America is a Christian nation: this much has always been a political axiom, especially for conservatives. Even someone as godless and immoral as the 45th president feels the need to pay lip service to the idea. On the Christian Broadcasting Network last year, he summarized his own theological position with the phrase: “God is the ultimate.”
And in the conservative mind, American Christianity has long been hitched to whiteness. The right learned, over the second half of the 20th century, to talk about this connection using abstractions like “Judeo-Christian values”, alongside coded racial talk, to let voters know which side they were on.
But change is afoot, and US demographics are morphing with potentially far-reaching consequences. Last week, in a report entitled America’s Changing Religious Identity, the nonpartisan research organization Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) concluded that white Christians were now a minority in the US population.
Soon, white people as a whole will be, too.
The survey is no ordinary one. It was based on a huge sample of 101,000 Americans from all 50 states, and concluded that just 43% of the population were white Christians. To put that in perspective, in 1976, eight in 10 Americans were identified as such, and a full 55% were white Protestants. Even as recently as 1996, white Christians were two-thirds of the population.
White Christianity was always rooted in the nation’s history, demographics and culture. Among North America’s earliest and most revered white settlers were Puritan Protestants.
As well as expecting the return of Christ, they sought to mould a pious community which embodied their goals of moral and ecclesiastical purity. They also nurtured a lurid demonology, and hunted and burned supposed witches in their midst. These tendencies – to millennialism, theocracy and scapegoating – have frequently recurred in America’s white Christian culture.
Successive waves of religious revival, beginning in the 18th century, shaped the nation’s politics and its sense of itself. In the 1730s, the preacher Jonathan Edwards sought not only the personal conversion of his listeners, but to bring about Christ’s reign on Earth through an increased influence in the colonies.
As the religious scholar Dale T Irvin writes: “By the time of the American revolution, Edwards’s followers had begun to secularize this vision of a righteous nation that was charged with a redemptive mission in the world”.
This faith informed the 19th-century doctrine of manifest destiny, which held that the spread of white settlement over the entire continent was not only inevitable, but just. The dispossession of native peoples, and the nation’s eventual dominance of the hemisphere, was carried out under an imprimatur with Christian roots.
In the late 20th century, another religious revival fed directly into the successes of conservative politics. Preachers like Billy Graham and Jimmy Swaggart – in spectacular revival meetings and increasingly on television – attracted millions of white converts to churches which emphasized literalist interpretations of the Bible, strict moral teachings and apocalyptic expectations.
In the south, the explosion of evangelical churches coincided with a wave of racial reaction in the wake of the civil rights movement. After being a Democratic stronghold, the south became solidly Republican beginning in the early 1970s. The Republican “southern strategy” used race as a wedge issue to attract white votes in the wake of the civil rights movement, but it also proffered a socially conservative message that gelled with the values of the emerging Christian Right.
In succeeding decades, Republicans have used this mix to help elect presidents, put a lock on Congress, and extend their dominance over the majority of the nation’s statehouses. Leaders of the Christian right became figures of national influence, and especially in the Bush years, public policy was directed to benefit them.
The author of The End of White Christian America, Robert P Jones, says it is “remarkable how fast” the trend is moving. In 2008, white Christians were still 50% of the population, so that “there’s been an 11-point shift since Barack Obama’s election”.
According to Jones, there are two big reasons for this shift.
One is “the disaffiliation of young people in particular from Christian churches”. That is, especially among the young, there are proportionally fewer Christians. If trends continue, that means that there will be fewer and fewer Christians.
While two-thirds of seniors are white Christians, only around a quarter of people 18-29 are. To varying degrees, this has affected almost every Christian denomination – and nearly four in 10 young Americans have no religious affiliation at all.
The “youngest” faiths in America – those with the largest proportion of young adherents – are non-Christian: Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. This reflects the second big driver of white Christian decline: both America and its family of faiths are becoming less white.
The big picture is the steady erosion of America’s white majority. Due mostly to Asian and Hispanic immigration, and the consolidation of already established immigrant populations, white people will be a minority by 2042. This will be true of under-18s as soon as 2023. According to Pew’s projections, in the century between 1965 and 2065, white people will have gone from 85% of the population to 46%.
Perhaps inevitably, this is being reflected in a more diverse religious landscape.
Martin Luther King Jr once lamented: “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.” Even now, historically black denominations exist on parallel tracks with almost exclusively white churches, with little or no changes to their racial makeup.
In the 1980s, white people outnumbered non-white people in Catholic churches by a 10-to-one margin. Now, thanks mostly to a large number of Hispanic parishioners, and the apostasy of young white people, Jones says that the church is “almost reaching parity”, and “in many areas of the country the church is majority Latino”.
From the colonial period onward, explains John Turner, “the vast majority of white settlers would have considered themselves Protestant”.
While the most ingrained narratives of North American history depict it as a haven for minority sects, this varied considerably by colony. “People talk about the US as a Christian nation, but a better description would be a white Protestant nation that often made life uncomfortable for other groups,” says Turner.
He points to anti-Catholic nativism in the 19th century, which was driven by a belief that “the world is divided between Christ and anti-Christ, with Catholics on the other side of the divide”.
This frequently led to violence. In 1834, a mob burned an Ursuline convent near Boston. On 6 August 1855, known afterwards as “Blood Monday”, 22 people died when another mob attacked an Irish Catholic neighborhood.
In 1854 the American party – also known as the “Know Nothings” – won 42 congressional seats on a populist, anti-Catholic platform. Two years later, their presidential candidate, Millard Fillmore, got a fifth of the vote.
Another example of Protestants making life uncomfortable for others was the persecution of America’s own Mormon church, founded in 1830. In the 19th century, Turner says, “many Protestant Americans rejected the idea that Mormonism was really a religion at all”.
Early Mormon history was marked by a series of violent attacks by non-Mormons, and subsequent escapes to new gathering places.
This repeated ostracism and violence led eventually to their overland trek to the Great Salt Lake, far from their often murderous Protestant antagonists, where they founded Utah.
From the 1890s and especially during the Great Depression, Jews were the victims of both ambient antisemitic sentiments and violent hate crimes, especially in the cities of the north-east.
The story of American Protestantism has not been all about persecution, of course. Protestant clergy and lay people have played a part in progressive struggles – from abolition, to the civil rights movement, to manning the barricades in Charlottesville. Many mainstream denominations have a decidedly liberal cast on social and economic issues.
Politicized white Christian identity remains a potent force on the right. Jones points out that the Republican party’s base has remained “overwhelmingly white and Christian”, with their decline inside the GOP tent much less dramatic than in the nation as a whole: their share of the Republican voting coalition declined only slightly over the past decade, from 81% in 2006 to 73% now.
Republican policies and priorities continue to reflect this influence. In the platform adopted at the nomination of Donald Trump, the party affirmed commitments to anti-abortion measures (including the defunding of Planned Parenthood), condemned the supreme court’s decision to allow same-sex marriage, and promised to “bar government discrimination” against individuals and businesses who refused service to same-sex couples.
Trump himself has issued an executive order that prevents the enforcement of the so-called “Johnson amendments”, which stop organizations with tax-exempt status from engaging in partisan political campaigning. These measures have limited the political advocacy of churches on the Christian right, and Trump’s move (which he overstated as a repeal) is a reward to evangelicals.
Even Trump’s promises of a wall and an immigration crackdown reflect the values of white evangelicals, who among all faith groups are the most hostile to immigration.
White Christians are wedded to the GOP; Hawley remarks that “white Christians remain the base of the GOP, and I would expect them to remain so”.
In a two-party system, the overwhelming whiteness of the Republican party has seen Democrats “following the trends, and becoming more diverse”. Democrats are heavily favored by black and Hispanic Americans, including Hispanic Catholics, by young people, and by the growing number of religiously unaffiliated Americans.
For years, these trends have produced optimism among Democrats – their coalition appears to resemble America’s future, whereas the Republicans appear mired in the past, with a shrinking base. Even Republicans have been growing alarmed: the famous “autopsy” document produced by Reince Priebus’s RNC in the wake of Mitt Romney’s defeat urged the party to reach out to Latinos with, among other things, meaningful immigration reform.
A glance at the present, however, shows Republicans in charge of Congress, the presidency, and a majority of statehouses, and Trump looking to implement the stridently anti-immigrant, Christian right-friendly platform he was elected on.
Turner says that in the short term, changing demography will not necessarily guarantee election results: “For a long time people have been saying that the marriage of Republican politics to white Christians was a losing game, but it wasn’t last year.”
And it bears saying that nothing guarantees that Latinos, African Americans, or other non-white groups in America will remain loyal Democrats. White Christianity is not an immutable category. After all, white Catholics and Mormons – formerly the targets of Protestant persecution – have themselves become a part of the white Christian coalition.
Last week John Judis, previously a leading advocate of “demography is destiny” predictions about an emerging Democratic majority, recanted, remarking: “Whiteness is not a genetic category, after all; it is a social and political construct that relies on perception and prejudice. A century ago, Irish, Italians, and Jews were not seen as white.
Jones, though, thinks that even if the trends aren’t decisive in the short term, “sooner or later these demographic realities will show up” in national elections. He adds: “We need to remember how close the 2016 election was.”
He says “there is a lag”, but by 2024 the changes will have become electorally decisive, and for Republicans the problem will increasingly be that “when one part of your base is so large and vocal, it becomes hard to pivot”.
Republicans’ white Christian base in large part wants to slow immigration or even halt it altogether – but it may be that that ship has sailed.
If Republicans cannot change, they may find that the country has changed around them.