Yesterday’s post referencing religious exemptions from child neglect and abuse laws joined a number of prior posts considering the intersection of religion–usually, but not always, conservative Christianity–with legal and constitutional requirements of civic equality and public safety.
Given that ongoing focus, you can understand why a recent headline in the Washington Post caught my eye. It read “White Christian America is Dying,” which turned out to be an interview with the author of a just-issued book titled “The End of White Christian America.”
The book (eulogy??) was written by Robert P. Jones, founding CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). Jones’ analysis is particularly timely because–despite having been written before Trump entered the Presidential race– it offers an explanation of The Donald’s support among white Evangelicals.
As Jones noted in the course of the interview,
Trump’s appeal to evangelicals was not that he was one of them but that he would “restore power to the Christian churches” if he were elected president. This explicit promise, along with his anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, signaled to white evangelical voters that when he crowed about “Making America Great Again,” he meant turning back the clock to a time when conservative white Christians held more influence in the culture. Trump has essentially converted these self-described “values voters” into “nostalgia voters.”
If PRRI’s research is accurate, there are not nearly enough of these “nostalgia voters” to elect Trump or anyone else; furthermore, their ranks are steadily–and rapidly– diminishing.
According to PRRI research, young adults between the ages of 18 to 29 are less than half as likely to be white Christians as seniors age 65 and older. Nearly 7 in 10 American seniors are white Christians; fewer than 3 in 10 young adults are in that category.
Some of this, obviously, is due to large-scale demographic shifts — including immigration patterns and differential birth rates. But Jones notes that the other major cause is young adults’ rejection of organized religion–they are three times as likely as seniors to claim no religious affiliation.
It is notable that the decline measured by PRRI is not limited to mainline Protestant churches, which was the narrative a few years ago. Membership in Evangelical congregations and suburban “mega” churches has dropped substantially as well. As a result, the white evangelical Protestants who made up 22 percent of the population in 1988 were down to 17 percent in 2015.
Looking ahead, there’s no sign that this pattern will fade anytime soon. By 2051, if current trends continue, religiously unaffiliated Americans could comprise as large a percentage of the population as all Protestants combined — a thought that would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago.
The obvious question is, what has caused this precipitous decline? PRRI’s answer to that question prompted the reference to karma in the title of this post.
When PRRI surveys have asked religiously unaffiliated Americans who were raised religious why they left their childhood religion, respondents have given a variety of reasons — stopped believing in teachings, conflicts with science, lack of time, etc. — but one issue stands out, particularly for younger Americans. About 70 percent of millennials (ages 18-33) believe that religious groups are alienating young adults by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues. And 31 percent of millennials who were raised religious but now claim no religious affiliation report that negative teaching about or treatment of gay and lesbian people by religious organizations was a somewhat or very important factor in their leaving.
In other words, every time self-identified “Christians” use religion as an excuse to marginalize gays and discriminate against LGBTQ citizens, they increase the rate at which their churches decline. (Karma really is a delightful bitch…)