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PRRI Survey Says: Mainline Christians Now Outnumber Evangelicals

PRRI Survey Says: Mainline Christians Now Outnumber Evangelicals July 10, 2021

Hi and welcome back! Recently, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released an absolutely groundbreaking survey of Americans. This survey revealed some eye-opening shifts in how Americans practice Christianity — and how the religion’s demographic makeup has changed in the past 7 years. Today, let me show you this survey, and then let’s talk about its major findings.

as the waters shift and flow
(Jordan Heath.) Lake Tekapo in New Zealand.

PRRI and the Survey Itself.

PRRI is a reputable, nonpartisan, nonprofit survey house. We’ve talked about them before. They do solid research. (See: Post-Trump decline; Christian decline generally.)

Starting in 2013, PRRI began surveying large numbers of Americans. They finished their survey work in 2020, then analyzed what they had. All in all, they interviewed over half a million people (with land lines and cell phones, no less).

Here’s the link to their big writeup of the survey results.

The survey researchers wanted to know about all kinds of things from their subjects. They wanted to know about the race and age of their subjects, where they lived, what political faction and religious classification they identified as, and much more.

With the answers they got, PRRI’s researchers figured out how religiously-diverse various parts of the country are, the average age of various groups, how well-educated various religious groups tend to be, how they tend to vote, how religious groups’ average racial makeup is changing, and — of course — what the religious makeup looks like in various parts of America.

To call this survey groundbreaking would actually be an understatement. To me, it’s just incredible.

What the Survey Found: Major Stuff.

First, let me show you the big finding that’s catching attention all over the big news sites right now:

White mainline Christians now outnumber white evangelicals.

In their big writeup, we find that about 44% of subjects identify as white Christians at all. Drilling down, 14% of respondents identified as white evangelical, while 16% of respondents identified as white mainline. (Only 12% of respondents identified as white Catholic.)

Also, 17% of respondents identified as unaffiliated (what we’d call Nones, I suspect). 3% identified as atheist, and 3% as agnostic.

White mainline Christians are, as a group, younger than white evangelicals tend to be.

In fact, white mainline Christians went from an average of 52 years old in 2013 to 50 in 2020. Meanwhile, white evangelicals aged from 53 to 56.

Additionally, PRRI says Jewish Americans also got younger. (Their average age in 2020 was 48, but I couldn’t find how old they were in 2013.) All other religious groups either stayed about the same age or got older. Black Protestants aged the most: from 45 in 2013 to 50 in 2020.

The United States’ population as a whole aged from 46 to 48 in the same timeframe.

Graphing a World Religion’s Decline.

PRRI offered this graph to track the progress of various religious groups:

a graph showing the decline slowing down
(Source: PRRI.)

This graph is very interesting to them and me both because it reveals that Christianity’s long decline may have slowed for now. It also reveals that white mainline groups are growing, while white evangelical groups are shrinking.

Meanwhile, unaffiliated numbers hit a peak around 2018 with 25.5% of respondents, after which they declined to 23.3% by 2020. I’ve known for a long time that many unaffiliated people are neither ex-Christians nor atheists, which makes me suspect some of those 2018 unaffiliated folks drifted back into church culture somewhere along the line.

(See also: Churchless believers.)

Where the Young Adults Are.

On that note, here’s another graph from PRRI:

just imagine the next generation -- I sure am
(Source: PRRI.)

Unaffiliated people tend to grow with each successive generation reaching maturity, something PRRI generally confirmed in this survey as well. In 2020, we saw the trend buckle just a bit, with slightly fewer young Americans identifying that way. However, we may see their numbers grow again as the newest crop of youngsters become adults.

I’m quite interested as well in that little uptick of older Americans losing their religious affiliation. I’d love to know what that story looks like. Even if it’s not quite an ideal-for-humanity story, I still want to know.

The main reason I think that our next generation of young adults will be less likely to go in for religion is that they’re getting more and more religiously diverse — another point PRRI discovered in their survey. They described this diversity as “a generational sea change.” Being around people of other religions — especially people who profess no religion — is pure death to any religion’s claim to exclusive rights to DA TROOF.

Mainline Christians (and progressives, who probably qualify as mainline in PRRI’s reckoning) are the friendliest to other religions’ claims and adherents, but evangelicals despise diversity to their marrow. They need to see everyone playing the same Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game they like best, or it all just feels weird and fake.

One big finding: Only 7% of respondents aged 18-29 identified as white evangelicals. Meanwhile, 12% of that age group identified as white mainline Christians. And 36% of young adults identified as unaffiliated, way more than any other age group.

Evangelicals already know very well that if they can’t capture a child’s mind before 14 years of age, they’ll probably never capture that person. To them, that 7% figure has got to look even more disastrous than the 36% one.

The Possible Source of All These Additional Mainline Christians.

Interestingly, the CEO of PRRI, Robert Jones, wrote an email to Religion News Service. In it, he made an educated guess about the source of all these new mainline Christians:

PRRI CEO Robert Jones said in an email that the survey doesn’t provide precise explanations regarding the shift among white Christians. But he pointed to “circumstantial evidence” that suggests “over the last two years in particular, white mainline Protestants seem to have absorbed at least some folks leaving white evangelical and other churches who may have otherwise landed in the religiously unaffiliated camp.”

And that, friends, is extremely interesting to me.

The trajectory Jones describes fits in very well with what I’ve read of ex-vangelicals. Though a good many do deconvert entirely, many go through what they call “deconstruction” instead. In deconstruction, Christians dismantle the toxic parts of their beliefs and decide which beliefs they’ll maintain. And many Christians who deconstruct end up as mainline, I’ve noticed. Long before ex-vangelicals were a known quantity, Rachel Held Evans went that exact route after her fellow evangelicals drove her out of the tribe for not Jesus-ing correctly.

If mainline churches are making some sort of concerted effort to reach out to frustrated evangelicals, it’d be one of their savviest marketing campaigns ever. I’m not sure at all that they are, but part of me hopes so. Time will tell if ex-vangelicals are just making a stop in mainline Christianity before settling into being unaffiliated themselves, or if mainline Christianity gives them whatever it is they seek.

As I mentioned above, I also suspect some of the people who said they were unaffiliated in 2016 were Christians who’d opted out for a while, then drifted back into churches eventually. If they did, I can easily see them drifting back into mainline self-identification.

(Bear in mind: The survey measured only self-identification, not actual church membership or attendance.)

We Haven’t Hit Bottom Yet.

Though the decline has slowed for now, I don’t believe that Christians have hit bottom yet. There’s still a lot of shaking-up to do as our newest young adults start exploring their options in the religious marketplace.

I also strongly suspect that white evangelicals have some more declining to do in the near future. Their top leaders have displayed a patent inability to address a single one of the systemic issues in their broken system. That inability will translate to even more people leaving their groups — and disavowing their increasingly cruel and conspiracy-theory-addled ideology.

In response to these and their other challenges, white evangelicals only continue to polarize. Their belligerent, chest-thumping community only gets more radicalized, out of touch with reality, tribalistic, and aggressive. Their sense of entitlement over other Americans’ lives only grows in scope alongside their furious hostility and swivel-eyed conspiracy theorizing about their many, many tribal enemies.

And that might be really bad news for the rest of America.

I’m not even the only person thinking this way. I agree with Michelle Goldberg’s conclusion:

If they can’t own the country, they’re ready to defile it.

No, white evangelicals don’t seem inclined to graciously accept their decline in power, much less their new status as a fringe religious subculture.

The Most Dangerous Time.

I’ve compared white evangelicals as a group to a narcissistic, abusive spouse many times. This is one of those times.

In domestic abuse situations, the most dangerous time of all is when the abuser’s victim is finally walking out the door forever. At such times, the abuser pulls out all the stops to keep their victim in place. I’ve been there myself. It’s absolutely terrifying to see just how far a once-loving spouse will go to maintain control. The mask slips forever to show us, at last and in full, the monster we thought loved us.

That feels a lot like what’s going on in evangelicalism right now.

As evangelicals get more and more aggrieved about their loss of dominance over American culture, they may get really desperate to reinstate themselves as the lords and masters of their Republic of Gilead wet dream. They’re already staging insurrections against our government and talking up the appeal of divinely-mandated patriotic martyrdom.

The more extremist they get in beliefs and behavior, however, the faster their fake lovey-dovey mask falls away, revealing their true and terrifying authoritarian core — and their yearning for absolute dominance and ownership of all they survey.

All of this means that we must hold firm. Vote, speak out where we safely can, resist, and reject, always, evangelicals’ entitled, racist, sexist, bigoted, paternalistic demands.

Slowly, fitfully we’re escaping this most-toxic flavor of Christianity.

Hang in there, friends.

NEXT UP: I wasn’t even half surprised to see evangelicals’ (non)reaction to this survey. See you tomorrow!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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