White evangelicals are disappearing

You might find it strange that a large segment of the Republican base thinks Whites are the true victims of racism and that Christians are under attack. After all, America’s biggest racial group is still Whites; the most common religious affiliation remains Christianity. Whites and Christians dominate elected office at all levels, the judiciary and corporate America. What’s the problem?

Well, there is a straightforward reason for the freak-out, and an explanation for why former president Donald Trump developed such a close bond with white Christian nationalists.

This group feels besieged because they are losing ground. “The newly-released 2022 supplement to the PRRI Census of American Religion — based on over 40,000 interviews conducted last year — confirms that the decline of white Christians (Americans who identify as white, non-Hispanic and Christian of any kind) as a proportion of the population continues unabated,” writes Robert P. Jones, president of the Public Religion Research Institute. “As recently as 2008, when our first Black president was elected, the U.S. was a majority (54%) white Christian country.” By 2014 the number had dropped to 47 percent, and in 2022 it stood at 42 percent.

The group that has declined the most is at the core of the MAGA movement, the group most devoted to Christian nationalism. “White evangelical Protestants have experienced the steepest decline. As recently as 2006, white evangelical Protestants comprised nearly one-quarter of Americans (23%). By the time of Trump’s rise to power, their numbers had dipped to 16.8%,” Jones explains. “Today, white evangelical Protestants comprise only 13.6% of Americans.”

And that decline may yet accelerate, because they skew older than the population as a whole. Put differently, there are far more baby boomers in this group than Generation Z members. White evangelicals are “losing” people with each successive generation. (“White Christian subgroups have each lost approximately half their market share just across the generations who are alive today,” according to Jones.) If your business had lost half its market share, you would be panicking, too.

With those kind of numbers, the responsible thing to do would be to think about “fixing” what’s wrong by adapting to a changing market. Instead, many in this cohort have doubled down, becoming the foot soldiers in the red-hatted MAGA movement. The decline isn’t going to be reversed by angry, gray-haired folks demanding abortion bans and “don’t say gay” bills.

Instead, White evangelicals might look at former “customers” who are abandoning organized religion in droves. “Nearly four in ten Americans ages 18-29 (38%) are religiously unaffiliated, an increase from 34% in 2021,” the PRRI census said. “As the cohorts age, the growth in religiously unaffiliated Americans has started to show up more in the 30-49 age category, which is up to 32% unaffiliated from 26% in 2016.”

In some sense, White evangelicals’ desperate efforts to cling to political power and demand adherence to a set of outdated cultural norms only make the problem worse. Not many 20-year-olds (part of the most diverse, inclusive generation in history, one steeped in climate science and tech) would leap at the prospect of living in a state where abortion is unattainable, gays are ostracized and secularism is bashed.

If Christian evangelicals really want to slow their decline, they might consider getting out of the unpopular political ideas market (e.g., abortion bans) and stressing values that could win back alienated young people (e.g., reverence for conserving the planet, ministering to the poor and the weak). That might put more seats in the pews, although it likely wouldn’t do much for the aging, mostly White, reactionary GOP.

The reality is that the convergence of the declining population of White Christians with the rise of Trump has been bad for both evangelicalism and American politics. Trump came along, telling the shrinking band of white Christian nationalists that they are victims. He reveled in nostalgia for a time when they dominated (demographically and politically) and blamed immigrants, elites and “wokeness” for their ills. They were the group most susceptible to a message that reinforces their feeling they have “lost” something or something has been “taken away.”

That “something” they felt had been stolen may have been as concrete as the 2020 election, or as all-encompassing as white Christian supremacy. However they define that sense of loss, it fuels their anger and binds them to Trump.

But the demographic clock cannot be turned back. No one can claim to be patriotic defenders of democracy when they decide their declining numbers justify anti-democratic voter suppression or even violence. In short, MAGA White Christians have painted themselves into a corner where the majority rejects their outlook and anti-majoritarian tactics cannot keep them in power forever.

A dramatic transformation would need to happen for this movement to return to pluralistic politics. The MAGA crowd would have to recognize America’s complete history, reflecting our full experience, not just the story of people like them. And most important, they would need to rediscover the principles on which the United States was founded. (“All men are created equal…”) They would have to abandon the myth that America is the domain of one race or religion.

Unimaginable? Maybe so, but what other choice is there? To thrive in the future, they eventually must appeal to America as it is, not as they imagine it was in the past.