In conservatives’ preferred vision of America, we are a white Christian nation. And it is true that in the not too far distant past, we were, at least in numerical terms, an overwhelmingly white Christian nation. In 1944, 80 percent of adults were white Christians. But things have changed a lot since then. Today only about 52 percent of adults are white Christians. By 2024, that figure will be down to 45 percent. That means that by the election of 2016, the United States will have ceased to be a white Christian nation. Looking even farther down the road, by 2040 white Christians will be only around 35 percent of the population and conservative white Christians, who have been such a critical part of the GOP base, only about a third of that—a minority within a minority.
Part of this of course is the inexorable march of race-ethnic change. The white share of the population is declining at a rate of about a half percentage point a year and is expected to continue to do so for the next several decades. But the other part of the shift away from white Christians is less well-understood: the rise of religious diversity.
There are two components to the rise of religious diversity: (1) increasing numbers of Americans who practice a non-Christian faith; and (2) increasing numbers of Americans who are secular or unaffiliated with any religion. A recent Pew report sheds light on these important trends.
The Pew report aggregates data from their surveys between 2007 and 2012. They found that those of non-Christian faiths have gone up from 4 to 6 percent over the time period, while those who are religiously unaffiliated have gone from 15 to nearly 20 percent of adults. This is an astonishing rate of change, particularly for the unaffiliated who, according to some projections, were only supposed to hit 20 percent around the middle of the next decade. This group’s growth is clearly way ahead of expectations.
Part of the reason for this rapid growth is generational. Pew’s study notes that, among the youngest Millennial adults—those born 1990-1994, over a third (34 percent) have no religious affiliation.
There are significant social and political implications to these trends. Pew and other data consistently show how liberal the unaffiliated are, particularly on social issues. And they vote that way: in the 2012 exit poll, the unaffiliated supported Obama over Romney, 70-26. In addition, those of non-Christian faiths supported Obama by 72-27. To add to conservatives’ woes, their strongest group, white evangelical protestants (78-21 Romney) actually declined by 2 percentage points in the 2007-2012 time period.
Even conservatives should be able to do the math. It’s time to give up on America as a white Christian nation and fully embrace its diversity–race-ethnic and religious.