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Opinion White conservative Christians ignore their real problem: A fleeing flock

President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he stands in front of St. John's Church near Lafayette Square in Washington on June 1, 2020. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

White evangelical Christians dominate the MAGA movement. Fear of civilizational decline, dire warnings of an existential crisis and howls that religion is under “attack” form the basis of much of the MAGA ideology. And the apocalyptic language deployed by the right wing bears a striking resemblance to Christian end-times imagery.

But while conservative Christians love to blame the left, a new Pew Research Center poll shows that their problem is not secular elites.

Prominent right-wingers, including former attorney general William P. Barr and current Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., cite growing secularism as a threat to our entire way of life. Barr (while still in office!) raged during a speech at the University of Notre Dame: “This is not decay. This is organized destruction. Secularists and their allies have marshaled all the forces of mass communication, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values.”

Alito’s recent rant in Rome was not his first fiery tirade against an imagined assault on religion. Back in 2020, he thundered: “It pains me to say this but in certain quarters, religious liberty is fast becoming a disfavored right.” This summer he was at it again, denouncing “hostility to religion.”

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These voices posit that White Christians are victims. But in fact, the church quite simply has failed to attract and retain believers. As Ron Brownstein explained last year in the Atlantic: “The claim that any Democratic victory will irrevocably reconfigure the nation taps into a deep fear among key components of the Republican coalition: that they will be eclipsed by the demographic and cultural changes that have made white people — especially white Christians — a steadily shrinking share of the population.”

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Brownstein observed that this “vision of America will only diverge further from reality in a country where kids of color will soon represent a majority of the under-18 population, where a growing number of young people do not identify with any religious tradition, and where white Christians likely slip below 40 percent of the society.”

That process is well underway. The Pew poll tracks the rapid decline of self-identified Christians: “The projections show Christians of all ages shrinking from 64% to between a little more than half (54%) and just above one-third (35%) of all Americans by 2070. Over that same period, ‘nones’ [those affiliated with no religion] would rise from the current 30% to somewhere between 34% and 52% of the U.S. population.”

Christianity is losing adherents — in droves. “A steadily shrinking share of young adults who were raised Christian (in childhood) have retained their religious identity in adulthood over the past 30 years,” Pew found. “At the same time, having no religious affiliation has become ‘stickier’: A declining percentage of people raised without a religion have converted or taken on a religion later in life.”

In other words: “With each generation, progressively fewer adults retain the Christian identity they were raised with, which in turn means fewer parents are raising their children in Christian households.”

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The decline is especially acute for White evangelical Christians. “The overall declines in the proportion of Americans who identify as Christian over the last few decades have been driven primarily by declines among White, non-Hispanic Christians,” Robert P. Jones, president of the Public Religion Research Institute, tells me. “A first wave of White non-evangelical/mainline Protestant decline began in the 1970s, followed by White Catholic decline and, more recently — just since the mid-2000s — White evangelical Protestant decline.” He adds, “Over the last 15 years, White evangelical Protestant decline has actually been markedly steeper than the White non-evangelical Protestant decline.”

Not among the reasons so many are leaving Christianity? “Liberals don’t say Merry Christmas,” or “Christianity is under attack.” The data does, however, show that “an association of Christianity with conservative politics has driven many liberals away from the faith,” according to Pew.

Generally, though, people are leaving Christian churches because, among other things, they don’t believe in the churches’ teachings, they are hostile to organized religion writ large and/or they do not find spiritual solace there. Jones says, “One reason younger people are disaffiliating is the hardening of partisanship within churches and conservative political stances are significantly out of step with younger Americans on a range of issues: same-sex marriage, abortion, contraception, climate change, immigration, etc.” He continues, “The culture war battle, particularly with the Trumpian/MAGA edge, simply doesn’t resonate with the bulk of a generation that grew up with Roe as settled law of the land and a much more diverse group of friends who were not just straight, White and Christian.”

In short, the irrational panic evident in MAGA circles and the creeping openness to authoritarian theocracy appear to be a reaction to a new reality: Christians (especially White evangelical Christians) do not dominate the United States demographically, economically, socially or politically as they once did. That’s what has freaked out members of the right — from the Jan. 6 insurrectionists to Alito.

Enacting religious precepts from the bench, storming the Capitol, ushering prayer back into schools or promising to pass laws that reflect certain Christian values won’t reverse the trend. In fact, the all this tumult might accelerate the rise of the “nones.”

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