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The rapid decline of White evangelical America?

New data suggests a bigger decrease than previously understood — including in the GOP

Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas church, preaches in June 2019. (Ilana Panich-Linsman for The Washington Post) ( Ilana Panich-Linsman/For The Washington Post)

If there was an epitome of Donald Trump’s hostile and often puzzling takeover of the Republican Party, it might have been his alliance with evangelical Christians. The thrice-married playboy who until relatively recently supported abortion rights became their champion. He did so despite demonstrating remarkably little familiarity with the Bible. The uneasy alliance culminated in Trump flashing the Good Book as a political prop in Lafayette Square last summer.

But new data suggests that whatever pull evangelicals have in American politics, it’s declining pretty significantly.

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.

Americans’ religiosity overall has declined significantly in recent years, but even against that backdrop, the decline is sizable. Over this span, White evangelical Christians’ share of the population has declined by 37 percent, compared with 8 percent for White nonevangelical Protestants and 27 percent for White Catholics. The decline has also very notably continued over the past three years, despite a slight rebound in these other groups. The result: There are now more White nonevangelical Protestants than evangelical ones for the first time since at least 2006.

(Since publication, PRRI has clarified that it defines “mainline Protestants” in its data and charts like the one above as being Protestants who say they are not born-again Christians. But the question has been asked uniformly over the years.)

The data is intriguing, because it suggests a bigger decline in evangelicals than other studies have, at least through 2018-2019.

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Data from the Pew Research Center has shown a more modest previous decline in evangelical Christianity — and even a slightly bigger decline in nonevangelical Protestants. The PRRI data, though, show nonevangelical Protestants actually rebounding in the past few years. One could surmise that has something to do with evangelicals’ embrace of Trump, but Pew’s data showed no such shift from 2016 to 2019. And other data from the General Social Survey and the Cooperative Congressional Election Study also show the percentages of evangelicals holding relatively steady through 2018.

Some of this could come down to how you ask the questions and understand the responses. Eastern Illinois University professor Ryan Burge wrote a couple of years back that the apparent decline of evangelicals might be oversold because the term has increasingly reflected a political affiliation, not just a religious one.

But PRRI’s data suggest that, even within the GOP, White evangelicals are on the decline: White evangelicals have gone from 37 percent of the GOP in 2006 to 29 percent in 2020.

Just as important is the age disparity. 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.

Again, some of that is the overall decline in religiosity in this country and that younger people are much more likely to be unaffiliated. And just because young people aren’t evangelicals doesn’t mean they might not become evangelicals later in life.

But the White evangelical population is even more disproportionately older than White nonevangelical Protestants and White Catholics. And previous data suggest the evangelical population has indeed trended significantly older over time.

One of the most undersold findings to me, though, comes not with White evangelicals, but with Christian voters of color.

Evangelicals make up a larger portion of Black Americans (35 percent) than White Americans (23 percent). (This is less encouraging for evangelical conservatives, of course, given Black voters are much more likely to vote Democratic.) And when you include other denominations, there are now more Christians of color in the Democratic Party (32 percent) than there are White evangelical Christians in the GOP (29 percent).

This, of course, is comparing all Christian groups among minority voters to only one Christian group among Whites. But it puts things in perspective when you consider how much attention White evangelicals have gotten as a core Republican constituency over the past two decades.

And at least one prominent evangelical says the data are worth internalizing. Russell Moore, who left the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention recently after clashing with fellow evangelical leaders over Trump, called the situation “troubling.”

“Time for renewal, repentance, and redirection. Time to seek the kingdom first again,” Moore said. He added of the idea that this was merely about self-identification rather than a true shift in religiosity: “We should still ask — *why* do people, especially a lot of younger people, not want to ‘identify’ as evangelical Christians?”