The US has long been regarded as the home of more Christians, as a percentage of its population, than any other nation on earth. In 2014 an extensive program of research, by the renowned polling organization, the Pew Research Center, revealed that 70.6% of adult Americans identified as Christians of some form. And of the total US population, 25.4% identified as evangelicals.
Given the highly committed nature of these believers when it comes to voting, they often punch well above their weight when compared to similar sized groups, who don’t exhibit such high turnout when it comes to activism.
This level of commitment has impacted on many areas of policy. The fact that current US abortion legislation may well be overturned this coming autumn, when the Supreme Court once more examines the issue, is a significant example of the effects of the evangelical vote; in this case allied with conservative Catholics.
“The Times They Are A-Changin”
However, demographics do not stand still and, in the words of Bob Dylan’s 1964 song (and album), “The Times They Are A-Changin.” Even something as apparently solid as the role of white evangelicalism in US culture and politics is potentially subject to turbulence. And also to decline. While methodologies vary between polls and, sometimes, we might question the accuracy of an individual poll, the overall trajectory is clear and thought-provoking.
Polling in 2020 suggested that the total number of Christians as a percentage of registered US voters had fallen to 56%. This was hugely down, when compared to 2014, and was difficult for many observers to accept. However, other data (this time from 2021) suggests that something significant is going on. Data, from March 2021, and reported in The Washington Post in April, suggested that the number of Americans identifying as Christian has fallen to 65%. This is still very large but a downward trajectory is apparent. It seems to indicate a fall of 5% since 2014.
In a related statistic, those registering as having ‘no religious identity’ went from 15% of the population in 2016, to 21% in 2020. Something appears to be shifting in the US religious landscape. Cultural tectonic plates are on the move.
Glass half-empty, or glass half-full?
The data, though, is even more surprising than this. What the PRRI statistics reveal is that, while white evangelicalism seems to be declining, the numbers of what might be called ‘mainline Protestants’ is increasing. This includes the Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ, Evangelical Lutheran Church, etc. These churches now represent 16.4% of the US population. In contrast with declining evangelical numbers, this is a movement up from 13% in 2016. As a result, if PRRI is correct in its polling methodology, ‘mainline Protestants’ now constitute a larger group in US society than white evangelicals. There is evidence which suggests that some members of the latter have shifted to the former.
What seemed to be the unstoppable rise of evangelicalism, and the terminal decline of ‘mainline’ Protestant churches, has flipped. In the USA, white evangelicals are usually found in churches affiliated to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) or the Assemblies of God; or are members of independent nondenominational mega-churches. For over thirty years, these have been the groups in the headlines and often present at presidential prayer breakfasts.
While this happened, nobody took much notice of the other Protestant groups. As Bill McKibben concluded, in a recent edition of The New Yorker: “for decades, the media paid no attention to these declining (and demure) denominations, concentrating instead on the provocative Falwells, Swaggarts, and Robertsons.”
What is going on?
In 2007, research found that a significant number of young evangelicals were concerned at church attitudes towards what was then termed ‘gay rights.’ In the 14 years since then, the areas of generational difference regarding social issues has broadened. By 2014, the Pew Research Center’s ‘Religious Landscape Study’ noted a significant generation-gap among US evangelicals on same-sex marriage, immigration, environmentalism, and state aid for the poor. But the matter was complex.
Since 2014, though, areas of generational difference have accelerated. In May 2021 a survey, commissioned by the University for North Carolina at Pembroke, found that younger evangelicals are significantly less supportive of Israel compared with older evangelicals, and the trend is accelerating. A dramatic shift had occurred between 2018 and 2021. In this time, support for Israel among young evangelicals dropped from 75% to 34%.
Conflict over gender is also building. In May 2021, Saddleback Church in California – the second-largest church in the Southern Baptist Convention – ordained three women as staff pastors. The move drew criticism from other leading members of the SBC. The ban on female pastors has caused many Baptist churches to leave the SBC since the 1990s, to form the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship which now claims about 1,400 churches as members (although some continue to have dual affiliation with the SBC).
A leading US evangelical, in an off-the-record comment to me, described what has happened since November 2020 as “the continued departure by millions of young evangelicals who are disgusted with the toxic politicization of their spiritual community.” And it is clear that it is not just the young who are moving out.
The evidence suggests that what drew huge numbers to US evangelicalism in the 1980s and 1990s was its emphasis on personal faith, biblical certainty, and traditional morality. What now repels many (especially among the young) is the commitment to right-wing politics, as seen for example in climate change denial and lack of enthusiasm for tackling racial injustice and issues relating to women’s rights.
For evangelicals who have so closely tied themselves to one political party (and latterly to one man) – and to all the political ideology which accompanies this – that may be something on which to reflect. If not, it will be interesting to see what the data reveals ten years from now.