Christian Americans proved to be a massive voting force in the 2016 presidential election, making up at least 75 percent of voters. Majorities of Protestants, Catholics and Mormons threw their support behind now-President Donald Trump ― and none so enthusiastically as white evangelicals.
But deep shifts in the racial and religious makeup of the United States led some commentators to call the election a “last hurrah” and a “death rattle” for white Christian America. Findings from a major new study by Public Religion Research Institute lend added weight to that analysis.
White Christians make up less than half of the U.S. population, according to PRRI’s 2016 poll of more than 101,000 Americans across all 50 states. The survey found that just 43 percent of Americans identify as white and Christian, and only 30 percent identify as white and Protestant.
In 40 years, the population of white Christians has dropped nearly in half. A 1976 General Social Survey found that 81 percent of Americans identified as white and Christian, and a majority ― 55 percent ― were white Protestants.
PRRI also found that some of the biggest and swiftest declines in the white Christian population have occurred in recent years. In 1996, for instance, white Christians still made up almost two-thirds of the public. By 2006, that number was already down to 54 percent.
“This report provides solid evidence of a new, second wave of white Christian decline that is occurring among white evangelical Protestants just over the last decade in the U.S.,” Robert P. Jones, PRRI CEO and author of The End of White Christian America, said in a statement.
Christians of all races and denominations still make up nearly 70 percent of the U.S. population. But that number is likely to shrink as the much younger populations of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists continue to grow.
The share of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated make up 24 percent of the U.S. population. Among the youngest Americans PRRI surveyed ― 18-29 year olds ― 38 percent are religiously unaffiliated.
But the changing face of American religion isn’t reflected in the country’s governing elite. More than 90 percent of the sitting members of Congress identify as Christian.
And Trump still counts white evangelicals among his strongest supporters and closest confidantes, an alliance that has major implications for policy decisions that affect Americans at large.
But white evangelicals, who make up just 17 percent of the American public, are also the oldest religious group in the country, according to PRRI’s study. And a larger trend of Christian conservatism may struggle to continue without them.
“So often, white evangelicals have been pointing in judgment to white mainline groups, saying when you have liberal theology you decline,” Jones told the Associated Press. “I think this data really does challenge that interpretation of linking theological conservatism and growth.”