New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg spoke recently with Robert P. Jones, chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute.
P.R.R.I.’s 2020 Census of American Religion, based on a survey of nearly half a million people, shows a precipitous decline in the share of the population identifying as white evangelical, from 23 percent in 2006 to 14.5 percent last year. (As a category, “white evangelicals” isn’t a perfect proxy for the religious right, but the overlap is substantial.) In 2020, as in every year since 2013, the largest religious group in the United States was the religiously unaffiliated.
One of P.R.R.I.’s most surprising findings was that in 2020, there were more white mainline Protestants than white evangelicals. This doesn’t necessarily mean Christians are joining mainline congregations — the survey measures self-identification, not church affiliation. It is, nevertheless, a striking turnabout after years when mainline Protestantism was considered moribund and evangelical Christianity full of dynamism.
White evangelicals once saw themselves “as the owners of mainstream American culture and morality and values,” said Jones. Now they are just another subculture.
Goldberg fears that in decline the Christian right may be more dangerous than when it was in ascension:
From this fact derives much of our country’s cultural conflict. It helps explain not just the rise of Donald Trump, but also the growth of QAnon and even the escalating conflagration over critical race theory. “It’s hard to overstate the strength of this feeling, among white evangelicals in particular, of America being a white Christian country,” said Jones. “This sense of ownership of America just runs so deep in white evangelical circles.” The feeling that it’s slipping away has created an atmosphere of rage, resentment and paranoia.
See also, “Why are White evangelicals embracing an anti-democratic movement? Because they’re panicking.“, Washington Post, July 22:
Our politics have fallen victim to the primal scream of once-dominant White evangelicals. Having failed to capture the hearts, minds and souls of a majority of Americans, these communities are turning against democracy. They prefer an authoritarian theocracy to a multiracial society in which they are a distinct minority. And that, candidly, is a threat to our democracy and to the notion of equal justice under the law.