denoting their mixed heritage, but I suspect that they will describe themselves simply as “American.” To adopt the phrase of Father Virgilio Elizondo, The Future is Mestizo.

Martin Marty famously declared that “ethnicity is the skeleton of American religion.” Well, that skeleton is about to become a much more complicated construction.

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Election Day Reading Material from The Anxious Bench
About Philip Jenkins
  • Ann Bacon

    Philip, it’s very ‘satisfactory’ for me to read this (!) in the sense that I remember thinking recently – apropos a chance observation that confirmed a ‘developing hunch’ – that the long-term future would surely see a natural blending of skin colours worldwide. My thoughts had taken me into a mental debate as to how this wold play-out in terms of religious beliefs and (dare one hope) greater inter-faith tolerance? My supposition is that the latter will be ‘another ball game’ that will not see the Light of Day anytime soon!

    But who am I to comment on such matters!! Just a very ordinary person who is fairly observant about what goes on around me – and is a bit thoughtful!

    Thank you!