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By Dale M. Coulter, First Things, 10 . 10 . 17
New data released by the Public Religion Research Institute(PRRI) and the Pew Research Center have given rise to a number of analyses of white Christianity in general and white evangelicalism in particular. The numbers seem to suggest a decline in white Christianity across the board during the past decade. PRRI’s 2016 survey found that 43 percent of Americans identify as white and Christian, and only 17 percent identify as white evangelical Protestant. The Pew survey from 2017 adds that more whites are identifying as “spiritual but not religious,” so that 28 percent of white Americans now belong in that category, compared to 20 percent in 2012. The conclusion seems to be that Christianity in general, and white Christianity in particular, are in demographic decline.
Commentators such as Damon Linker have joined Robert Jones in reflecting on what this means for the future of the country. Jones has suggested that the Faustian bargain with Trump among evangelicals represented an application of desperate measures to a patient on life support. Linker looks beyond the immediate context and wonders whether a future secular America will in fact bode well for liberals, especially given recent trends in the alt-right. Secularism could easily involve the rise of an unconstrained post-religious right.
More analyses of white Christian America will doubtless be proffered in the years to come. But how useful they really are remains in doubt.
First, the PRRI identifies “white evangelicals” as a subcategory of evangelicals as a whole. The term “evangelical” is notoriously difficult to define; the authors of the report elected to apply it to those who self-identify as Protestant and “born again.” The PRRI finds that this category now accounts for 26 percent of Americans—the same percentage that identified as white evangelicals until 2006. One could interpret these numbers as showing a shift in the racial diversity of evangelicalism as a whole, or as showing a decline in white evangelicalism, or both. Either way, evangelicalism as a whole seems relatively stable, according to the PRRI, even if its demographics are shifting. In short, we need to stop confusing the decline of white evangelical Christianity with a decline in evangelicalism as a whole, or a decline in Christianity.
Moreover, as Philip Jenkins has noted, there is a tendency in these narratives of decline to treat ethnicity as static, when in fact the definitions remain dynamic. Through intermarriage and expanding categories, many Latinos/as and Asians may come to be included in “white” America. This fact should give us pause when we consider arguments about the end of white America. In some respects, the function of “whiteness” is analogous to mestizo in the Latin-American context. It points less and less to WASPness, and more to persons whose identity comprises some sort of ethnic mixture.
How will these numbers play out in terms of the future of American Christianity? My own conclusion is that Christianity as a whole, and Protestantism in particular, are undergoing a radical shift, but that this does not spell the end of Christianity in the United States. It does spell a different kind of Christianity.
According to PRRI, the four largest groups of Protestants in the country are Baptist (31.9 percent), non-denominational (17.1 percent), Methodist (10.1 percent), and Pentecostal (9.7 percent). The slippery category is non-denominational. Most of those within that category are charismatic and would be counted as “renewalist” in the classification system of the Center for Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell. It is also the case that among these four groups, Pentecostals and non-denominational churches have the most diversity and tend to be more evenly split between white and minority. Hence the “majority-minority” future has already arrived among Pentecostal and non-denominational groups. This explains, in part, why Pentecostal denominations such as the Assemblies of God continue to grow, despite downward trends among most Protestant bodies.
The Pew report finds that among the 27 percent of Americans who identify as “spiritual but not religious,” 35 percent also claim that they are Protestant. My hunch is that this trend corresponds with the rise of non-denominationalism, which is almost exclusively a Protestant phenomenon.
Four implications follow for the future of Protestantism.
The most obvious is a realignment away from mainline Protestantism and the major denominational players of the older evangelical Protestant coalitions. The future of Protestantism will largely be divided among Baptists, Methodists, and the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement, which includes all who identify as Pentecostal and most non-denominational churches.
Closely associated with this realignment is the rise of non-denominationalism. Non-denominational Christianity is largely driven by relational networks, and thus marks the emergence of “network Christianity.” There is a precedent for this development in the late-nineteenth-century holiness movement, with its ethos of populism and Protestant pluralism. We are witnessing a similar occurrence at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Moreover, the “spiritual but not religious category” is growing in part because of non-denominationalism, which feeds into religious populism. There is a connection between the loss of cultural capital by mainline Protestants and the Religious Right coalition of the 1980s and 1990s, and the rise of religious populism to fill the vacuum. We will no doubt see more efforts to build coalitions across the Christian world as a way of harnessing the religious populism of the non-denominational world and asserting common ground among Christians.
Evangelical Protestantism will remain steady or continue to grow at a slow pace, primarily through an increase in ethnic minorities. The new non-denominational churches and the Pentecostal churches, on average, exemplify greater diversity in these areas. Recognizing this reality, even the Southern Baptist Convention began to redirect efforts toward the Latino/a world by creating a Hispanic Advisory Council, which issued its report in 2014. An inconvenient truth of mainline Protestantism is that, despite efforts to the contrary, it remains the stronghold of WASP Christianity. Though “whiteness” may expand, WASP Christianity will die a slow demographic death. The evangelical future is mestizo.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University.