In my previous column, I wrote about “demographic anxiety” and its impact on American politics. I agreed with Ezra Klein of Vox who has written that understanding demographic anxiety is “is the key to understanding what he calls ‘the central question of American politics in the coming years: How do you hold together, much less govern, a country undergoing as much demographic change as our own?’”
But there’s another area of American life where demographic anxiety may also be at work: American Christianity.
It’s difficult to avoid reading about America’s changing demographics. What’s not being covered nearly as much are the changing demographics of American Christianity, apart from the fact that fewer Americans self-identify as Christians of any sort.
Dig a little deeper into the numbers and you will find that that decline largely reflects Tim Keller’s bon mot, “The whole world is not getting more secular, white people are getting more secular.”
In its 2017 report, “America’s Changing Religious Identity,” the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) tells us that in 1996, 65 percent of Americans were non-Hispanic white Christians. By 2006, the percentage had dropped to 54 percent. Today, it’s around 43 percent. When PRRI CEO Robert P. Jones writes about “The End of White Christian America” this is the demographic landscape he is describing.
Since at least 1972, when Dean M. Kelly published “Why Conservative Churches are Growing,” it has been an article of faith in Evangelical circles that the kind of erosion documented by PRRI has been limited to more liberal churches, what used to be called the “Protestant Mainline.”
That isn’t true anymore. Between 2006 and 2016, the Southern Baptist Convention lost one million members. This secular decline — during the same period, baptisms dropped to the lowest number in 70 years — was the harbinger of more demographic shifts.
In 2006, white Evangelicals comprised 23 percent of the American population. By 2016, that number had dropped to 17 percent. What is more, only eight percent of Americans under the age of 30 are white Evangelicals.
Thirty years ago, less than half (46 percent) of white Evangelicals were over the age of fifty. Today it’s 62 percent. The median age for white Evangelicals is 55. No other major religious groups skews this old.
American Catholicism is experiencing a similar, if not more marked, decline: Between 2006 and 2016, White Catholics went from sixteen percent of the population to eleven percent.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to see how these trends can be reversed given demographic trends. The most common age, what is known as the “mode,” among White Americans is 58. Among Asian-Americans it’s twenty-nine. Among African-Americans it’s twenty-eight. Among Hispanics, it’s eleven.
Yet what Jones calls the “End of White Christian America” is not the same thing as the end of Christianity in America. Not by a long shot. At the same time that the percentage of white Evangelicals and Catholics was declining rapidly, the percentage of Evangelicals and Catholics in the U.S. population was declining only slightly.
Why? The obvious answer is that the decline in white Christians was made up for by an increase in non-white ones. This is most obviously true in the Catholic Church. In 1991, nearly ninety percent of Catholics were white. Today it’s fifty-five percent. And a majority of Catholics (52 percent) under the age of thirty are Hispanic.
Given that American Catholicism has always been a religion of immigrants and their children, this shift shouldn’t be all that surprising. What is surprising is the transformation of American Evangelicalism.
Here’s PRRI’s summary: “Only half (50%) of evangelical Protestants under the age of 30 are white, compared to more than three-quarters (77%) of evangelical Protestant seniors (age 65 or older). Twenty-two percent of young evangelical Protestants are black, 18% are Hispanic, and nine percent identify as some other race or mixed race.”
While, as Niels Bohr is supposed to have said, “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future,” it appears that Evangelicalism is headed down a similar demographic road as American Catholicism. At a time where white deaths exceed white births in a majority of the states, the alternative is irreversible numerical decline.
That still leaves us with the question of whether White Evangelicals are also experiencing demographic anxiety. The Magic Eight Ball’s answer is “Signs point to yes.”
One of those signs is a recent poll conducted by PRRI and the Atlantic. In it, “More than half (52%) of white evangelical Protestants say a majority of the U.S. population being nonwhite will be a negative development.” This makes them “unique in the extent to which they feel demographic change will represent a negative development for the U.S.”
Another sign was this story, the eleventy-umpteenth on white Evangelical Trump voters, which is approximately eleventy-umpteen more than stories on non-white Evangelicals during the Trump administration. But I digress.
One of the people quoted in the piece said that the biblical command to love thy neighbor meant “love thy American neighbor.” Similarly, “welcome the stranger” meant “welcome the legal immigrant stranger.” And finally, “The Bible says, ‘If you do this to the least of these, you do it to me’ . . . But the least of these are Americans, not the ones crossing the border.” (Emphasis in the original.)
The Post’s article had its share of critics, but none of them claimed that the paper made the quotes up. Also, the views expressed are consistent with the demographic anxiety on display in the PRRI/Atlantic poll and a 2017 poll that found that “white Evangelicals are the group least likely to think that the United States should help refugees.”
I’m not surprised. All of the well-intentioned talk about “racial reconciliation” (see here for why I use quotation marks) is, historically-speaking, a slight detour from the historical trajectory of race and American Christianity.
In I Corinthians 11, St. Paul writes “For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly.” The “body” (sōma) being referred to is Christ’s. In this context, it’s a stern warning against receiving the eucharist in an unworthy fashion, i.e., in state of unrepentant and — in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions — unconfessed grave, sin.
But there’s another sense in which people fail to judge or discern the body of Christ rightly. The immediate occasion for the apostle’s comments was the behavior of the Corinthians at the “agape feast,” which preceded the Lord’s Supper.
In his commentary on I Corinthians, Father George T. Montague tells us that the meal was “meant to symbolize and effect a solidarity in the community joined at a common table and in so doing to care for the poor in the community.”
That’s not what happened. Instead, the Corinthians’ behavior at the meal reflected the prejudices of Roman society at large: people brought their own food and segregated by class. What’s more, in the Greco-Roman world your class dictated the quality of the food you received at these kinds of meals.
The result was that poorer members of the ekklesia felt ashamed and were marginalized. This introduction of pagan prejudices into the life of the Church is a large part of what St. Paul meant by not judging the body (of Christ) rightly. The guilty parties were not recognizing their fellow members even when they were in the same building.
An analogous failure to discern the body of the Lord is at work in contemporary American Christianity. With a few exceptions, such as Ed Stetzer, Russell Moore, and the Assemblies of God, there’s little evidence that people are aware of this phenomenon, much less wrestling with its implications for witness and mission.
But those implications aren’t going away. American Christianity’s viability is inexorably tied to the demographic transition described above. Even, as I noted last time, the talk about “majority minority” is over-hyped, the transition to a very different America, and a very different American Christianity, is well underway, regardless of how that makes us feel.
Have a Follow-up Question?
Want to dig deeper?
If you want to challenge yourself as many others have done, sign up below.