Emerging data goes a long way toward explaining the increasing visibility–and acting out–of America’s White Christian Nationalists.
As commenters to this blog frequently point out, the racial animosity so vividly on display these days is itself not a new phenomenon–far from it. But the visibility–the shamelessness– is new. The willingness to “come out”–to publicly flaunt beliefs and attitudes that had previously been soft-pedaled or hidden–and the virtually complete capture of a major American political party by people who believe that they are the only “real” Americans is a recent (and unwelcome) phenomenon.
Fear often makes people discard the veneer of civility, of course, and these folks are currently terrified.
It’s bad enough when fear is “ginned up” by propagandists warning of immigrant caravans or computer chips hidden in vaccines, but it turns out that the White Christian Evangelical fear of being “replaced”–of becoming just another thread in a colorful American tapestry–is actually well-founded.
I’ve recently read several media reports about a study conducted by PRRI , the Public Religion Research Institute. One, by Michelle Goldberg for the New York Times, characterizes PRRI’s findings as “startling.” Goldberg began her column by noting the major role played by the Christian Right in the election and administration of George W. Bush, and she notes that many of the leaders of that movement assumed they were on the cusp of even greater control.
The PRRI results–and others–suggest otherwise.
The evangelicals who thought they were about to take over America were destined for disappointment. On Thursday, P.R.R.I. released startling new polling data showing just how much ground the religious right has lost. 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.
It isn’t just the shrinking numbers. White evangelicals were also the oldest religious group in the country, with a median age of 56.
“It’s not just that they are dying off, but it is that they’re losing younger members,” Jones told me. As the group has become older and smaller, Jones said, “a real visceral sense of loss of cultural dominance” has set in.
White evangelicals once saw themselves “as the owners of mainstream American culture and morality and values,” said Jones. Now they are just another subculture.
In the Washington Post, Aaron Blake also reported on the “striking” PRRI findings.
The Public Religion Research Institute released a detailed study Thursday on Americans’ religious affiliations. Perhaps the most striking finding is on White evangelical Christians.
While this group made up 23 percent of the population in 2006 — shortly after “values voters” were analyzed to have delivered George W. Bush his reelection — that number is now down to 14.5 percent, according to the data.
Blake also notes the age disparity and the lack of youth replentishment. While 22 percent of Americans 65 and over are White evangelicals, the number is just 7 percent for those between 18 and 29 years of age.
Goldberg quotes Robert Jones, the Director of PRRI, who connects some bizarre dots.
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.
QAnon is essentially a millenarian movement, with Trump taking the place of Jesus. Adherents dream of the coming of what they call the storm, when the enemies of the MAGA movement will be rounded up and executed, and Trump restored to his rightful place of leadership.
These QAnon people are unwell. If I were Christian, I’d consider Trump taking the place of Jesus an unbelievable blasphemy…
Bottom line: the PRRI study, and several others with similar findings, is both good news and bad. The diminished power of a religious sect that has been dubbed (with some accuracy) the American Taliban is clearly very good news. The accompanying rage, resentment and paranoia–and the unrest those passions encourage– is not.
But as I indicated earlier, it explains a lot.