“Long the dominant group in American religious life, White Christians have fallen below a majority of the U.S. population—and are moving to the right politically as they recede.” So wrote CNN and Los Angeles Times political analyst Ronald Brownstein, in an article that highlighted the results of a 2015 Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Survey. The bottom line? America is becoming browner and less Christian: “In 1944, more than eight-in-10 American adults [were] White Christians. That number declined to under seven-in-10 [by] 1984,” and then it “dipped below majority status [in] 2012. The latest figures plac[e White Christians] at 46 percent of the adult population” (“How America’s Demographic Revolution Reached the Church,” Atlantic, November 23, 2015).
In sharp contrast, “the Democratic coalition [is] divide[d] almost evenly between White Christians” who are theologically progressive or liberal, “non-White Christians” who are traditional or Evangelical in their worship and beliefs, “and those from all races who identify with a non-Christian faith or with no religious tradition. Fewer than half of college[-educated] White Democrats now identify as Christians—a much smaller percentage than among Blac[k] and Latin[o]” Democrats.
Looking across generations, from the “Silent Generation” (born before 1946), to “Baby Boomers” (1946-1964), to “Generation X” (1965-1980), to “Older Millennials” (1981-1989), to “Younger Millennials” (1990 and later), Brownstein sees fewer Whites, fewer Catholics, fewer Evangelical Protestants, significantly fewer Mainline Protestants, and many more unaffiliateds—in short, “a steady drift away from the monolithic dominance of Christian faiths.”
“In the new alignment, Republicans run well among the most religiously devout in all Christian traditions, while Democrats perform better [among the] less religiously observant,” the unaffiliated, and adherents of non-Christian religions. “White Christians still account for nearly seven-in-10 Republican[s],” and “Evangelical Christians cast a much larger shadow within the GOP than any [Christian] denomination does among Democrats. While evangelicals constitute two-fifths of all Republicans,” the largest Christian representation among Democrats are Catholics, at one-fifth of the total.”
“The share of Americans identifying with any Christian faith fell from 78 percent in 2007 to under 71 percent in 2014.” Meanwhile, “the share of Americans who identify as atheist, agnostic, or who claim no particular religious faith, spiked from 16 percent in 2007 to 23 percent in 2014. One-third [of Millennials] now identify with no religious faith.”
Some White Americans feel threatened by these demographic shifts. In a March 27, 2018 CNN.com article, Brownstein responded to an assertion made by Fox News host Tucker Carlson, that America’s growing ethnic, racial, and religious diversity endangers the United States (“Fact-checking Tucker Carlson on diversity in America,” and “Tucker: Demographics in America Are Changing ‘Bewilderingly Fast’—‘Without Any Real Public Debate on the Subject,’” The Daily Caller, March 19, 2018).
In his argument, “Carlson [had admitted] explicitly what is often left implicit” in such discussions—“how much of the modern conservative coalition is bound together by resistance to demographic and cultural change.” In truth, America “is growing more diverse and has added significant number[s] of new immigrants in recent decades,” Brownstein explained. “The Census Bureau project[s] that non-whites, now [at] 40% of the total population, will become the majority by around 2045. The foreign-born share of the population has doubled from 6% in 1980 to 13.5% in 2015.
Much of this growth in America’s diversity is taking place in large cities. “In metropolitan areas of [over] one million, the average White person lives in a neighborhood that is 71% White.” Conversely, in “Trump country”—consisting of “rural places, red states, [and] Great Plains states” in the American heartland, and “Republican-leaning strongholds outside of major metropolitan areas”—the average White person is surrounded by neighbors who are at least 85% or 90% White. “There is essentially no diversity” there.
“Indeed, Pew Research Center polls show substantial unease about diversity and immigration” within the Evangelical Christian/Republican coalition: “primarily older, blue-collar, and non-urban Whites.” Many of these Americans believe that the increase in “immigrants ‘threatens traditional American customs and values;’ that Islam is inherently more violent than other religions; and that diversity [is] bad” for America.
In addition, many argue for the likely persistence of a White majority in the United States. President Trump’s November 8, 2016 electoral victory convinces them that demographic reports of America’s growing diversity are “fake news.” In addition, Republican legislators in various states have gerrymandered congressional districts, and conducted widespread voting-suppression campaigns. These claims and efforts may have a chilling effect on minority voter turnout, and suggest that demographic change is not happening, or if it is happening it doesn’t matter, because Blacks and Hispanics don’t vote anyway, and besides, such non-White people may be in the United States illegally. So it is permissible to disenfranchise them from citizenship rights like voting.
But demographic change is happening—and it’s ongoing! Here are 8 things this means for the United States and the United Church of Christ (UCC):
- If the demographic data that Brownstein cites is correct, then one of two things will likely happen. Either (a.), White Christians will give up at least some of their cultural and political power and influence in America, or alternatively, (b.), they may try to hold onto their power and influence, and the United States will turn into an Apartheid state in which a minority racial and religious culture dominates the majority of the (non-White, non-Christian) population. If (b.) occurs, America may experience political and social instability, widespread violence, and/or even a social revolution.
- There is a certain inevitability about the demographics that Brownstein cites. Barring some unforeseen political or social occurrence, the church will continue to get browner, less patriarchal, and less heteronormative. As an Open and Affirming, multiracial and multicultural denomination, the United Church of Christ is well-positioned to benefit from these demographic changes in the long-term—if it can weather the cultural and political storms that are buffeting it as well as other denominations in the short- and intermediate-term.
- We should expect Open and Affirming, multiracial, and multicultural UCC congregations to benefit the most from demographic change and America’s increased diversity. In many cases these will be urban and suburban congregations. UCC congregations that are homophobic, monocultural, and exclusive—and/or that find it difficult to adapt or change—will benefit less or not at all—and may be the first to die.
- Discussions about the future of America and the church have become so politicized that it is now virtually impossible to effect a clean separation between religion and politics. This is acutely evident in blogs such as this one, and in articles that are published on denominational websites and in church publications. The traditional hard line that once separated church and state is now a dotted line. Little wonder that blog contributors like me—and even the members of the Stillspeaking Writer’s Group who pen the UCC’s online Daily Devotionals—have not been able to completely avoid wading into partisan political discussions and controversies in our blog posts and writings.
- Many Americans—and many church people—don’t like change and feel threatened by it, and will react against it in ways that are inimical to their interests and to the institutions they love. Thus, a very large number of White Christians seem to believe (a.) that diversity and multiculturalism are bad, and (b.) that the proper way to “do church” is the way it was done back in the 1950s and 1960s, with invite-a-friend promotions, big Sunday School and VBS programs, and the like.
- “Blest be the tie that binds,” as hymn writer John Fawcett exclaimed in 1782, but today, social and political ties seem to bind Christian people much tighter than spiritual or theological ones do. Many White Evangelical Christians seem to exhibit a closer connection and a deeper commitment to the Republican Party or to the National Rifle Association than they do to the Christ. Similarly, liberal and progressive Christians may have stronger and firmer connections with organizations like Planned Parenthood, or to liberal political causes, than they do with the Bible or to the Church.
- With the declining influence of White Christians in America, the “shining-city-on-a-hill” trope, and its evocation of manifest destiny—that hoary notion that Americans have a God-ordained mission to convert and civilize heathen peoples and take over their lands, which has defined America since John Winthrop debarked the Arabella, and has been cited by U.S. political leaders (including, famously, Ronald Reagan) ever since—may finally be losing its punch.
- There are signs that the close association of traditional/conservative/Evangelical churches, leaders, and organizations with Republican politics, and with President Trump, is producing a popular backlash against Evangelical churches, ideas, and traditions—and perhaps, against American Christianity, and against every American church.
Rev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.