The Eclipse of White Christian America

A once powerful demographic group is losing ground in American politics.

Michael Conroy / AP

For most of the country’s history, white Christian America—the cultural and political edifice built primarily by white Protestant Christians—set the tone for our national conversations and shaped American ideals. But today, many white Christian Americans feel profoundly anxious as their numbers and influence are waning. The two primary branches of their family tree, white mainline and white evangelical Protestants, offer competing narratives about their decline. White mainline Protestants blame evangelical Protestants for turning off the younger generation with their anti-gay rhetoric and tendency to conflate Christianity with conservative, nationalist politics. White evangelical Protestants, on the other hand, blame mainline Protestants for undermining Christianity because of their willingness to sell out traditional beliefs to accommodate contemporary culture.

The key question is not why one white Protestant subgroup is faring worse than another, but why white Protestantism as a whole—arguably the most powerful cultural force in the history of the United States—has faded. The answer is, in part, a matter of powerful demographic changes.

In 2004, the same year that Americans reelected George W. Bush as president, the U.S. Census Bureau made waves by predicting that by 2050 the United States would no longer be a majority-white nation. Four years later, when Americans elected Barack Obama as their first African American head of state, the Census Bureau lowered that threshold year to 2042. When Obama was reelected in 2012, population experts forecasted that by 2060 whites will see their numbers decline for the first time in American history, while the number of people who identify as multiracial will nearly triple and the number of Hispanics and Asians will more than double. Mark Mather, a demographer with the Population Reference Bureau, summed up the magnitude of these shifts for The New York Times: “No other country has experienced such rapid racial and ethnic change.”

These racial and ethnic changes are dramatic, but they only partially account for the sense of dislocation many whites feel. In order to understand the magnitude of the shift, it’s important to also assess white Christian America’s waning cultural influence. It’s impossible to grasp the depth of many white Americans’ anxieties and fears—or comprehend recent phenomena like the rise of the Tea Party or Donald Trump in American politics, the zealous tone of the final battles over gay rights, or the racial tensions that have spiked over the last few years—without understanding that, along with its population, America’s religious and cultural landscape is being fundamentally altered.

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Looking at the numbers, two features immediately jump out. First, the proportion of white Christians (including Protestants and Catholics) in the country, while still comprising the largest single wedge in the pie chart, has slipped below a majority to 47 percent. Moreover, if that measure is restricted to include only the direct descendants of white Christian America—white mainline Protestants and white evangelical Protestants—the number decreases to only 32 percent of Americans. Second, the religiously unaffiliated—a group that is growing rapidly—comprise more than one in five Americans today.

The next chart digs deeper into these numbers and provides some insight into what the future may hold. Like an archaeological excavation, the chart sorts Americans by religious affiliation and race, stratified by age—demonstrating at a glance the decline of white Christians among each successive generation. This snapshot uncovers a striking finding: Today, young adults, ages 18 to 29, are less than half as likely to be white Christians as seniors. Nearly seven in 10 American seniors are white Christians, compared to fewer than three in 10 young adults. Although the declining proportion of white Christians is due in part to large-scale demographic shifts, this chart also highlights the other major force of change in the religious landscape: young adults’ rejection of organized religion.

To understand just how fundamentally the American religious landscape is being altered, it’s important to look back to the 1970s, when—despite the growing acceptance of Catholics and Jews into the mainstream—Protestantism was still pervasive enough to be thought of as America’s default faith. Sixty-three percent of Americans identified as Protestants in 1974, while approximately one quarter identified as Catholic. Only a 7-percent sliver of the population claimed no religious affiliation.

These numbers remained mostly steady until the 1990s, when something unusual happened: The numbers of Americans who identified as Protestant began to slip. At the same time, more and more Americans were reporting to pollsters that they had no particular religious affiliation. The last year on record in which Protestants as a whole—not just white Protestants—represented a majority of the country was in 2008. By 2014, the religiously unaffiliated rivaled Catholics’ share of the religious marketplace, with each group making up 22 percent of the American population. Looking ahead, there’s no sign that this pattern will fade anytime soon. By 2051, if current trends continue, religiously unaffiliated Americans could comprise as large a percentage of the population as Protestants—which would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago.

The past quarter century’s religious revolution is almost entirely due to the decline of white Protestants. As recently as 1993, 51 percent of Americans identified as white Protestants, but that percentage dropped to 32 percent by 2014. Meanwhile, the number of black Protestants remained steady at around one in 10 Americans, while Hispanic Protestants gained strength, making up 4 percent of Americans by 2014.

Looking still closer, it is clear that the downward trajectory of white Protestants has been due to declines among both mainline and evangelical Protestants. In the late 1980s, the two main branches of white Christian America’s family tree were relatively equal in size: white mainline Protestants comprised 24 percent of the population, while white evangelical Protestants accounted for 22 percent of the population. But beginning in the 1990s and continuing into the early 2000s, leaders of the evangelical sector of white Christian America made much hay of what they called “mainline decline.” Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s flagship Southern Seminary, was a prominent voice in the chorus of evangelical critics who took the flagging mainline numbers to be a vindication of the evangelical project. Mohler’s 2005 essay “When Will They Ever Learn? Mainline Decline in Perspective,” was typical of these critiques:

The mainline denominations have been losing members by the thousands for decades. Many of these churches have become so theologically inclusive, politically liberal, and doctrinally confused that there is no compelling reason for anyone to join anyway. … Sadly, they reject the one way out of their crisis—a return to biblical authority, Gospel preaching, and theological orthodoxy.

It’s true that mainline numbers dropped earlier and more sharply—from 24 percent of the population in 1988 to 14 percent in 2012, at which time their numbers stabilized. But beginning in 2008, white evangelical Protestant numbers began to falter as well. White evangelical Protestants comprised 22 percent of the population in 1988 and still commanded 21 percent of the population in 2008, but their share of religious America has now slipped to 18 percent.

A comparison of the current affiliation patterns of the oldest and youngest Americans, for example, reveals that white evangelicals have actually lost more ground than white mainline Protestants across current generations. White evangelical Protestants constitute 27 percent of seniors age 65 and older, but only 10 percent of Americans under 30 years of age—a loss of nearly two-thirds from the oldest to the youngest generation of adults. By contrast, white mainline Protestants—who saw a reduction in their numbers two decades before evangelical numbers began to dip—account for 20 percent of seniors but 10 percent of younger Americans. This still represents a 50 percent decline in market share across generations, but it is less steep than the evangelical decline. As a result of both lower birth rates among whites and the loss of younger members to disaffiliation, the median age among white Protestants overall has risen by seven years since 1972. In 1972, white Protestants’ median age was 46 years old, only slightly higher than the median age for the American population, which was 44 years old. Today, white Protestants’ median age is 53, while Americans as a whole have a median age of 46. Notably, by 2014, there was no difference between the median ages of white evangelical and mainline Protestants; white evangelical Protestants’ median age was 53, compared to white mainline Protestants’ median age of 52.

These numbers point to one undeniable conclusion: white Protestant Christians—both mainline and evangelical—are aging and quickly losing ground as a proportion of the population.

While these transformations are most pronounced in the general population, they can also be seen—albeit in a delayed fashion—among voters in national elections.

The stair-step downward trajectory of white Christian presence in the electorate over the last three decades is stunningly clear. In 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected to his first term as president, nearly three quarters of the electorate was white and Christian. By 2012, white Christians’ influence had declined precipitously, comprising only 57 percent of the electorate. A linear forecast line based on these trends demonstrates that what might be called a “white Christian strategy”—relying on supermajorities of white Christian votes to offset demographic changes—will yield diminishing returns in each successive national election cycle. White Christians will likely make up 55 percent of voters in 2016 and drop to 52 percent of voters by the following presidential campaign in 2020. If current trends hold steady, 2024 will be a watershed year—the first American election in which white Christians do not constitute a majority of voters.

The chart demonstrates that every midterm election, the GOP essentially gets to rewind the clock. Low turnout among young and minority voters allows the GOP to carry over whatever advantage they had in the last presidential election among white Christian voters into the following midterm election. But even this “midterm time warp” GOP advantage is fading over time. Newt Gingrich’s 1994 revolution relied on an electorate that was 74 percent white and Christian. The more recent Tea Party wave of 2010 banked on an electorate in which 61 percent of voters were white and Christian. And the 2014 Republican gains leveraged an electorate that was only 58 percent white and Christian.

For GOP leaders, the reliably Republican midterm constituency may seem like a bonus—a chance for the party to make up ground and reinforce their connection with their base. But in other important ways, it’s a distraction that undermines the GOP’s long-term goal of creating a more diverse electoral coalition. In this light, it’s easy to see why the Republicans refused to pass immigration reform or loosen their rhetoric on gay rights with a year to go before the midterms.

These actions could have created havoc among their most reliable supporters. But it’s clear that these appeals to white Christians, while helpful in some short-term fights, sealed the fate of the Romney campaign in 2012 and will likely set the GOP back as it turns to the task of reclaiming the White House in 2016.

The numbers demonstrate the shortsightedness of the GOP’s continued reliance on the white Christian strategy in this climate. As data from the National Exit Polls demonstrate, in 1992 the voting coalitions of both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton were mostly white and Christian. President Bush received 86 percent of his support from white Christians, while Clinton’s total was 60 percent. This spread remained steady through both Clinton elections in the 1990s, but the religious composition of partisan voting coalitions subsequently began to drift apart in the 2000s. Even as the proportion of white Christian voters in the electorate dropped from 73 percent in 1992 to 57 percent in 2012, Republican Party candidates including Romney have continued to rely on voting coalitions in which approximately eight out of every 10 supporters are white and Christian. Democratic candidates, by contrast, have more closely followed the changing demographics in the country. Whereas Bill Clinton’s winning coalition in 1992 was 60 percent white Christian, Obama’s winning coalition in 2012 was only 37 percent white Christian. The result is that the white Christian strategy has left Republicans dependent on a steadily shrinking slice of the electorate.

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The American demographic, cultural, and religious landscape is being remade.  These transformations have been swift and dramatic, occurring largely within the last four decades. Many white Americans have sensed these changes taking place all around them, and there has been some media coverage of the demographic piece of the puzzle. But while the country’s shifting racial dynamics alone 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.

Whether one is sympathetic or unsympathetic to white Christian America’s demise, it would be foolish to ignore its descendants, who survive in significant numbers. There is much at stake for the country in whether these survivors retreat into disengaged enclaves, fight on as a beleaguered minority in an attempt to preserve their social values, or find a way to integrate into the new American cultural landscape.

This article has been excerpted from Robert P. Jones’ forthcoming book, The End of White Christian America.