Long the dominant group in American religious life, White Christians have fallen below a majority of the U.S. population—and they are moving to the right politically as they recede.
The result is that, like race and age, religious affiliation marks a sharpening point of distinction between Republicans and Democrats, previously unpublished results from the Pew Research Center’s massive Religious Landscape survey show.
As the nation relentlessly diversifies, both in its racial composition and religious preferences, White Christians now represent just 46 percent of American adults, according to Pew data provided in response to a request from Next America. That’s down from a 55 percent majority as recently as 2007, and much higher figures through most of U.S. history.
Yet even as White Christians shrink in their overall numbers, they still account for nearly seven-in-10 Americans who identify with, or lean toward, the Republican Party, the Pew study found. White Christians, in fact, represent as large a share of the Republican coalition today as they did of American society overall in 1984, when Ronald Reagan won reelection. A clear majority of all White Christians across the United States now identify as Republican, Pew found.
In sharp contrast, the Pew data show, the Democratic coalition has evolved into a three-legged stool that divides almost evenly between White Christians, non-White Christians, and those from all races who identify either with a non-Christian faith or, increasingly, with no religious tradition at all. Most Americans who don’t identify with any religious faith—a rapidly growing group—now align with Democrats.
These diverging profiles create electoral challenges for each side. Republicans face the tension of balancing the morally conservative preferences of their religiously devout base with the deepening instinct toward cultural tolerance of a society that is growing more secular, particularly among the young.
Democrats must weigh the culturally liberal instincts of their now mostly secular wing of upscale Whites with the often more traditional inclinations of their African-American and Latino supporters, who are much more likely than White Democrats to identify with Christian faiths. In a landmark shift, fewer than half of White Democrats with a college degree now identify as Christians; that’s a much smaller percentage than among the party’s Blacks and Latinos.
Above all, the end of majority status for White Christians marks another milestone in America’s transformation into a kaleidoscope society with no single dominant group.
In 1944, polls showed that White Christians accounted for more than eight-in-10 American adults, notes John C. Green, an expert on religion and politics and dean of the college of arts and sciences at the University of Akron. Surveys found that number declined only slightly, to just under eight-in-10, by 1964. Even in 1984, White Christians still accounted for just under seven-in-10 American adults. The annual merge of results from other national surveys conducted by Pew, though not directly comparable with the huge Religious Landscape poll, suggest that White Christians dipped below majority status sometime between 2012 and 2013. The latest figures placing White Christians at just 46 percent of the adult population confirm a trend, Green says, in which “the relative size of White Christians [has] fallen at an increasing rate over the post-W.W. II period.”
Religion has often been a jagged line in U.S. political allegiance, but historically the key difference has been across religious faiths. The Republican Party was founded in the years just before the Civil War as the party of Northern mainline Protestants, and the party revolved around those voters well into the 1960s. Democrats functioned through most of their history as a cacophonous and often contradictory coalition of other religious traditions, particularly Northern Catholics and Southern evangelical Protestants, Green notes.
In the new alignment, those historic differences between Christian faiths have largely been sublimated to two other cleavages. In the first, Republicans now run well among the most religiously devout in all Christian traditions, while Democrats perform relatively better among Christians who are less religiously observant. In the second, while the Republican coalition still revolves around Christians, Democrats increasingly rely on Americans who identify with non-Christian faiths, or no religious tradition at all.
“It means there really are social divisions between the coalitions of the two parties,” says Green. “The differences between the parties are rooted in these deep value differences. It is not impossible to compromise, but it is much more difficult to compromise, when you’ve got differences rooted in this."
The contrasting religious mix in the two party coalitions helps explain their widening distance on cultural issues, from same-sex marriage, to workplace rights for gays, to free contraception under President Obama’s health care reform.
The declining importance of White Christians in the Democratic electoral coalition has made it easier for party leaders to move left on cultural questions.
Christians of all races exceed their share of the national population in only three of the 18 “blue wall” states that Democrats have carried in at least the past six consecutive presidential elections, with evangelicals especially scarce in those places. While Republican Mitt Romney in 2012 carried all but one of the 15 states where evangelical Protestants represented at least 30 percent of the population, Obama won all but one of the 16 states where they constituted one-fifth or less of adults.
“After 2004, when George W. Bush was reelected, there was a lot of discussion about the Democrats’ ‘God problem,’ and the thinking was Democrats needed to close the religion gap,” says Gregory Smith, associate director of research at Pew. “But at the same time, we were watching this group of ‘nones’—unaffiliated with any religion—who were both growing in the population as a whole and voting very strongly Democratic. There has been less discussion of the Democrats’ religion problem since then.”
But while Democrats have continued to perform well in presidential elections, the party’s fading appeal to White Christians has also contributed to its crushing congressional and state-office losses under President Obama in religiously traditional Heartland states from the South through the Great Plains. In those states, Christians usually exceed their national share of the population, and evangelical Christians, in particular, often outnumber the religiously unaffiliated by about two-to-one or more. In the 15 states where evangelical Christians equal 30 percent of the population or more, Democrats now hold just five of the 30 Senate seats.
Evangelical Christians, voting overwhelmingly Republican since the 1980s, now cast a much larger shadow within the GOP coalition than any denomination does among Democrats. While Pew found that evangelicals constitute nearly two-fifths of all Republicans, the largest denomination in the Democratic coalition is Catholics, at only about one-fifth of the total. Evangelicals have long eclipsed mainline Protestants as the largest religious group in the GOP and now outnumber them by over two-to-one, Pew found.
The huge Pew Religious Landscape study surveyed more than 35,000 adults in English and Spanish in 2014; its massive size allows for unusually detailed analysis of smaller groups in the population.
The underlying current that the survey tracks is a slow but steady drift away from the monolithic dominance of Christian faiths.
Compared with the first Pew Landscape study in 2007, the 2014 report found the share of Americans who identify as evangelical Protestants declined slightly (by about one percentage point), while the portion who identified as either Mainline Protestants or Catholics eroded more severely (by about three percentage points in each case). In all, the study found, the share of Americans identifying with any Christian faith fell from 78 percent in 2007 to just under 71 percent in 2014.
Conversely, over that period, the share of Americans who identified with non-Christian faiths (such as Judaism, Islam, or Buddhism) increased slightly from 4.7 to 5.9 percent. The big change came in the ranks of the “nones”: The share of Americans who identify as atheist, agnostic, or with no particular religious faith, spiked from 16 percent in 2007 to nearly 23 percent in 2014. Among the millennial generation, about one-third now identify with no religious faith (about double the proportion among baby boomers).
These historic shifts have hit the Democratic Party with far more force than the GOP.
The Pew studies found that the share of Republicans who identify as Christians dropped only modestly from 87 percent in 2007 to 82 percent in 2014. Over that same period, the share of Democrats who identify as Christians fell by over twice as much, from 74 percent to 63 percent.
But even that comparison understates the true gulf between the two sides’ religious inclinations, because the Democratic figures are swelled by the large number of African-American and Latino party members who still identify with Christian faiths. Separating out the results by race and education levels captures the full magnitude of the religious divergence that now characterizes the competing party coalitions.
Data provided by Pew show that in 2007, 88 percent of White Republicans and 70 percent of White Democrats identified as Christians. By 2014, the number among White Republicans had declined only minimally, to 84 percent, while skidding among White Democrats to 57 percent. That means the gap in Christian identification among Whites in the two parties has widened by fully half in just seven years—from 18 percentage points in 2007 to 27 points now.
Adding education to the mix further sharpens the contrast. White Republicans with college degrees (at 85 percent) are even more likely than White Republicans without degrees (at 83 percent) to identify as Christians.
But white college-educated Democrats have crossed a critical threshold: less than half of them (only 47 percent) now identify with any Christian faith. Fully 37 percent of them identify with no religious faith, with the remaining 16 percent associating with non-Christian faiths. As recently as 2007, 60 percent of white college-educated Democrats still called themselves Christians.
Non-college white Democrats are moving away from Christian faiths just as quickly but retain stronger roots: 62 percent of them still identify as Christians (down from three-fourths in 2007). Far higher shares of Democratic African-Americans (81 percent) and Latinos (76 percent) call themselves Christians. Those numbers also have slipped some since 2007, but much more modestly than the declines among white Democrats. Asian American and mixed race Democrats are comparable to the upscale whites, with only 45 percent of them identifying with Christian faiths.
Republican African-Americans (at 74 percent) and Hispanics (at 82 percent) are about as likely as their Democratic counterparts to align with Christian faiths, and Republicans who are either Asian-American or mixed-race are even more likely (at 63 percent). But those Republicans of color remain a small minority of the party overall.
The cumulative result is a dramatic divergence in the combined religious and racial profile of the two parties, as the table below demonstrates.
Viewed from the other angle, the picture is equally dramatic. Including those who lean toward one party or the other, fully 56 percent of all white Christians in America now identify as Republicans, up from 48 percent in 2007, Pew found. Just 30 percent of white Christians identify as Democrats, with 14 percent calling themselves independents.
In near-mirror image fashion, 54 percent of all Americans who don’t identify with any religious tradition now call themselves Democrats. Just 23 percent of the “nones” identify as Republicans, with 22 percent calling themselves independents.
Some conservatives see the recent defeat of the gay rights municipal ordinance in Houston—partially because of resistance among African-American voters—as a signal that Democrats will face increasing tension between their growing faction of secular whites and their more religiously devout African-American and Latino base.
“White liberals simply care a great deal more about some things—the social condition of so-called transsexuals, climate change—than do non-white voters who nonetheless lean heavily toward the Democrats,” Kevin Williamson, a correspondent for the conservative National Review, wrote recently. “[T]he current model of Democratic politics—poor and largely non-white people providing the muscle and rich white liberals calling the shots—is unsustainable.”
But Smith, the Pew associate director, notes that while black and Latino Democrats do sometimes take different views on social issues than secular white liberals, affinity on other issues—from immigration to government activism—so far has trumped those disagreements. “You are not seeing any evidence that there is less support for Democrats among racial and ethnic minorities because [religious] ‘nones’ are a growing share of the party,” he says.
Janie Boschma contributed to this article
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.