The Eclipse of White Christian America
- A once powerful demographic group is losing ground in American politics.
- 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 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.
- …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.
- …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.
- …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.
- ….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.
- ….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.
- …The stair-step downward trajectory of white Christian presence in the electorate over the last three decades is stunningly clear.
- ..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.
- …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.
- ….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.