More Bad News for Christianity: The PRRI Survey

More Bad News for Christianity: The PRRI Survey September 17, 2017

This blog’s been keenly following news of Christianity’s collapse over the last few years. The 2017 PRRI study, “America’s Changing Religious Identity,” has brought the religion’s leaders yet more bad news. And their response has been predictable. Twined together with the bigoted Nashville Statement, we can see some firm signs of a storm coming Christianity’s way.

like a rollin thunder chasing the wind
The storm gathers. (Luke Gray, CC-SA.)

A Sea Change.

As most of us could have told PRRI, in the last 10 years Christianity’s dominance has become more and more shaken. Plummeting membership numbers have led to decreased donations in most denominations, which in turn has had dramatic impacts on churches’ ability to sway votes, purchase politicians’ support, and subsidize marketing efforts.

The churches’ responses to these losses, in turn, have been uniformly ineffective, consisting mostly of increased belligerence and bluster to abuse those who’ve left their ranks and intimidate those still remaining–along with surreal marketing campaigns that don’t actually fix any problems (instead creating some all-new ones for the churches that go that route).

But the end of Christianity that’s the least connected to reality, its extremist groups on both the Catholic and Protestant sides, could at least take heart: their end of the religion appeared to be losing the least members of all the groups in the religion. Much digital ink was spilled over that point, with the extremists gloating over surveys’ news of slightly-less-catastrophic failure for their groups. They cheered the idea that what they referred to as “the mushy middle” or “cultural Christians” were leaving their religion–hope they don’t let door hit ’em on their way out, was the sentiment I saw from a number of them. They knew, just as the rest of us did, that those Christians remaining in those already-extremist ranks would be even more extremist, and that their extremism would now be untempered by those more moderate voices in their ranks that might otherwise have held them back. All along, they’d ached for that freedom–and now they were getting it.

That’s exactly what happened, too. Free of tribemates who’d object to their ongoing culture-wars against compassion and kindness, these groups have only doubled down on their universal human message of hatred, fear, exclusion, cruelty, and rage–and it’s been a message that their adherents and their sales targets alike hear loud and clear. That’s how a bunch of them put out a super-bigoted statement right in the smack middle of a natural disaster. Bigots-for-Jesus feel increasingly emboldened to make these sorts of statements–and to proudly sign their names to it. Even in a world where literally over half of departing young Christians cite anti-LGBTQ bigotry as one of their main reasons for leaving, Christian leaders had no problem signing this document and disseminating it to the press. They’re all but showing their young people to the door and shoving them out of it!

Losing slightly less hard became TOTALLY #WINNING to these Christians, who felt entitled to look down their noses at the mainline churches that were losing even more people than they were. They felt that these churches’ attempts to be more inclusive was, itself, a sign of their softening doctrinally–and that was all the reason they needed to harden theirs up.

Since that first pecker-slap of a survey came out in 2015 (the Pew Religious Landscape Study), that’s been about where we’ve rested. Nones were rising dramatically as a group (as were atheists and agnostics), but Christianity was still quite dominant in most places. All signs pointed to further losses, but it was hard to say how big or how impactful those losses would be.

Well, that was then and this is now.

Seriously, This is BIG.

PRRI is one of the most reputable religion-survey groups out there. The Barna Group is unabashedly evangelical-leaning–and pandering, I might add; their home page blames parental upbringing for school shootings and insists that “most Americans” think that schools should teach abstinence-only sex education to kids. Kittens help you if you 100% trust anything out of Ligonier or LifeWay, which are simply mouthpieces for their religious leaders (Ligonier is Reformed, which seems to me to be an even nastier type of Calvinist; LifeWay is Southern Baptist all the way). Gallup’s even got its flaws, as we discovered in comments recently. I still utilize some of these other groups’ data if I can’t find anything better, but I’m careful to note that these are Christian groups headed by Christians who are motivated to make points about Christianity to sell their materials and books, and so their findings might be iffy.

But Pew and PRRI are pretty good at getting unbiased information from their surveys. That might be why the Christian troll we banned not long ago called Pew “an atheist group.” The idea made us all howl with laughter, but he was quite serious even if he couldn’t actually point to a single bit of data that Pew got wrong. Those outfits are not complimenting Christians to the skies or painting any kind of optimistic picture of the religion’s future–so obviously the thing to do is ad hominem them out of existence to shut them up and silence the studies they’re producing.

It must drive people like that troll up the wall that they can’t actually make anybody do anything anymore, not like they used to.

And that’s actually what the PRRI survey pointed to, so no wonder Christians are upset about it.

Survey SAYS:

PRRI’s new survey is even bigger than Pew’s was. They’ve interviewed 101,000 American adults, where Pew got 35,000 Americans. Their goal was to look at Americans’ religious identity, and how it’s shifted in the last 10 years.

And hoo boy has it ever.

You can look at the whole thing here, at the PRRI website. Here are the big takeaways:

Yes, white Christianity is fading. In fact, white Christians are now only 43% of the population. White Protestants slice that pie further: 30% of Americans surveyed. PRRI notes that in 1976, 81% of Americans identified as white Christians, with 55% further identifying themselves as white Protestants.

ALL white Christian groups are in decline, but white evangelicalism even more so. White evangelicals in particular have finally seen the chickens coming home to roost; they’ve lost dramatic numbers of adherents. Just ten years ago, white evangelicals were 23% of the population. Now they are 17%. Over that same ten years, white Catholics declined 5 percentage points, as white mainline Protestants (from 18% of the population to 13%). So evangelicals are now losing members faster than their mainline cousins.

White Christian groups are aging, while various non-Christian religious groups (like Hindus) are far younger. Nones are also pretty young–34% of them are under age 30. By contrast, white Christian groups are aging quickly. Some 62% of white evangelicals and Catholic and 59% of white mainline Protestants are at least 50 years old. That has some shocking demographic impacts on a group, as the aging people die but there are no younger people to replace them. That simple demographic time bomb is going to come to the fore in our near future–especially in light of the news that most evangelicals don’t bequeath anything major to their churches after death. If churches can’t work out a way to bring back these young people or squeeze more money out of the members they still have, churches will dwindle away to nothing without any other force coming to bear.

In 20 states, Nones outnumber any other one religious group. 35% of Washingtonians, 34% of Hawaiians, and 33% of Coloradans are Nones–and just as we see in 17 other states, no single religious group outnumbers them. But it’s worth noting here that about 16% of Nones still call themselves religious; they’re just totally disengaged from whatever religion they think they follow.

Surprising nobody, white Christians make up only 1/3 of the Democratic Party (they were half the party in 2006). Christians have swamped instead the Republican party, which is 73% white Christian. More interestingly, only 14% of Democrats under the age of 30 are white Christians; 40% of Democrats are Nones. (Now just consider what impact Christianity’s demographic shift will have on both political parties…)

They’re losing older people too though. 2/3 of seniors aged 65 or older are white Christians. That means 1/3 are not (indeed, 12% are Nones). Meanwhile, only about 25% of people under 30 identify as white Christians, while 38% of these younger folks are Nones.

All states in the United States bled Christians. No state except one (Hawaii) has actually increased its number of Christians that I could see on their map. Yes, it’s that bad for them. Only 23 states still actually have a Christian majority (in 2007, 39 did). Hawaii gained 6 percentage points, but every other state lost Christians. Massachusetts went down 20 percentage points, for example.

The decline in numbers of white evangelicals is, according to PRRI, “one of the most important stories of the last decade.”

Last and maybe not as applicable to today’s post, Mormons mess up everything. PRRI had to make a special category for Mormons, who buck the trends in a lot of ways: they’re younger than other Christians and may not be seeing the same declines. But since they’re less than 2% of the population, this hiccup in the general trends may not matter much.

So Let’s Look Again at the Nashville Statement, Shall We?

The Nashville Statement is a bafflingly regressive statement declaring what fundagelicals have always said: women’s rights are scary, LGBTQ people are ickie, and marriage should be straights-only because Jesus will cry otherwise. The fundagelicals who created and signed this declaration are a Who’s Who of the worst of the bigot-for-Jesus crowd: a bunch of Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) bigwigs including Russell Moore, as well as leaders from other groups like James Dobson (who is also on Donald Trump’s “faith advisory board.” Half of the signers are SBC leaders who apparently thought that someone in America doesn’t know exactly what SBC leaders hate most.

The Statement is one that demands acquiescence from all fundagelicals who read it; that is to say, the people who signed it are telling their flocks explicitly that to refuse to accept this declaration is to be in disagreement with the religion’s big names, which means to basically be in sin, which is a bad place to be if you’re fundagelical.1

That coercive nature of the Statement is what makes it so comically misfired.

Let me stress here: nothing in the Nashville Statement is really new or noteworthy. It is, literally, simply a re-stating of long-held fundagelical culture-war topics. When I first heard about it, I didn’t even think it was recent news and gee wasn’t it kinda tacky to rehash this stuff when a disaster was–uh–wait a minute… OH NO THEY DIDN’T…

What makes it different now, though, is this sense of it being used specifically as a polarizing agent for fundagelicals. The people who are responsible for it are, in effect, telling their flocks that they’ve got to believe this thing or they’re not good Christians anymore. And they’ve always said that–just now they’re being more serious about it now that they’re starting to perceive their impending collapse in power.

They seriously think that people who are kinda wavering on the idea of continuing to supported bigoted, sexist organizations just like theirs are going to see this Statement thing and harden on the side of opposing equal rights.

But here’s what’s really going to happen:

Young people who were kinda wavering like that are going to come down on the side of equal rights–and they will only accelerate their departure from their various groups and churches. They’re already embarrassed by their affiliation with a religion that is becoming known better and better for its hatred and control-lust than for love and compassion. After the last election, oodles of Christians were already on their way out of the religion. The Nashville Statement is going to be their last straw.

Older people who have LGBTQ friends or children will be repulsed by it as well–let’s not forget how many older folks are also walking away from Christianity. I’m not sure exactly how many have disengaged and deconverted in the last ten years, but anecdotally at least I can say it seems like a substantial percentage of the total. Some of those older folks maybe hadn’t quite realized just how bad their churches really were until recently, and the Nashville Statement is going to bring that home to them.

Christians who were already on board with the ideas in the Statement are going to harden and drill down on those ideas–and step up their abuse of and insults toward those who are not in their tribe. They’ll also continue to bark out right-wing talking points and to throw their little pity parties about being oh-so-PERSECUTED, particularly in light of the pushback against their bigotry. These hard-hearted Christians’ behavior will, itself, become a contributing factor in more waves of deconversions and disengagements. But they will continue to die out and leave, and young people will not be coming in to replace them.

But Why?

The Nashville Statement did not come and go without comment, of course. The mayor of Nashville herself, Megan Barry, immediately put out a statement condemning it and the regressive values it represents, and a number of other Nashville residents have voiced their vocal disagreement with it. Indeed, I’m seeing on Twitter a push to add the #EmptyThePews hashtag to condemnation of the Nashville Statement. Originally, the hashtag was created as a response to Donald Trump, not fundagelical bigotry-for-Jesus, but it’s a good fit.

Indeed, a vast number of people have spoken against it, both on social media and real life. A hockey enthusiast put it best, I think. Y’all, meet Ernie, who says:

I don’t normally buy slippery slope arguments as most are huge jumps in logic but it is a slippery slope when it comes to this group [fundagelicals]. It has been seen in several states where they worm their way in and start making law based solely on those religious beliefs. So I don’t take these things as mere statements of beliefs but rather statements of their intention to remake laws if provided the chance. And those re-made laws will have clear winners and clear losers as they propagate.

Yes, it is indeed a statement of intention regarding the next year or two of the fundagelical culture wars. It’s more than even that, though. There’s a reason why fundagelical leaders felt it necessary to release this tirade against compassion right when they did: it’s part of their calculated (albeit flailing) response to their dwindling numbers, and that pressing need is more important to them than showing a little decorum in the face of a national disaster. Don’t imagine for one minute that a lot of Christians didn’t notice that too.

Further, Russell Moore, that SBC guy who co-sponsored the statement, called this shat-out document “an urgently needed moment of gospel clarity.” And I think he worded it that way for a reason. That phrasing tells me that he wants fundagelical leaders to further divide their flocks with it just as he hopes the SBC will divide churches entirely with it: sifting out the compassionate ones and driving them away to achieve even greater “purity” of purpose and intention among those remaining. Combined with the overt politicization of the Religious Right, that’s a chilling idea.

But it all really depends on resources. An army travels on its stomach, it’s said, and fundagelicals travel on their wallets. All of this stuff they do to hurt and control other people and limit other people’s rights costs money–and money is exactly what is going to dwindle the fastest as people keep leaving.

Until they manage to stop the constant erosion of members from their ranks, they might as well have screamed their Nashville Statement into the winds of a hurricane, for all the good it’s going to do them. Really, this belligerent, pugnacious move is only going to hasten that exodus. It’s hard to imagine why they thought it’d do anything else, besides perhaps a massive dose of magical thinking.

So… it’s ultimately good news for humanity, at least. Hang in there, friends. We’re not at the nadir yet, but I sense that we’re getting close to it.

We’re going to take a little time-traveling trip to the 1980s next time–as an integral part of the 80s Child experience returns to the small screen. See you then!


1 It’s really not that bad though. I’ve apparently been in sin for decades now and it hasn’t posed any kind of problem to me. Really, the worst thing that could possibly happen to Christian leaders is for their followers to figure out how little these religious threats mean in real life.

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