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The Proportion Of White Christians In The U.S. Has Stopped Shrinking, New Study Finds

Even as the number of white evangelicals has shrunk to just 14% of Americans, they remain prominent in the Republican Party.
Chris Seward
Even as the number of white evangelicals has shrunk to just 14% of Americans, they remain prominent in the Republican Party.

Two dramatic trends that for years have defined the shifting landscape of religion in America — a shrinking white Christian majority, alongside the rise of religiously unaffiliated Americans — have stabilized, according to a new, massive survey of American religious practice.

What was once a supermajority of white Christians — more than 80% of Americans identified as such in 1976, and two-thirds in 1996 — has now plateaued at about 44%, according to the new survey, which was conducted by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute. That number first dipped below 50% in 2012.

They have largely been replaced by Americans who do not list any religious affiliation, a group that has tripled in proportion since the 1990s. Today, the unaffiliated make up roughly a quarter of Americans. Young adults are most likely to identify this way with more than a third saying they are atheist, agnostic or otherwise secular, the study found.

"These things tend to be generational. And this really began with the millennial generation," says Robert P. Jones, CEO and founder of PRRI and author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity.

White evangelicals began aligning politically with Republicans during the 1980s, meaning millennials were the first generation to grow up seeing the Christian right as the most public expression of religion, Jones says.

"And it was a partisan group, very conservative, and they had commitments, like anti-gay commitments, that really ran against the values of that generation," Jones says.

The survey is called The 2020 Census of American Religion. It is not related to the official U.S. census, which has not asked about religious affiliation since the 1950s, a policy that stems from concerns about the separation of church and state.

With that absence of large-scale census-style data, researchers at PRRI set out to create an ambitious report on the state of religion in the U.S. Over the course of seven years, they conducted nearly 500,000 phone interviews, asking not just about religion, but also age, race and ethnicity, geography, and political preference.

"It really does help us understand some of the cultural engines that drive our politics and can really help us understand, I think, the divisions really that the country is facing today," Jones says.

On the Republican side, the preferences of white evangelicals loom large, even as the overall number of white evangelicals in America continues to decline. Though they make up just 14% of Americans overall, they remain the largest single religious group among Republican voters with the power to sway party priorities — which this year have included anti-abortion bills and policies restricting health care and sports access for transgender people.

"If you look at [the white evangelical] presence in the national religious landscape, it's actually quite diminished from what it was even 10 years ago," says Jones. "I think it's still surprising to many Americans because of how visible this population has been, particularly during the Trump administration."

By contrast, Democrats are a more religiously diverse group with significant numbers of religiously unaffiliated people and nonwhite Christians — including Black Protestants, Latino Protestants and Latino Catholics — along with more Jews, Muslims and other minority religions. White Catholics, such as President Biden, comprise just 13% of Democrats.

The survey also marks the most ambitious geographic mapping of religious practices in decades, its authors say, in large part because the U.S. census has not collected wide-scale religious affiliation data since the 1950s.

The findings show that historical forces — such as slavery in the South, the Civil War dividing white Protestants, and 19th century immigration patterns — continue to shape the geography of American religion, Jones says.

The country's most religiously diverse counties are in major coastal metropolitan areas, along with Arizona's Navajo County, which encompasses several Native American reservations, and Maui County in Hawaii. Of the 10 least-diverse counties with at least 10,000 people, eight are in Mississippi.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.