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America’s shrinking percentage of white Christians isn’t a sudden occurrence

Donald Trump greets supporters after his rally at Ladd-Peebles Stadium on Aug. 21, 2015, in Mobile, Ala. (Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

This article has been updated.

It’s the sort of revelation that seems guaranteed to overlap neatly with the current political moment. And sure enough, when the Drudge Report came across the finding from the Public Religion Research Institute indicating that white Christians now make up less than 50 percent of the country’s population, it got prominent placement.

For a country still trying to figure out what exactly happened in the 2016 election, this seems like a peg on which a number of things might be hung. For example: Is this decline what prompted the surge in evangelical support for a presidential candidate who pledged to “make America great again” — that is, make it the way it used to be?

As always, it’s not that simple.

Here’s what PRRI says about the shift.

“As recently as 1996, white Christians still made up nearly two-thirds (65%) of the public. By 2006, that number dropped to 54%, but white Christians still constituted a majority. But over the last decade, the proportion of white Christians in the U.S. has slipped below majority. Today, only 43% of Americans identify as white and Christian — and only 30% as white and Protestant.”

Forty-three percent is not the sort of number one might expect to see in a report in which something is described as being “now a minority.” Something is “now a minority” when it hits, say, 49 percent. Forty-three percent sounds more like “we just noticed that this is a minority.”

The numbers PRRI presents suggest that, too. There was, per their analysis, a drop of 11 points in the decade from 1996 to 2006 and another 11 points from 2006 to 2016. That’s a little over a point a year — meaning that the 49 percent mark would have been hit nearly five years after the 54 percent mark in 2006. In other words: in 2011. If that emergent white Christian minority were going to affect presidential politics, the first opportunity would have arrived at Barack Obama’s reelection.

PRRI’s numbers also mix two sources. The 43 percent figure is from its own survey. The previous data points are attributed in a footnote to the General Social Survey, a biennial national poll funded primarily by the National Science Foundation that asks Americans a consistent set of demographic and political questions. Those data are available online, so we can take a peek at what the survey shows.

The most recent GSS, completed last year, shows that the downward trend continues. Our analysis of its data suggests that the percentage of Americans who are white and Christian isn’t yet a minority, but it’s close.

Update: PRRI emailed to note that the data above isn’t the same data it used. It looked at the non-Hispanic white population, which I didn’t segment out. If we look at that subset, the graph looks like this.

Per their data, the drop below 50 percent happened between 2010 and 2012.

It’s important to remember that this drop is a function of two things, not one. The first is that white Americans are less likely to identify as Christian than they used to be. The second is that the number of nonwhite Americans is increasing.

In D.C., white evangelicals are literally the 1 percent

The GSS shows both those trends, overlapping in an interesting way.

It’s the combination of those changes that results in the overall decline in the density of the white Christian population.

While the PRRI and GSS data do show a decline in the percentage of the population that’s both white and Christian, the percentage that is Christian is declining much more slowly. Looking at all races, the GSS shows that nearly three-quarters of Americans still adhere to Christianity, thanks in part to 79 percent of African Americans identifying as Christian.

This point is made in the PRRI report as well, as in this chart. The shades of blue and green are all Americans who identify as Christian.

America’s Christian majority, in other words, isn’t going anywhere. In 2015, we looked at projections from Pew Research and the Census Bureau to show where the United States was headed over the next 40 years or so. More older people, more nonwhite people, more people without a religious affiliation.

Even in 2050, though, well over half the country is expected to identify as Christian, even as it’s less than half white.

If we’re considering what this means for politics, it’s worth asking which part of the phrase is the one to which people are reacting: The “Christian” or the “white”?