A once powerful demographic group is losing ground in American politics.
For most of the country’s history, white Christian America—the cultural and political edifice built primarily by white Protestant Christians—set the tone for our national conversations and shaped American ideals. But today, many white Christian Americans feel profoundly anxious as their numbers and influence are waning. The two primary branches of their family tree, white mainline and white evangelical Protestants, offer competing narratives about their decline. White mainline Protestants blame evangelical Protestants for turning off the younger generation with their anti-gay rhetoric and tendency to conflate Christianity with conservative, nationalist politics. White evangelical Protestants, on the other hand, blame mainline Protestants for undermining Christianity because of their willingness to sell out traditional beliefs to accommodate contemporary culture.
The key question is not why one white Protestant subgroup is faring worse than another, but why white Protestantism as a whole—arguably the most powerful cultural force in the history of the United States—has faded. The answer is, in part, a matter of powerful demographic changes.
In 2004, the same year that Americans reelected George W. Bush as president, the U.S. Census Bureau made waves by predicting that by 2050 the United States would no longer be a majority-white nation. Four years later, when Americans elected Barack Obama as their first African American head of state, the Census Bureau lowered that threshold year to 2042. When Obama was reelected in 2012, population experts forecasted that by 2060 whites will see their numbers decline for the first time in American history, while the number of people who identify as multiracial will nearly triple and the number of Hispanics and Asians will more than double. Mark Mather, a demographer with the Population Reference Bureau, summed up the magnitude of these shifts for The New York Times: “No other country has experienced such rapid racial and ethnic change.”
These racial and ethnic changes are dramatic, but they only partially account for the sense of dislocation many whites feel. In order to understand the magnitude of the shift, it’s important to also assess white Christian America’s waning cultural influence. It’s impossible to grasp the depth of many white Americans’ anxieties and fears—or comprehend recent phenomena like the rise of the Tea Party or Donald Trump in American politics, the zealous tone of the final battles over gay rights, or the racial tensions that have spiked over the last few years—without understanding that, along with its population, America’s religious and cultural landscape is being fundamentally altered.
Looking at the numbers, two features immediately jump out. First, the proportion of white Christians (including Protestants and Catholics) in the country, while still comprising the largest single wedge in the pie chart, has slipped below a majority to 47 percent. Moreover, if that measure is restricted to include only the direct descendants of white Christian America—white mainline Protestants and white evangelical Protestants—the number decreases to only 32 percent of Americans. Second, the religiously unaffiliated—a group that is growing rapidly—comprise more than one in five Americans today.
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