Is “white Christian America” dead? And who is the man sounding its death knell?
In a recently released report, “America’s Changing Religious Identity,” the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) reported that 43 percent of all adult Americans identify as both white and Christian and only 30 percent identify as white and Protestant. This is a dramatic decline from four decades ago, PRRI noted, when white Christians accounted for 81 percent of Americans, and 55 percent were white Protestant.
Mississippi native Robert P. Jones is the founding CEO of PRRI, whose recent statistics echo the theme of his 2016 book, “The End of White Christian America.” In the book Jones ties the dramatic demographic shift to current political, social and racial divisions in the U.S.
Jones is no stranger to the topic. He holds a Ph.D. in religion from Emory University in Atlanta and a master of divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. A leading voice on religion, values and public life, Jones co-chairs the national steering committee for the Religion and Politics Section at the American Academy of Religion.
Religious affiliation statistics reflected in the September 2017 PRRI report, co-authored by Jones and PRRI research director Daniel Cox, were drawn from 2016 surveys of 101,000 Americans in all 50 states. While ethnic diversity because of such factors as immigration contributes to a small portion of the decline in white Christian church membership, most of the decline hails from rising numbers of people claiming no religious affiliation, especially young adults.
Baptists remain largest group
While some U.S. regions are growing more religiously diverse, the Deep South remains solidly in the “white Christian” camp. Mississippi is the least religiously diverse state, followed closely by Alabama. Though posting declines along with other Protestant denominations, Baptists continue to dominate the American religious scene.
“Among Protestants in the U.S., Baptists are the largest denominational family. Roughly one-third (32 percent) of all Protestants identify with some Baptist denomination, at least three times the number who identify with the next largest denominational families — Methodist (10 percent), Pentecostal (10 percent) and Lutheran (8 percent),” the PRRI report noted.
Beyond issues of salvation and empty pews, what do all these numbers mean?
The erosion of the white Christian majority represents nothing less than a seismic shift in American politics and policy, Jones contends.
“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,” Jones wrote.
Church services still segregated
Church services, as Martin Luther King once observed, continue to occupy the most segregated time of the week.
That segregation, along with previous majority status, has insulated white Christians from the issues of an increasingly diverse population, Jones suggests.
“America’s still-segregated modern life is marked by three realities,” according to Jones. “First geographic segregation has meant that … most white Americans continue to live in locales that insulate them from the obstacles facing many majority-black communities. Second … the overwhelming majority of white Americans don’t have a single close relationship with a person who isn’t white. Third there are virtually no American institutions positioned to resolve these persistent problems of systemic and social segregation,” he writes.
“It’s no longer possible to believe that White Christian America sets the tone for the country’s culture as a whole.”
Could highly publicized study be inaccurate?
A recent study by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) shows evangelicals as losing members at a rapid rate — from 23 percent in 2006 to 17 percent of Americans in 2016.
And for those who are staying, the crowd is more diverse than it used to be, the study shows. One in three American evangelicals is a person of color, and white Christians, who made up 81 percent of Americans in 1976, now account for less than half of the population, according to PRRI.
The study, “America’s Changing Religious Identity,” gleaned data from more than 101,000 Americans across every state and has an overall margin of error of plus or minus 0.4 percentage points.
But not everyone agrees that the survey is an accurate representation of the state of evangelicals. Several scholars, including Tobin Grant, department chair of political science at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, have challenged the data.
“The decline that they (PRRI) show in their survey doesn’t match what we see in other surveys that are of higher quality and are seen as more accurate,” Grant said, according to The Christian Post. He cited a General Social Survey (GSS) graph of “white (not latino) ‘Born Again’” Christians, which shows a mostly flat line from 2004 to 2016 at around 20 percent.
Andrew R. Lewis, assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio, and Ryan P. Burge, who teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, also took issue with PRRI’s report, according to the Post. They backed up their dissenting position with findings from both the GSS and the Cooperative Congressional Election Study.
Both of those studies, they noted, also used large, national samples and included two approaches to measuring evangelicals — affiliation with specific denominations and self-identification with evangelicalism.
GSS showed “evangelicals by affiliation” declining by 2–3 percent and “evangelicals by self-identification” — the category the PRRI used — remaining constant.
“In the CCES evangelicals by self-identification actually increase from the 2008 baseline, while evangelicals by affiliation remain relatively constant. In fact the only statistically significant change in all the data is an increase in self-identified evangelicals in the CCES from 2008 to 2012 (and nearly 2016),” Lewis and Burge wrote.
Grant said “no survey is perfect,” but he noted that the GSS is “considered the gold standard on how to do a survey on these types of questions,” according to the Post.
But Robert P. Jones, PRRI’s CEO and author of “The End of White Christian America,” said the study is “solid evidence of a new, second wave of white Christian decline that is occurring among white evangelical Protestants just over the last decade.”