Surveying the Demise of White American Christianity

The 2016 election laid bare the underbelly of Christianity with over 81 percent of white evangelicals casting their vote for Donald J. Trump. In the person of Trump one finds the coming together of American evangelicalism, the prosperity gospel, and white nationalist pride. Some pundits may claim that this Stephen King-inspired clown represents the demise of Christianity. However, as the data shows, white Americans began leaving Christianity and becoming religiously unaffiliated well before the emergence of this “Trumped up” theology.

A report, titled “America’s Changing Religious Identity,” was released last week by PRRI (the Public Religion Research Institute), and summarizes the largest survey of American religious and denominational identity ever conducted. These findings come from PRRI’s American Values Atlas, based on interviews with more than 101,000 Americans from all fifty states.

Presently, white Christians account for considerably less than half of the US population, with only 43 percent of white Americans identifying as Christians. In 1976, roughly 81 percent of white Americans identified as Christian, a number that dropped to 54 percent by 2006. When one factors in people of color, the total percentage of Americans who self-identify as Christians rises to 69 percent.

This report also points to the sharp growth of the religiously unaffiliated, with 24 percent of those surveyed stating they do not identify with any particular religion. Among the unaffiliated, men outnumber women: 55 to 45 percent. Also, in surveying LGBT Americans, one finds that nearly half (46 percent) of Americans who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender are religiously unaffiliated. When broken down by race, the number of religiously unaffiliated breaks down as follows: 25 percent of whites, 19 percent of blacks, 20 percent of Hispanics, and 34 percent of Asian and Pacific Islanders.

These numbers point more toward a rise in secularism rather than atheism or agnosticism per se. Nearly six in ten (58 percent) religiously unaffiliated Americans identify as secular, or someone who is not religious. Only 27 percent of all religiously unaffiliated Americans identify as atheists or agnostics. Some 16 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans identify as a “religious person.”

These numbers point to a future where the United States will be less white and less Christian. At least a third of those who identified as Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or religiously unaffiliated are under the age of thirty. Conversely, less than 15 percent of white Christians (Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and mainline Protestants together) are under thirty.

There are now twenty states in which the religiously unaffiliated are the plurality of residents. In particular, more than four in ten (41 percent) residents of Vermont and approximately one-third of Americans in Oregon (36 percent), Washington (35 percent), Hawaii (34 percent), Colorado (33 percent), and New Hampshire (33 percent) identify as religiously unaffiliated.

In assessing how these demographic shifts impact the political sphere, fewer than one in three Democrats (29 percent) are white Christian, compared to nearly half (47 percent) one decade earlier. Conversely, three-quarters (73 percent) of Republicans belong to a white Christian religious group. Religiously unaffiliated Americans are more likely to identify as independent (47%) than they are to identify as Democratic (33%) or Republican (11%) combined. Among the religiously unaffiliated subgroups, atheists are more Democratic leaning, with more than four in ten (44%) identifying as Democrat.

So, while church leaders may promise, “if you build a better church, they will come,” the statistics indicate that Americans, especially those under thirty, have already left the building. However, one cannot interpret that these individuals are becoming part of any organized humanist or atheist movement at this juncture. For now, the majority of those exiting Christianity remain unaffiliated with any spiritual entity, religious or secular.