White Christians are no longer the majority faith group in America. In 2008, members of the group composed 54 percent of the of the U.S. population. Today, that figure has fallen to 45 percent.
A new book, "The End of White Christian America," released July 12, explores how this demographic shift is shaking up American politics and culture. Author Robert P. Jones argues that it's had a major influence on the 2016 presidential election and led many voters to feel anxious about America's future.
Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, is a respected religion scholar and cultural commentator. His writings are driven by data, and he said his new book attempts to offer a big picture look at a trend he's been observing for years.
"I thought about this book for three years before writing. Year after year, one more data point fell into line," he said.
Jones spoke with the Deseret News about his research, Donald Trump's surprising popularity among white evangelicals and some popular misconceptions about how religion and politics interact.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: We're in the midst of a contentious and chaotic election season. Does your book explore how we got to where we are today?
Robert P. Jones: I do think this book goes a long way toward explaining white evangelical support for Donald Trump, which continues to be one of the biggest head scratchers of this election cycle.
How does a thrice-married, casino-owning, cursing candidate garner overwhelming support of white evangelical Protestants throughout the Republican primary?
I think the answer or, at least, one answer that the book provides, is that Trump came onto the national stage at the same time that the curtain was coming down on the era of white Christian America.
What I mean by "white Christian America" is a time in American society when white Protestant Christians, in particular, held the center of political power, economic power and cultural power in the country.
Trump was in his ascendency just as that world was passing from the scene in American public life. The anxieties that many white Christians felt about that shift is something Trump tapped.
DN: How do shifting demographics affect the religious liberty debate?
RJ: The way that religious liberty is used in political life has shifted in last decade, and that's a direct indication of the transition that the country has experienced.
Attitudes on key cultural issues like gay marriage — an issue that was really at the heart of conservative Christian politics — have changed dramatically.
Whenever you have that kind of rapid change, it does create a sense of vertigo and a sense of worry and anxiety among people.
I think the religious liberty response is, in many ways, a chance to allow conservative Christians to opt out of what’s fast becoming a national consensus. New religious liberty laws are like rearguard action to win a few battles and preserve some space even after losing the war.
DN: Do white Christians approach politics now like they've lost the battle?
RJ: That's a key question.
At the end of the book, I use the stages of grief to analyze where white Christians are, and they're in different places.
The more liberal, mainline denominations have had a few more decades to sort this out. Their decline began in the 1970s, so they've had a longer time to move from anger, denial, and depression towards acceptance.
But the evangelical world has only seen decline for about the last decade. The Southern Baptist convention — the largest evangelical Christian group — has seen nine straight years of membership losses. That’s a really new phenomenon.
It's not surprising that the evangelical world is having a tougher time dealing with new political realities. I do think there’s a fight right now in the evangelical world over what to do.
You have voices like Franklin Graham, leaders who are very much about taking back the moral center and restoring white conservative Christianity.
Then there are people like Russell Moore who say, "No, actually we’re going to have to come to terms with this. How do we live out our faith in a world where we’re no longer the majority?"
DN: What do people often get wrong about the relationship between religion and politics?
RJ: I think, on both the right and the left, there has often been a misconception that religious identity drives everything.
But if you look, for example, at African-American Protestants and white evangelical Protestants, they're so similar in terms of frequency of going to church, views on the Bible and understandings of gender roles.
However, if you look at these two groups' views on political issues, they are wildly divergent. It’s mostly race and partisanship that's pulling them in separate directions.
It has become very clear to me that it’s a complex mix of theology, race and partisanship that really has created the world that we have in our country today.
DN: Why did you want to write this book?
RJ: PRRI does 90,000 interviews or so a year. When you have that much data in front of you, it's a challenge to step back and see broader patterns.
As I began to try to do that over last few years, it occurred to me that we had passed this threshold of a majority white Christian America. There wasn't much attention paid to it.
This shift wasn't just in the numbers. There were symbolic changes, too. We elected our first African-American president and lost the last Protestant on the Supreme Court.
Even though people didn’t know the statistics (for white Christians) you could see that the visceral reactions to issues like race and same-sex marriage were being fueled by something extra.
That extra energy is what I was interested in.
In many cases, it was a sense of anxiety, vulnerability and a strong sense of nostalgia for a world that was slipping away.
DN: Who did you write this book for?
RJ: At the end of the book, I try to address the various audiences that I think care about the end of white Christian America.
One group is obviously the world of White Christian America, which used to be more than half the country and still is almost half the country. That’s a big group of people.
Another group that came to life around the 2004 election and the whole "Values Voter" phenomenon is the neo-atheist crowd.
There are certainly some of those people who are happily dancing on the grave of white Christian America. But I think it's worth saying that when you look around at the institutions, hospitals and civic organizations in our country that were built by white Christians, we're indebted to them.
It’s unclear to me — as white Christians move from the center of public life — what is going to fill the civic gap they’re leaving behind. If it’s not filled by something, our shared civic life will be the lesser for it.
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