White Christians are no longer the majority faith group in America. In 2008, members of the group composed 54 percent of the of the U.S. population. Today, that figure has fallen to 45 percent.
A new book, “The End of White Christian America,” released July 12, explores how this demographic shift is shaking up American politics and culture. Author Robert P. Jones argues that it’s had a major influence on the 2016 presidential election and led many voters to feel anxious about America’s future.
Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, is a respected religion scholar and cultural commentator. His writings are driven by data, and he said his new book attempts to offer a big picture look at a trend he’s been observing for years.
“I thought about this book for three years before writing. Year after year, one more data point fell into line,” he said.
Jones spoke with the Deseret News about his research, Donald Trump’s surprising popularity among white evangelicals and some popular misconceptions about how religion and politics interact.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: We’re in the midst of a contentious and chaotic election season. Does your book explore how we got to where we are today?
Robert P. Jones: I do think this book goes a long way toward explaining white evangelical support for Donald Trump, which continues to be one of the biggest head scratchers of this election cycle.
How does a thrice-married, casino-owning, cursing candidate garner overwhelming support of white evangelical Protestants throughout the Republican primary?
I think the answer or, at least, one answer that the book provides, is that Trump came onto the national stage at the same time that the curtain was coming down on the era of white Christian America.
What I mean by “white Christian America” is a time in American society when white Protestant Christians, in particular, held the center of political power, economic power and cultural power in the country.
Trump was in his ascendency just as that world was passing from the scene in American public life. The anxieties that many white Christians felt about that shift is something Trump tapped.
DN: How do shifting demographics affect the religious liberty debate?
RJ: The way that religious liberty is used in political life has shifted in last decade, and that’s a direct indication of the transition that the country has experienced.
Attitudes on key cultural issues like gay marriage — an issue that was really at the heart of conservative Christian politics — have changed dramatically.
Whenever you have that kind of rapid change, it does create a sense of vertigo and a sense of worry and anxiety among people.
I think the religious liberty response is, in many ways, a chance to allow conservative Christians to opt out of what’s fast becoming a national consensus. New religious liberty laws are like rearguard action to win a few battles and preserve some space even after losing the war.
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