When people sometimes call the United States a Christian nation, they mean different things, depending on who’s talking.
Whatever your concept of our country as Christian — that is, if you have such a concept — it probably needs rethinking in light of a new study of American religious identity.
PRRI, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization, recently conducted the largest study of Americans’ religious affiliations ever undertaken. From January 2016 to January 2017, it interviewed 101,000 people from all 50 states.
The findings, issued in a report called “America’s Changing Religious Identity,” are startling.
If you somehow picture the United States as made up primarily of white Christians, and even more specifically by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants — those infamous WASPs of lore — think again. That country, if it ever existed, is gone forever.
Depending on your own frame of reference, you might reasonably consider that a good thing or a bad thing. Either way, white Christians are a vanishing breed.
PRRI found that only 43 percent of Americans now identify themselves as white Christians. And only 30 percent say they’re white Protestants.
By comparison, as recently as 1976, those numbers were almost twice as high: 81 percent and 55 percent, respectively.
▪ In 2006, white evangelicals constituted nearly one-fourth of Americans, at 23 percent. That has fallen to 17 percent. Scholars had earlier theorized that evangelicals were immune to the gradual losses already seen among other Christian groups, but that has turned out to be wrong. Evangelicals are declining as fast as other Christian groups.
▪ From 2006 to 2016, white Catholics declined from 16 percent to 11 percent of the U.S. population, and white mainline Protestants (Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists and such) fell from 18 percent to 13 percent.
▪ These trends — the country as less white and less Christian, as a PRRI press statement describes it — are even more pronounced among younger Americans, offering us a vision of the future. The trends will, if anything, accelerate.
Among Catholics younger than 30, Hispanics significantly outnumber white non-Hispanics, 52 percent to 36 percent.
Forty-two percent of Muslims, 36 percent of Hindus, 35 percent of Buddhists and 34 percent of the religiously unaffiliated are younger than 30.
Among white Catholics, white evangelicals and white mainline Protestants, the comparative numbers are only 11 percent, 11 percent and 14 percent.
▪ However, at present, members of all non-Christian religious groups combined — Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and so on — account for only about 6 percent of Americans. Instead, the real growth is among those with no religion, who make up 24 percent of the population.
▪ The ranks of the unaffiliated have rapidly increased, but interviewers found that, intriguingly, most don’t consider themselves atheists or agnostics. Almost six in 10 prefer to be described as simply secular or non-religious, and 16 percent say they’re religious but not part of an organization. It’s not so much that all these folks disbelieve in God or are hostile to churches; it’s that they find religion irrelevant.
▪ In 20 states, the unaffiliated equal or outnumber the largest religious group. Most of these states are in the West, along with a few in New England.
▪ The percentage of white Christians in the Democratic Party dropped from 50 percent in 2006 to 29 percent in 2016. Among Democrats younger than 30, that number is 14 percent; 40 percent are religiously unaffiliated.
▪ Among Republicans, white evangelicals make up 35 percent of the party. Almost three-fourths of Republicans identify as some type of white Christian. The GOP remains the last bastion for the old order.
I realize I’ve inundated you with numbers, but they can be simplified to a few observations.
Like a lot of geezers from the rural South, I came along when the overwhelming religious culture — in our part of the country, certainly — was white Protestantism. That’s not to say everybody was white, or devout, or even an occasional churchgoer.
But white Protestant (and in my stomping grounds, largely Southern Baptist) assumptions formed the common language and common ethos. There were no 24-hour TV news networks or instantaneous, international Twitter feeds to contradict us.
Ours was an insular world, but also, for us, a comforting one.
What we find now is that beliefs we assumed to be universally right are those of a minority. A shrinking minority at that.
We are that minority. Not just us WASPs, but white Christians as a whole. What we thought of as self-evident truths are considered by many of our fellow citizens as neither self-evident nor true.
This can be disconcerting.
On the plus side, it might finally furnish us a dose of much-needed reality, not to mention humility.
Maybe we’ll open our eyes and ears to those who differ in color or beliefs. Maybe it’ll become clearer to us that we don’t possess all the answers for everyone, and never did.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.