White Evangelicals Are on the Decline (and They Completely Deserve It)

White Christians are now a minority in the U.S. and “Nones” are the majority demographic in 20 states. Those are a couple of the highlights in a major new report by the Public Religion Research Institute. It was based on a bilingual survey of more than 100,000 Americans over the course of 2016.

PRRI found that white Christians, who represented about 80% of the population 40 years ago, now make up only 43% of the nation. The decline was fueled both by a rise in non-white Christians — who don’t necessarily have the same political/social views as white evangelicals — along with a rise in the percentage of Americans who no longer have any religious affiliation. (Golf claps all around!)

ReligiousMakeupPRRI2017

More importantly, perhaps, is the breakdown by age. When it comes to people under 30, the “Unaffiliated” make up an astonishing 38% of the population. And you can see how our numbers are growing.

ReligiousMakeupPRRI2017Age

Those two charts alone could inspire all sorts of think pieces.

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.

White evangelicals have made themselves damn near synonymous with heartless bigots. On the whole, they don’t care about LGBTQ rights. They don’t care about women’s health. They don’t care about science (including climate change). They don’t want to legalize marijuana. They love “fake news.” They promote abstinence to the point of absurdity. And they include Joel Osteen.

Time after time, when they’ve had a chance to do the right thing, they’ve failed spectacularly. And their inability to disavow Donald Trump in any meaningful way is the most obvious example of that.

White evangelical Trump-love didn’t fuel these numbers — the survey took place before he came into office — but he’s the clearest symbol of everything they’ve done wrong. Trump is every mistake evangelicals have made over the past couple of decades, all rolled into one.

Why would any decent person want to be a part of that club?

Even young Christians who may hold the same beliefs as other evangelicals are finding a better outlet for their faith outside of traditional churches.

The head of PRRI noted that white evangelicals once warned other Christians that a watering down of the faith would lead to a decline in numbers. Instead, it’s their beliefs that have taken the hit while more progressive forms of Christianity — and people who want out of organized religion altogether — are on the rise.

“So often, white evangelicals have been pointing in judgment to white mainline groups, saying when you have liberal theology you decline,” said Robert Jones, chief executive of PRRI. “I think this data really does challenge that interpretation of linking theological conservatism and growth.”

Just look at this beautiful trend line showing the rise of the Nones:

NoneRisePRRI2017

Our numbers were rising in the 1990s, but the George W. Bush presidency — with the Christian-fueled policies he supported — accelerated everything. That didn’t slow down while President Obama was in office, and you can bet the symbiotic relationship between evangelicals and the current administration will only push more people away from organized religion.

Atheists have done a lot to push the trends in this direction. More of us are willing to criticize religion in public places. There are more outlets for us to talk about the problems with religion. But at the same time, Christians have routinely shot themselves in the foot, pushing for awful policies in the name of God. Whenever you think it can’t get worse, white evangelicals find a way to screw it up even more.

Keep fighting, everyone. It’s working. It’ll take time for the demographics to catch up with our politics, but we’ll get there.

By the way, PRRI’s survey includes a lot more data than this and you can read some good summaries of it here and here.

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