Less than half of the U.S. population now consider themselves white Christians, a stunning and seismic shift from 40 years ago, according to a recently released survey on religious identity.
The study also shows that less than half of all states are now majority white Christian. Just 10 years ago, 39 states had majority white Christian populations.
The 2016 "America's Changing Religious Identity" study, released Sept. 6 by the Public Religion Research Institute, is the largest survey of American religious identity ever conducted. It included a sampling of more than 101,000 Americans from all 50 states.
The biggest change from the past to the present is, not surprisingly, generational in nature.
"The young are much less likely to believe this is a 'Christian nation' or to give preference to Christian identity," said Daniel Cox, PRRI's director of research. "Young people and seniors are basically inhabiting different religious worlds. It is no longer the case among young people that being religious is necessarily a positive attribute."
Robert P. Jones, PRRI's CEO and author of The End of White Christian America, said one of the biggest changes is the loss of many of the white evangelical Protestants.
"This report provides solid evidence of a new, second wave of white Christian decline that is occurring among white evangelical Protestants just over the last decade in the U.S.," he said. "Prior to 2008, white evangelical Protestants seemed to be exempt from the waves of demographic change and disaffiliation that were eroding the membership bases of white mainline Protestants and white Catholics. We now see that these waves simply crested later for white evangelical Protestants."
Among the major findings of the study:
• White Christians are now less than half of the public. Only 43 percent identify as white and Christian, and only 30 percent as white and Protestant. In 1976, roughly eight in 10 (81 percent) Americans identified as white and identified with a Christian denomination.
• White evangelical Protestants are in decline, along with white mainline Protestants and white Catholics. Fewer than one in five (17 percent) Americans is a white evangelical Protestant, but they
accounted for nearly one-quarter (23 percent) in 2006. Over the same period, white Catholics dropped five percentage points from 16 percent to 11 percent, as have white mainline Protestants, from 18 percent to 13 percent.
• America's youngest religious groups are all non-Christian. Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists are all younger than white Christian groups. At least one-third of Muslims (42 percent), Hindus (36 percent), and Buddhists (35 percent) are under the age of 30. Roughly one-third (34 percent) of religiously unaffiliated Americans are also under 30.
• The Catholic Church is experiencing an ethnic transformation. In 1991, nearly nine in 10 (87 percent) Catholics were white, non-Hispanic, compared to 55 percent today. More than half (52 percent) of Catholics under the age of 30 are Hispanic.
• Self-described atheists and agnostics account for a minority of all religiously unaffiliated. Most describe themselves as secular. Atheists and agnostics account for about one-quarter (27 percent) of all religiously unaffiliated Americans. Nearly six in 10 (58 percent) religiously unaffiliated Americans identify as secular, someone who is not religious.
• There are 20 states in which no religious group comprises a greater share of residents than the religiously unaffiliated. These states tend to be more concentrated in the Western United States, although they include a couple of states in the Northeast.
• The cultural center of the Catholic Church is shifting south. In 1972, roughly seven in 10 Catholics lived in either the Northeast (41 percent) or the Midwest (28 percent). Today, a majority of Catholics reside in the South (29 percent) or West (25 percent).
• Jews, Hindus and Unitarian-Universalists stand out as the most educated groups in the American religious landscape. More than one-third of Jews (34 percent), Hindus (38 percent), and Unitarian-Universalists (43 percent) hold post-graduate degrees. Notably, Muslims are significantly more likely than white evangelical Protestants to have at least a four-year college degree.
• Nearly half of LGBT Americans are religiously unaffiliated. Nearly half (46 percent) of Americans who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are religiously unaffiliated. This is roughly twice the number of Americans overall (24 percent) who are religiously unaffiliated.
• White Christians have become a minority in the Democratic Party. Fewer than one in three (29 percent) Democrats today is a white Christian, compared to half (50 percent) one decade earlier. Only 14 percent of young Democrats (age 18 to 29) identify as white Christian. Forty percent identify as religiously unaffiliated.
• White evangelical Protestants remain the dominant religious force in the GOP. More than one-third (35 percent) of all Republicans identify as white evangelical Protestant, a proportion that has remained roughly stable over the past decade.