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Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

America's Changing Religious Identity

In a study just released by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), the verdict is clear: “The American religious landscape is undergoing a dramatic transformation.”

Some headlines:

  • White Christians, once the dominant religious group in the U.S., now account for fewer than half of all adults living in the country.
  • Today, fewer than half of all states are majority white Christian. As recently as 2007, 39 states had majority white Christian populations.

These are just two of the major findings from PRRI’s American Values Atlas, the single largest survey of American religious and denominational identity ever conducted.

Here are the 14 top findings:

1.   White Christians now account for fewer than half of the public. Today, only 43% of Americans identify as white and Christian, and only 30% as white and Protestant. In 1976, roughly eight in ten (81%) Americans identified as white and identified with a Christian denomination, and a majority (55%) were white Protestants.

2.   White evangelical Protestants are in decline—along with white mainline Protestants and white Catholics. White evangelical Protestants were once thought to be bucking a longer trend, but over the past decade their numbers have dropped substantially. Fewer than one in five (17%) Americans are white evangelical Protestants, but they accounted for nearly one-quarter (23%) in 2006. Over the same period, white Catholics dropped five percentage points from 16% to 11%, as have white mainline Protestants, from 18% to 13%.

3.   Non-Christian religious groups are growing, but they still represent less than one in ten Americans combined. Jewish Americans constitute 2% of the public while Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus each constitute only 1% of the public. All other non-Christian religions constitute an additional 1%.

4.   America’s youngest religious groups are all non-Christian. Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists are all far younger than white Christian groups. At least one-third of Muslims (42%), Hindus (36%) and Buddhists (35%) are under the age of 30. Roughly one-third (34%) of religiously unaffiliated Americans are also under 30. In contrast, white Christian groups are aging. Slightly more than one in ten white Catholics (11%), white evangelical Protestants (11%) and white mainline Protestants (14%) are under 30. Approximately six in ten white evangelical Protestants (62%), white Catholics (62%) and white mainline Protestants (59%) are at least 50 years old.

5.   The Catholic Church is experiencing an ethnic transformation. Twenty-five years ago, nearly nine in ten (87%) Catholics were white, non-Hispanic, compared to 55% today. Fewer than four in ten (36%) Catholics under the age of 30 are white, non-Hispanic; 52% are Hispanic.

6.   Atheists and agnostics account for a minority of all religiously unaffiliated. Most are secular. Atheists and agnostics account for only about one-quarter (27%) of all religiously unaffiliated Americans. Nearly six in ten (58%) religiously unaffiliated Americans identify as secular, someone who is not religious; 16% of religiously unaffiliated Americans nonetheless report that they identify as a “religious person.”

7.   There are 20 states where no religious group comprises a greater share of residents than the religiously unaffiliated. These states tend to be concentrated in the Western U.S., although they include a couple of New England states, as well. More than four in ten (41%) residents of Vermont and approximately one-third of Americans in Oregon (36%), Washington (35%), Hawaii (34%), Colorado (33%) and New Hampshire (33%) are religiously unaffiliated.

8.   No state is less religiously diverse than Mississippi. The state is heavily Protestant and dominated by a single denomination: Baptist. Six in ten (60%) Protestants in Mississippi are Baptist. No state has a greater degree of religious diversity than New York. 

9.   The cultural center of the Catholic Church is shifting south. The Northeast is no longer the epicenter of American Catholicism—although at 41% Catholic, Rhode Island remains the most Catholic state in the country. Immigration from predominantly Catholic countries in Latin America means new Catholic populations are settling in the Southwest. In 1972, roughly seven in ten Catholics lived in either the Northeast (41%) or the Midwest (28%). Only about one-third of Catholics lived in the South (13%) or West (18%). Today, a majority of Catholics now reside in the South (29%) or West (25%). Currently, only about one-quarter (26%) of the U.S. Catholic population lives in the Northeast, and 20% live in the Midwest.

10.   Jews, Hindus and Unitarian-Universalists stand out as the most educated groups in the American religious landscape. More than one-third of Jews (34%), Hindus (38%) and Unitarian-Universalists (43%) hold post-graduate degrees. Notably, Muslims are significantly more likely than white evangelical Protestants to have at least a four-year college degree (33% vs. 25%, respectively).

11.   Asian or Pacific-Islander Americans have a significantly different religious profile than other racial or ethnic groups. There are as many Asian or Pacific-Islander Americans affiliated with non-Christian religions as with Christian religious groups. And one-third (34%) are religiously unaffiliated.

12.   Nearly half of LGBT Americans are religiously unaffiliated. Nearly half (46%) of Americans who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) are religiously unaffiliated. This is roughly twice the number of Americans overall (24%) who are religiously unaffiliated.

13.   White Christians have become a minority in the Democratic Party. Fewer than one in three (29%) Democrats today are white Christian, compared to half (50%) one decade earlier. Only 14% of young Democrats (age 18 to 29) identify as white Christian. Forty percent identify as religiously unaffiliated.

14.   White evangelical Protestants remain the dominant religious force in the GOP. More than one-third (35%) of all Republicans identify as white evangelical Protestant, a proportion that has remained roughly stable over the past decade. Roughly three-quarters (73%) of Republicans belong to a white Christian religious group.

Consider yourself informed. And yes, my next blog will dissect what this means for the church.     

James Emery White

Sources

Daniel Cox and Robert P. Jones, “America’s Changing Religious Identity,” PRRI, September 6, 2017, read online.

Kimberly Winston, “‘Christian America’ Dwindling, Including White Evangelicals, Study Shows,” Religion News Service, September 6, 2017, read online.

Emma Green, “The Non-Religious States of America,” CityLab, September 6, 2017, read online.


About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.


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