Demographers have long tracked the rise of the “nones”—people who don’t identify with any particular religion. The Public Religion Research Institute has found that this trend has a racial component. “Overall, white Americans are significantly more likely to be disconnected from religion than ... non-white Americans,” said Dan Cox, PRRI’s research director, in an email. “They are 2.5 times more likely to say that they seldom or never attend religious services and nearly twice (1.7 times) as likely to identify as religiously unaffiliated.”
What’s interesting is that this might also have a class component. Back in October, PRRI and The Atlantic conducted a study of white, working-class voters—the Americans, it turned out, who were so important to Trump’s victory in states like Pennsylvania and Michigan. Unlike other pollsters, they defined “working class” as people without a college degree who are also paid by the hour or the job, meaning white-collar workers were excluded.
Compared to their white, college-educated peers, these working-class Americans were more likely not to attend religious services. Of the people in their late 30s and 40s, half said they seldom or never go, compared to less than a third of college-educated people in that age group. In general, white people under 35 are unlikely to be big church-goers: Nearly half of both the working class and the college-educated said they rarely or never attend services. But young, highly educated white people still claim to be religious: Only 31 percent of this group said they’re not affiliated with any particular faith, while 43 percent of young, white working-class people said the same.
This matters for politics. “They’re going to be missing one of the major pipelines toward voting and civic participation,” said Robby Jones, the CEO of PRRI, in an interview. “Churches have served, for most of the nation’s life, as pipelines to all kinds of civic engagement—and not just because they hand out voter-registration cards or have them in the lobby. We actually see a link between all kinds of civic activity and church activity.”
This pattern shows up in PRRI’s research. White working-class Americans of all ages were much less likely than their college-educated peers to participate in sports teams, book clubs, or neighborhood associations—55 percent vs. 31 percent said they seldom or never participated in those kinds of activities. Especially for young white voters, “there’s a real question whether … there will be a lower civic participation rate over that cohort’s entire lifespan,” Jones said, including everything from voting in elections to being involved in community groups.
This will have consequences for Democrats and Republicans alike. “The parties are increasingly divided by race and religion,” Jones noted. Each party has to wrestle with what America’s demographic changes mean for its future, including the growing share of non-white citizens and the aging of the white generation that was once more involved in religious and civic life, if only by default.