The religious landscape in the United States is quickly changing. Over the past few decades, the number of non-religious Americans has more than doubled, and studies have shown fewer Americans are attending church.
In his new book The End of White Christian America, Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) notes that the “American religious landscape is being remade, most notably by the decline of the white Protestant majority and the rise of the religiously unaffiliated.”
Jones told the Washington Post in a recent interview that he believes Americans are aware of this shift, and believes this knowledge explains much the Christian Right’s strong “apocalyptic” reaction, claiming Christianity is under attack, or claims by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to claim that he is going to “bring back” Christianity to America.
“Many white Americans have sensed these changes, and there has been some media coverage of the demographic piece of the puzzle,” Jones said. “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.
While white Christian America looks to make a comeback of sorts, Jones says it doesn’t appear that the declining trend will change anytime soon. He notes that by 2051 the religiously unaffiliated could make up an equal percentage of the population of protestants.
To better understand what is driving this decline, Jones’ group PRRI conducted a survey among younger non-religious adults aged 18-33 and found that while many cited conflicts with science, general lack of belief in religious teaching, or a lack of time, most noted that it was religious bigotry that drove them out of the church.
“About 70 percent of millennials believe that religious groups are alienating young adults by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues,” Jones noted. “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.”
These findings could easily be seen as vindication for “new atheists” like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, who popularized atheism and the outspoken criticism of religion and belief in God after 9/11. Jones says, however, that their role in criticizing religion doesn’t seem to have played a big role in the decline of the religiously unaffiliated.
“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,” Jones said in the interview.
He continued by saying that many of the non-religious still hold a belief in God, they just don’t adhere to a particular religious set of beliefs. Out of those polled, they only found around 24 percent that openly claimed to be atheist or agnostic.
The book’s release ironically lines up well with the presidential election in which Trump is appealing more to the white Christian American demographic and stroking the fears of Christian persecution, but Jones says he didn’t have the election, or Trump in mind when he wrote it.
“I completed the final text of the book in the early fall of 2015, just as Donald Trump was announcing his candidacy, and the book does not mention Trump at all. But I do think the book casts some much-needed light on white evangelicals’ attraction to Trump,” Jones notes.
In the book, Jones states that Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid was likely the last one to use the “white Christian strategy,” a claim he believes he likely made too early as he is now watching the rise of Trump. He did note, however, that if the trends in his book continue, by 2024 there won’t be a largely white Christian voter base to pander to and likely will change the face of conservative politics forever.
With no statistical indication that the current trend will rebound, it is not far-fetched to imagine we are witnessing the end of Christian Right’s grasp on American politics. The death of white Christian America will change how the right panders to the religious base in future elections if it plans to capture the majority vote. The days of attacking women’s rights, same-sex marriage, and the massive racial divide among parties may finally be coming to an end.