One thing everyone knows is driving the Donald Trump phenomenon is demographic change. White Americans are on the verge of losing their majority status and becoming just one of many racial groups, albeit still the largest (for a while, anyway). The ball isn’t expected to drop on this new era until around 2042, yet to many Americans, it feels as though that day is here, especially given the symbolism of the election of Barack Obama almost eight years ago. Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” resounds for a disproportionate number of fearful white people who see themselves as a minority and want their dominance back.
Public Religion Research Institute director Robert Jones explains why some of them are right to believe that the future is already here. Here’s something you may not know: During the Obama administration, the age of what Jones calls “white Christian America” officially passed. Its mourners are actually not imagining things. In 2008, 54 percent of the country was white and Christian. By 2015, that number had dropped to 45 percent, making them a minority of Americans after more than two centuries of dominance. In his provocative new book, The End of White Christian America, Jones writes a respectful obituary that doesn’t spare tough criticism of the flaws of the majority whose time has gone. He shows how much the project of white Christian Americans has involved exclusion, yet tries to point a way for its most stubborn, backward-looking adherents to see themselves as part of a multiracial, multi-religious democracy nonetheless.
One reason, of course, for the decline of white Christian America is demographic change—not just immigration but also faster growth rates among non-white groups. But another major factor, Jones shows, is “young white people leaving religion in droves.” While that was once only a problem for “mainline” Protestant groups—Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, and some others—it has lately become a big problem for evangelical Christians. In the 1980s, as mainline denominations’ membership declined, conservative evangelicals built their mega-churches and felt theologically and socially vindicated: The mainline orders had gone all in with secularism and liberalism and participated in their own diminishment, they believed.
Now evangelicals have to explain their own decline, especially among young people. While 27 percent of Americans over 65 are white evangelical Protestants, only 10 percent of millennials are—the exact same percentage as white mainline Protestant millennials. In PRRI surveys, those young white evangelicals overwhelmingly say they’re fleeing their childhood religion because of its intolerance, especially on issues of sexual identity and gay marriage.
Jones makes clear that the decline of his people—he’s a Baptist with deep roots in Georgia—is largely the result of decisions and definitions made by the leaders of white Christian America over the last 200 years. For one thing, this Irish Catholic reader learned with a twinge that I’m not counted within the historical conception of white Christian America: rejecting Catholicism as a foreign threat to American identity has been a pillar of white Christian belief since the 1800s, and it remains one. Of course, I know that history; I wrote about it at length in my book. It just didn’t occur to me that the definitional barrier remained (Jones had to break it to me in a phone interview).