A new study reports that white Christians, long understood to be the primary shapers of American politics and culture, are rapidly losing their majority status across the country — even in traditionally conservative states.
Earlier this week, Jonathan Merritt of the Religion News Service dug into data from the American Values Atlas, a website unveiled late last year by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) that aggregates polling information on the political opinions, values, and religious affiliations of Americans. The wealth of data is a lot to sift through, but Merritt pointed to a striking revelation: white Christians, once the majority in virtually every major population area in America, are now a minority in 19 states.
For their surveys, PRRI defines “white Christian” as evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians who list their identity as “white, non-Hispanic.” (Interestingly, PRRI also includes white Mormons in this group, who are sometimes listed by sociologists as separate from the rest of Christianity due to their unique religious views and texts.)
Taken together, the PRRI data and Merritt’s analysis highlight several areas where white Christians are now the minority. Some states on this new list are fairly predictable, such as Hawaii, the only majority-minority state in America, and California, home to two of the top five most-diverse counties in the nation.
“Hawaii and California have the smallest white Christian populations of any state — 20 percent and 25 percent, respectively,” Joanna Piacenza, an editor and communications associate at PRRI, noted in a blog post.
But the list of states also revealed some surprises, and included several conservative, historically-white, church-going “red states” such as Texas, Georgia, and Louisiana.
A map of the states — along with the proportion of white Christians — is below (or click here for a larger version).
The forces driving these changes appear to be rooted in three major demographic shifts. The first is the swift growth of the so-called “religiously unaffiliated,” or Americans who do not ascribe to one particular religious group. The category is complex — many unaffiliated say they still believe in God, and only a small percentage identify as atheists or agnostics — but their numbers are expanding. They now represent 22 percent of the general population, 34 percent of Millennials aged 18–22, and are the number one “religious” group in 13 states, primarily in the Pacific Northwest or the Northeast.
Meanwhile, PRRI also reports that evangelicals are seeing a surge of non-white churchgoers, and American Catholicism is becoming increasingly Hispanic. These trends are changing the face of American Christianity, and the same survey also revealed that, for the first time in the nation’s history, the United States is not a majority Protestant Christian country overall.
This uptick in racial and religious diversity is intellectually fascinating in and of itself, but it also stands to pay real dividends for progressives at the ballot box. Hispanic Catholics overwhelmingly support immigration reform, and are also disproportionately concerned about issues of climate change. Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated are far more likely than the general population to back same-sex marriage, and a solid 72 percent believe that abortion should be “legal in all/most cases.” Given that these new populations are showing up more and more in conservative states, the traditional mainstays of Republican Party politics — namely, opposition to immigration reform and LGBT rights — are likely to prove far less persuasive to America’s increasingly diverse population.