The End of White Christian America

February 14, 2018
PRRI CEO Robert Jones
CEO and founder of PRRI Robert Jones. Photo by Randy Bacon Photography.

Robert Jones is the founder and CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to conducting independent research at the intersection of religion, culture, and public policy. On Wednesday, February 21, at 5:15 pm, in the Sperry Room of HDS’s Andover Hall, Jones will discuss his latest book The End of White Christian America, with Washington Post columnist and HDS William H. Bloomberg Visiting Professor E. J. Dionne.

HDS communications reached out to Jones for insight into this seismic change, its impact on the politics and social values of the United States, and its implications for the future.

HDS: Fifty-four percent of the U.S. was white and Christian in 2008, at the start of President Obama's presidency. Two elections cycles later, that number is down to 43 percent. What accounts for this 11 percent dip in just under a decade?

Robert Jones: Two interlocking forces are driving the transformation of the American religious landscape today: 1) demographic changes, including immigration patterns and lower birth rates among white Americans, which are making the country less white; and 2) religious disaffiliation, especially among young people who are increasingly rejecting traditional religious institutions, which is making the country less Christian.

HDS: Is it possible that Trump’s election victory signifies a kind of resurrection of White Christian America? How can there be an end to WCA when white Christians make up the majority of the nation’s most powerful institutions, including all three branches of the federal government?

RJ: The 2016 election was a Hail Mary, if you will, for White Christian America. Donald Trump’s victory was extraordinarily close in the Electoral College, and he lost the popular vote by nearly three million votes. It was largely possible because white Americans, and white evangelicals in particular, turn out to vote at higher rates than other Americans; in other words, they retain out outsize presence at the ballot box even while they are shrinking as a proportion of the general population.

His campaign tapped into deeply held anxieties among white Christians, and his success—especially as a candidate whose personal history and character was so at odds with the professed values of conservative white Christian voters—shows how desperate they are to hold back the tides of change and resurrect the past. Despite the current power arrangements flowing from Trump’s victory, in the long run, I’ve argued that the election of Trump may end up accelerating the changes that white Christian voters hoped to stop.

HDS: According to PRRI’s 2017 American Values Survey, deep divisions among American voters exist on almost every issue. You stated, “The story here is less about who loves their own party, and more about who hates the other party.” Is this a particularly acrimonious time for the American voter, or has the feeling of "hating" the other party more than loving one's own been part of the political landscape for a while?

RJ: We’re in a moment when the allure of partisan tribalism is so strong that voters in the same election can be living in entirely different political realities. The Alabama Senate race in December 2017 was an example of that: Republican and Democratic voters were diametrically opposed on whether the allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct against Roy Moore were true. That election was further evidence, beyond Trump’s election, that partisanship has turned white evangelicals’ political ethics upside down. Faced with serious sexual misconduct claims against both Trump and Moore, what counted most to white evangelical voters was not “moral values,” but that the Democrat lost.

HDS: Today, we are seeing a rise of the religious “nones,” or those who have no religious affiliation. How big of an impact has this rejection of organized religion by young adults had on the downward trajectory of white Protestants?

RJ: It has rapidly accelerated their decline. The decline of white Protestants is only partially about demographic changes—birth rates, immigration, etc. Today, nearly four in 10 Americans under the age of 30 claim no religious affiliation—compared to only about one in ten seniors—and this disaffiliation has come almost entirely at the expense of white Protestants, as well as white Catholics.

HDS: You argue that the descendants of WCA will eventually lose the political power they once had to set the terms of the nation’s debate over values and morals, and to determine election outcomes. If so, then how might white Christians adjust to find their place in the new America, and what are the consequences if they don’t?

RJ: The biggest challenge faced by white Christians is precisely that—finding their place. Historically, as the dominant religious and cultural force in the country, they have been accustomed to seeing themselves as the owners of the national table, who admit others to pull up a chair—as guests. But they have already lost this dominant position in the general population and they will lose this dominant position even at the ballot box by 2024, based on current trends. So, a sectarian retreat is one possible future path, but this seems unlikely to be satisfying to a group that has been at the center of power for so long.

Ultimately, the only other course of action is a different social arrangement, in which white evangelical and white mainline Protestants find their seats at the table alongside Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and the religiously unaffiliated. And this time, they will have to figure out how to settle in as equals around a shared table.

by Michael Naughton and Jonathan Beasley