America 2040: The Church of The Rest

America 2040: The Church of The Rest July 20, 2018

My current work on strictly contemporary US history means that I am spending a lot of time with projections of the country in the near future. Many of those have potent religious implications – and as it turns out, especially for the American South.

The Washington Post has a recent story by Philip Bump on population trends as they affect states and regions, the bottom line being “In about 20 years, half the population will live in eight states.” Eight more will make up about another twenty percent of Americans, so sixteen states will have seventy percent of the population. The eight largest – those with twelve million or more people by 2040 – include a couple of surprises. Most of these states are obvious enough: California, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Florida, but I would not have guessed North Carolina and Georgia for that top category, the Elite Eight. Most of those sixteen top-line states will be coastal, the exceptions being Michigan, Illinois, Arizona and Colorado.

This matters a lot for political reasons, given the US Constitution. By 2040, seventy percent of Americans will live in states electing 32 Senators. The remaining thirty percent – “The Rest” – will live in 34 states, and together they will elect 68 Senators. “Or, more starkly, half the population of the country will control 84 percent of those seats.” Theoretically, “the Rest” could massively outvote the most successful, populous, and progressive states on any key political issue, and would even have enough votes to sustain filibusters, or even pass a Constitutional amendment. The article then goes into “the Rest” and shows that very generally speaking (some exceptions), these states are older, whiter, more rural, and more Republican. To oversimplify, the article concludes that by the 2040s, “the House and the Senate will be weighted to two largely different Americas.”

Obviously there is a lot of speculation here, but it is well grounded and plausible. A couple of states fit poorly – Oregon and Maryland, for instance, are in The Rest – but the piece makes some excellent points.

By the way, the analysis recalls an older America. In the early 1930s, informed opinion said much the same about the many Dry rural states, which were so numerous as to make it quite impossible to repeal Prohibition, however much the Wet urban states wanted that outcome. Yet of course, FDR managed to persuade enough of the Rest, as they were back then, and Prohibition duly ended.

But going back to that coming population distribution, and let me think this through in religious terms. In most earlier eras, we would naturally think of Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina (say) as being strongly Christian, evangelical, and conservative. Yet the growth that is propelling them into the Elite Eight is powerfully urban and suburban, with a big contribution from recent immigrants. Or rather, we are not just speaking of urban expansion, as so often in US history, but of sprawling metroplexes, like the Dallas-Fort Worth region, or greater Atlanta, or Boston-Worcester-Lawrence. As I’ll suggest, that kind of expansion meshes poorly with religious institutions.

Think of it as hyper-urbanism.

See Texas as an example. Growth here is anything but equally distributed across the state. It is driven by six or so metroplexes. Moreover, the  Latino proportion of its people will grow steadily. Electorally, Texas in 2040 is likely to be a deep blue state, that might well have an outright Latino majority. That certainly does not correspond to being non-religious, although white evangelicals should be feeling increasingly embattled.

The explosive growth of Georgia is equally poorly distributed statewide, and is mainly an Atlanta-driven phenomenon. Or rather, the larger Atlanta metro area, in places like Gwinnett County. Gwinnett’s 1980 population was 167,000, and people complained at length about all the sprawl and the traffic. Today the figure is 920,000, and by 2040 it is projected to be 1.26 million. That would actually make Gwinnett the most populous county in the state, and larger than Fulton . Georgia presently has a million foreign-born, around ten percent of the state population, and they mainly gravitate to the greater Atlanta area.

What will put North Carolina among the leading states by population is the astonishing urban growth and development around Charlotte and the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill CSA.

For many years, geographers have spoken of the urban corridor that stretches from New England through the District of Columbia as Bos-Wash. That obviously does not mean that the strip is unbroken, but there is an obvious continuity. In recent years, Northern Virginia has evidently been drawn into that swelling beast, with ever more migrants and transplants, mainly from elsewhere in the US. It’s not a direct  consequence of urbanization/suburbanization, but one token of that has been the steady retreat of Southern accents on dialect maps. Older cultural patterns and food tastes follow fast.

But with the development of North Carolina and Georgia, what we are now projecting is the continuation of that process along the entire eastern seaboard. “The South,” in any familiar cultural sense, survives only insofar as it moves inland. Dear Lord, should we start talking about Bost-iami?

This extreme concentration of population then gets back to the issue of religious decline that I have discussed in a recent blog, where  I argued that secularization might actually, finally, be occurring in the US. It is especially marked as an urban trend, among highly educated groups, of the sort that are contributing so much to recent growth. Add to that the very powerful role of higher education and medicine in those soaring cities – of Eds and Meds – which by definition expands the number of people least open to any kind of traditional religious practice. In Philadelphia, Eds and Meds already account for forty percent of employment.

This all points to strongly secularizing trends, and ever more Nones. Economically and demographically, the South – broadly defined – will be doing wonderfully well in this new America. But it will be a very, very different South from anything we have known, and above all in religious terms.

Federal law requires that any discussion of shifts in Southern religion must at some point cite the song “Losing My Religion,” generally as a subtitle, but I will resist this stubbornly. Except to say that that was an REM song; REM came from Athens, Georgia; which is part of the Atlanta–Athens-Clarke–Sandy Springs CSA; which is the textbook example of projected hyper-urbanism in the South. Phew.

You can quite properly point to counter examples to my Song of the Secular South, to all the megachurches in and around Sunbelt cities like Atlanta or Houston or Dallas, and that is presently quite true. But I really wonder how long that Bible Belt can stay tied.

Alternatively, let’s move away from that state model, and just think in terms of size of community. All the growth that matters is urban or hyper-urban. Even within flourishing states, religion does best in the left behind or declining areas, rural and small town.

So just as an intellectual exercise, let’s make a bold prophecy for the 2040s or so. Imagine a near future US where a state’s population corresponds to its degree of urbanization, and thus to its relative secularity. Imagine the most thriving regions of church loyalty being concentrated strongly in The Rest, those 34 states containing thirty percent of the nation’s people, especially in the Midwest and the Upper South. The metroplexes, in contrast, are very difficult territory indeed for believers of any kind, a kind of malarial swamp of faith. A situation much like contemporary Europe, in fact.

Catholics, of course, face special issues in this Imminent America, and all depends on how far they can retain the loyalty of that very large Latino presence.

Hmm, planning a church for the hyper-urban future ….

We can argue about the details and the specifics of the maps, but this is an intriguing look forward. Something to debate.



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