Since the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans (the “Nones”) has grown to almost 25 percent of the general population and over a third of the Millennial generation in the United States, the humanist movement has been anticipating the decline of conservative Christians’ cultural and political power. However, in spite of the rise of the Nones, our policies are still shaped by conservative, white Christians. Efforts to erode the gains made by church/state separation activists, the reproductive rights movement, and the LGBTQ movement manifest in an increasing number of bills that attempt to create special privilege for Christians who wish to discriminate against same-sex couples, transgender individuals, and atheists and humanists. This so-called religious freedom issue is just one of many that Public Religion Research Institute CEO Robert P. Jones explores in his new book, The End of White Christian America. Yesterday, in anticipation of the release of his book, Jones gave a talk at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, with E. J. Dionne and William A. Galston moderating the discussion.
Since the 1970s, Jones asserted, the number of white Christians in America has been declining, though perhaps the most significant decline can be observed in the past eight years as the number of white, evangelical Christians has dropped off. Not only has affiliation with this group decreased—the broader population’s adherence to the morals and values of white Christian America has plummeted. Jones identified the tipping point for this divergence in the jump in public support for marriage equality and for equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans more generally. White Christians were once able to comfortably assume that nearly all Americans shared their convictions about what was right and wrong. But the Moral Majority has rapidly becoming a moral minority, especially in its views about same-sex marriage. By 2024, Jones predicted that only 48 percent of the electorate will be white and Christian.
Jones also explained that while white Christians are declining rapidly as an overall percentage of the US population, they’re still more likely to vote than other segments of the population, meaning that their political hold, while weakening, is hardly disappearing. He observed that in order to maintain their political power, white Protestant Christians have actually backed down from many of their previous animosities against groups like Catholics and Mormons, a move that he referred to as a “triumph of ideology over theology.” The result, Jones explained, is that the religious and racial makeup of elected officials lags behind these changes in the US population, a fact already familiar to humanists who would like to see more politicians openly identifying as “Nones,” humanists, atheists, and agnostics. By remaining a powerful force in the electorate despite their demographic decline, white Christians are attempting to continue enforcing their views on the rest of the nation.
How successful these attempts will be remains to be seen, but Jones strongly cautioned against the nostalgia for a homogenous, white Christian America. In the data that Jones examined while writing his book, he found deep divides in attitudes about the current state of the Union. While unaffiliated Americans, African Americans, Latinos, and Democrats all felt that the country had gotten better since the 1950s, white evangelical Protestants, members of the Tea Party, white mainline Protestants, and Republicans all felt it had gotten worse. While Jones focused these results on religious and racial concerns, he did not discuss other reasons, such as economic concerns, that may influence Americans’ sense that the country is improving or declining. For instance, among political independents, 56 percent felt that the country was getting worse, while 43 percent felt it was getting better. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of political independents in the United States overall has now eclipsed party affiliation, and among millennials, many of whom are burdened by college debt, 48 percent are independent. This muddies Jones’s rather simplistic divide of the country into millennial “Nones” and elderly Christians. However, his overall point—that there are radically different views about the current state of our nation—remains sound.
While white Christians may not be able to organically bring about a return to the cultural power that they previously held, they may try to use the political power that they still have to force such a return. Jones warned against this “temptation to resurrect and 1950s Protestant dominance,” which he feared would “provide a monstrosity akin to Frankenstein” propped up by a dangerous power enforced upon the people, not arising from them. In discussing an attempt to artificially impose conservative, white Christian dominance on US culture, Jones pointed to a number of evangelical Christian leaders like James Dobson and Robert Jeffress who have backed Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, despite the many ways in which Trump’s lifestyle diverges from evangelical Christian ideals. In a New York Times editorial published yesterday, Jones noted that because of their decline, many evangelicals are looking for an authoritarian figure who will lead them back to their previous strength and greatness, never mind that he is willing to ignore the Constitution to do so. While humanists have largely anticipated the end of white, Christian America, we must also be on guard against attempts by conservative, white Christians to impose their cultural and political authority through strongmen politicians like Trump.
Humanists may be winning the culture wars, but we must continue to fight politically to ensure that our increasing cultural clout isn’t lost. Even as we continue to guard the separation of church and state, LGBTQ rights, and women’s rights, we also must recognize that nostalgia for the 1950s and the desire to “Make America Great Again” can be attributed to the economic precariousness of the middle and working classes as much as it can stem from a conservative, white Christian desire for a return to power. With that in mind, humanists should work to build a secular America that values the equality and human dignity of all people and also recognizes the economic concerns of many white Christians. We should be gracious victors of the culture wars, and we should take seriously Jones’s closing recommendation that the American narrative must include a space for white Christians, even if it no longer centers on their perspective. With that in mind, humanists must include interfaith dialogue with white Christians, even as we build our own movement from the increasing numbers of religiously unaffiliated Americans. The alternative may be an imposition of conservative, white Christian values through Donald Trump or a similarly authoritarian politician. Above all, humanists must be vigilant in advocating for our constitutional rights and civil liberties.