American Religious Landscape 'Undergoing a Dramatic Transformation,' Study Finds

Abandoned Church Building

The Public Religious Research Institute has released its findings from an encompassing survey called The American Values Atlas (AVA). According to the PRRI:

[It's] the single largest survey of American religious and denominational identity ever conducted. This landmark report is based on a sample of more than 101,000 Americans from all 50 states and includes detailed information about their religious affiliation, denominational ties, political affiliation, and other important demographic attributes.

The study is fascinating and comprehensive, but long. If you have the time, I encourage you to read it for yourself (linked above). What immediately stands out in the report is this:

The American religious landscape is undergoing a dramatic transformation. White Christians, once the dominant religious group in the U.S., now account for fewer than half of all adults living in the country. Today, fewer than half of all states are majority white Christian.

The study reveals that "only 43% of Americans identify as white and Christian, and only 30% as white and Protestant." This is a drastic change from the recent past:

In 1976, roughly eight in ten (81%) Americans identified as white and identified with a Christian denomination, and a majority (55%) were white Protestants." Distilling it down even further, the report later reveals that, "White Christians, which once dominated the religious landscape as recently as a decade ago, now account for fewer than half of the public. White evangelical Protestants, the single largest religious tradition, make up less than one in five (17%) Americans today. Compared to ten years ago, significantly fewer Americans identify as white mainline Protestant (13%) or white Catholic (11%). Mormons comprise two percent of the population.

One trend in the study confirms what other surveys have hinted at: White evangelical protestants are declining in number and, hence, in influence. According to the report:

White evangelical Protestants were once thought to be bucking a longer trend, but over the past decade their numbers have dropped substantially. Fewer than one in five (17%) Americans are white evangelical Protestant, but they accounted for nearly one-quarter (23%) in 2006. Over the same period, white Catholics dropped five percentage points from 16% to 11%, as have white mainline Protestants, from 18% to 13%.

According to the findings of the PRRI, age is a factor in the breakdown:

The religious landscape in the U.S. is highly stratified by generation. Nearly two-thirds of seniors (age 65 or older) identify as white and Christian: White evangelical Protestant (26%), white mainline Protestant (19%), or white Catholic (16%). Conversely, only about one-quarter of young adults (age 18-29) belong to a white Christian tradition, including white evangelical Protestant (8%), white mainline Protestant (8%), or white Catholic (6%). Young adults are more than three times as likely as seniors to identify as religiously unaffiliated (38% vs. 12%, respectively).

In fact, speaking of young people...

America’s youngest religious groups are all non-Christian. Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists are all far younger than white Christian groups. At least one-third of Muslims (42%), Hindus (36%), and Buddhists (35%) are under the age of 30. Roughly one-third (34%) of religiously unaffiliated Americans are also under 30. In contrast, white Christian groups are aging. Slightly more than one in ten white Catholics (11%), white evangelical Protestants (11%), and white mainline Protestants (14%) are under 30. Approximately six in ten white evangelical Protestants (62%), white Catholics (62%), and white mainline Protestants (59%) are at least 50 years old.

There is much to dissect in the survey, and much to learn. On the one hand, it will be easy for Christians to bemoan the seemingly negative trajectory. However:

Evangelical Protestants are experiencing a substantial racial and ethnic transformation. Young evangelical Protestants are far more racially and ethnically diverse than previous generations. Only half (50%) of evangelical Protestants under the age of 30 are white, compared to more than three-quarters (77%) of evangelical Protestant seniors (age 65 or older). Twenty-two percent of young evangelical Protestants are black, 18% are Hispanic, and nine percent identify as some other race or mixed race."

The spread of the Kingdom of God among all ethnicities is as heartening as it is praiseworthy.