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The end of white Christian America?

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This Vox piece a few days ago discusses how a new study indicates Trump’s support among white evangelicals is based primarily on his nativist immigration policy:

Burge’s analysis, published Thursday, finds that on issues ranging from border security to immigration detention, white evangelicals — a group that includes dozens of individual denominations, from the Southern Baptist Convention to the Pentecostal movement — are substantially more conservative than the average American and even the next most conservative religious group.

He calculated the share of white evangelicals who supported the policies, the share of the next most conservative religious group who supported the policies, and the share of all respondents who supported the policies.
Evangelicals were consistently the most conservative by a wide margin.

Why are white evangelicals so obsessed with immigration policy? The easy answer is “racism” (this is almost always the correct answer to any question about why any group of white people in America behaves as it does, from Klansmen to Bernie Bros), but it’s more complicated than that, given the striking data in regard to the difference between white evangelicals and even other white Republicans.

This article by Robert Jones, the author of the book The End of White Christian America, provides an answer: according to new data, the decade that ends tomorrow has featured what, if the data are correct, is a truly startling decline in the nation’s white evangelical population, which has as a percentage of the population declined by nearly 30% over the past ten years. This decline is the most striking aspect of another notable decline: the percentage of white America that identifies as Christian of any type.

When I first identified this shift mid-decade in my 2016 book “The End of White Christian America,” I noted that the percentage of white Christians in the general population had dropped from 53 percent to 47 percent between 2010 and 2014 alone. Now, at the end of the decade, only 42 percent of Americans identify as white and Christian, representing a drop of 11 percentage points. . . .

In addition to white American Christianity crossing the majority-minority threshold, the last decade also saw a particularly significant decline within one subgroup: white evangelicals. While the ranks of white mainline Protestants and white Catholics have been shrinking for decades, white evangelical Protestants had seemed immune to the forces eroding membership among other white Christian groups.

But since 2010, the number of white evangelical Protestants has dropped from 21 percent of the population to 15 percent. While white evangelical Protestants have enjoyed an outsized public presence over the last four years because of their predominance in President Donald Trump’s unshakeable base, it is notable that today they are actually roughly the same size as their white mainline Protestant cousins (15 percent vs. 16 percent, respectively).

Two things are going on here: The percentage of the population that identifies as white non-Hispanic is declining steadily, while the percentage of people, and in particular young white people, identifying as religiously non-affiliated has been increasing even more rapidly.

 The simultaneous development in the religious landscape — the one that is turbocharging these trends — is the exodus of young people from white Christian churches and into the ranks of “the nones,” the growing number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation.

As recently as the 1990s, the percentage of religiously unaffiliated Americans was in single digits. That number increased to 19 percent by 2010 and rose another 7 percentage points over the last decade to 26 percent today.

The decline in the percentage of the population that thinks of itself as white non-Hispanic has gotten a lot of attention; the equally striking decrease in the percentage of the population that has even a nominal affiliation with any form of Christianity has gotten much less.

But it seems clear that both trends are key to understanding the reactionary backlash that has taken over the Republican party, and the generalized sense of cultural panic that pervades white Christian — or more accurately “white” “Christian” — America at the moment, and which has been so crucial to the rise of Trumpism in particular:

White Christian America’s attraction to Trump has little to do with his personality or character — a slim majority (52 percent) of white evangelicals, for example, say they wish his speech and behavior were more like previous presidents — and everything to do with something more important: their belief that “making America great again” necessarily entails restoring white Christian demographic and political dominance.

One PRRI survey question right before the 2016 election made the power of this nostalgia especially clear: “Since the 1950s, do you think American culture and way of life has changed for the better, or has it mostly changed for the worse?” Americans are divided nearly equally on this question, with 48 percent saying things have changed for the better and 51 percent for the worse. But solid majorities of white Christian groups — 57 percent of white Catholics, 59 percent of white mainline Protestants and fully 74 percent of white evangelical Protestants — believe things have changed for the worse. Among religiously unaffiliated Americans, nearly two thirds (66 percent) say things have changed for the better.

Culture war issues, especially those revolving around questions of sexual identity, are clearly playing a central role here:

The reasons for these departures from white Christian churches are complex, but many are rooted in the way that culture war politics played out over the last few decades of the 20th century. As white Christian millennials were coming of age, the rise of the Christian Right meant that the public faces of Christianity, and even religion overall, were a cadre of white male religious leaders who were almost exclusively supporting conservative Republican political candidates and who had opposing LGBTQ rights at the top of their agenda.

These commitments were an exceptionally challenging fit for a cosmopolitan cohort that leans progressive and for whom affirming LGBTQ rights is a near-consensus issue. For example, among Americans under the age of 30, only 18 percent identify as conservative while 75 percent support same-sex marriage.

Because throngs of their young people are heading for the church exits, white Christians are also graying as they are shrinking. Today, the median age of white Christians (55 years old) is 7 years older than the general population (48 years old) and 17 years older than religiously unaffiliated Americans (38 years old). [Note: This appears to be an editing error, as these figures probably represent media ages for the adult population. For example the median of the U.S. general population is 38, not 48].

In any event, all these data suggest a couple of big reasons why evangelical white America has been in an even bigger panic recently than it was back in the good old days, when Ronald Reagan was also taking advantage of the paranoid style to make the country white great again.

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