America is undergoing dramatic demographic and cultural shifts. Understanding today’s America requires a look at both the present and the past. GenPop’s Matt Carmichael and Julia Clark, SVP in Ipsos’ Public Affairs practice, chatted by phone with Robert P. Jones, the author of “The End of White Christian America” and founding CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute.
GenPop: The book opens painting a pretty vivid picture of how whatever your own background, this is a nation shaped by white Christian America.
Robert P. Jones: Particularly the white Protestants. It’s been both culturally and demographically dominated by the world of white Christian America (WCA). Hospitals, schools, the YMCA, the Boy Scouts… a lot of civil society has really bubbled up out of this world.
GenPop: WCA is now essentially in control of all three branches of government. So are you gearing up for the sequel, “WCA: The resurrection?”
Jones: I think it’s less a resurrection than a last gasp. Resurrection would imply that there is new life to be had in the long-term, despite the fact that the electoral college fell the way it did, the underlying trends and demographic shifts are still marching forward. We shouldn’t overstate the importance of this election – it was very close. Every four years there are fewer and fewer white Christians.
GenPop: To what extent are non-white Christians are being integrated into Christian America?
JONES: The long term patterns are basically white Christian attrition, black Christian stability and Latino and Asian/Pacific Islander growth. The Catholic church is a great example. No religious group has lost more members than the Catholic church. They have almost all been white, non-Hispanic. More than one in 10 Americans are former Catholics. What we ended up with is that the ratio of white to non-white Catholics in the 1990s was 10 to one. Today it’s more like 60-40. It won’t be long before we’re 50/50 white/non-white catholic church. Their voting patterns have gotten more polarized over time. 60% of white Catholics supported trump, but 67% of Hispanic Catholics supported Clinton.
During President Obama’s tenure [we went] from being a majority white Christian nation to a minority white Christian nation.
GenPop: Are immigrants, especially those coming from Latin America, more likely to have a stronger sense of religiosity than those living here already?
JONES: One of the most remarkable stats that was really an anchor for why I wrote the book was the realization that we had moved just during President Obama’s tenure from being a majority white Christian nation to a minority white Christian nation. In 2008 we were a 54% white Christian nation. Now we a 43% minority white Christian nation. That’s been two parts demography and one part religious attrition. The thing that turbo charges the dynamic is that younger white, non-Hispanic Christians are leaving churches in droves. Overall in our most recent survey we had 25% claiming no religious affiliation but for people under thirty the number is 39%. We’ve never seen anything like that in American history.
GenPop: In the book you talk about the need for WCA to come to terms with a history of racism in the church if it wants to remain relevant. Yet this election cycle feels like it moves in the other direction.
JONES: The continuing power of the racial divides in our churches and politics is stunning. They way in which race shapes religious views is something that I don’t think this country has even begun to unpack. There’s a famous quote that Martin Luther King Jr. used often that “11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in Christian America.” There’s a little progress made, but it’s around the edges. It’s not going to change the landscape around us.
Churches aren’t well equipped to help. I did research an asked around and I couldn’t find an institution in U.S. civil society that is well-equipped to bridge this racial divide. There are more churches in the U.S. than there are post offices. It’s a ubiquitous institution and in theory could be a place on the ground where these conversations could happen but the history of Christian churches is so wrapped up with racial segregation that I don’t have great faith that that’s going to happen any time soon. Corporations are only going to take this up in so much as it makes for a harmonious workplace. They’re probably not going to go much deeper than that.
GenPop: In many ways Trump is not a typical WCA candidate. How did Evangelicals rationalize their support for him? Were they really voting for Pence?
JONES: I don’t think it’s that at all. Pence was an insurance policy but they were with Trump before he picked Pence. This became apparent in February when Trump won the South Carolina primary. The more I thought about it, I argued that Trump had essentially killed the values voter way of thinking and converted values voters into what I called “Nostalgia Voters.” It was a much bigger frame that was very appealing to white evangelicals.
GenPop: With the new administration sewing so much doubt in our institutions, where do you see us going forward?
JONES: [This campaign was] two very different and mutually-exclusive views of the country: one is looking back and one is looking forward. I don’t think the Democrats did a good enough job of helping struggling people in the Rust Belt see themselves in this new vision of America. They felt left out and left behind. I think these visions have been kind of binary: we’re going to go to 1950s America or 2050 America. It’s like, “If we go to 1950s America, all you non-white people lose. If we go to 2050 America all you white people lose.” As long as it’s structured that way we’ll have a kind of fight to the death on our hands. I think there’s a way of painting this vision where even a group that finds itself newly a minority can see themselves as still having a place in this new world.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Matt Carmichael contributed to this report.