Why it’s now ‘American identity, stupid’ in US politics

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While White Christians have fallen below a majority of the US population over the past decade, they still made up almost exactly two-thirds of the adults in the counties Trump carried — and an even higher percentage in the counties that provided him his largest margins, according to the new findings. By contrast, White Christians represent only about two-fifths of the population in the counties that voted for Biden — and an even smaller percentage in the counties that gave him his biggest margins.

The grounding of today’s partisan differences in such elemental components of social identity as religion — as well as race, education and age — helps explain why the balance of power has grown so difficult for either party to fundamentally shift, despite all the tumultuous events of recent years. It also explains why so many Americans consider the stakes in the political competition higher than ever. The PRRI results point toward a political competition that now revolves less around individual policy disputes than the larger question of whether America’s direction will be set by the predominantly White and Christian voters who have historically wielded the most power or by an emerging America defined by both religious and racial diversity.

“What we’re seeing unfolding over the last four years, and coming into full flower now, the [political] divides really are about American identity, much more than they are about a policy or even economics,” says Robert P. Jones, founder and CEO of PRRI. “Today we should probably replace ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ with ‘It’s American identity, stupid.’ “

Still a Christian nation?

Jones, like other analysts, believes a pervasive sense of loss and displacement in a diversifying country has solidified the strong affinity for Trump-style politics among many White Christians, especially White evangelical Protestants.

“It really is hard to overstate how central to White Christians’ worldview is this idea of America as a White Christian nation,” says Jones, author of the book “White Too Long,” a history of the relationship between Christian churches and racial inequality. A poll of Trump supporters earlier this year by the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center underscores his point: Fully 87% of them agreed that “Christian faith is an essential part of American greatness.” That number rose to a near unanimous 97% among White evangelical Trump supporters.
Both the Ethics and Public Policy Center polling and the Public Religion Research Institute’s annual “American Values Survey” document deep concern among Trump’s White Christian supporters, especially evangelicals, that social change of all sorts is eroding Christianity’s central position in American life. In the EPPC poll, 89% of all Trump supporters (and 94% of his evangelical backers) said that “Christianity is under attack in America today.” In the latest PRRI polling, three-fourths of White evangelicals agreed that immigrants are “invading” America and replacing its culture; just over 7 in 10 agreed that Whites now face as much discrimination as Blacks and that the values of Islam are incompatible with American values. Nearly 6 in 10 of them, in a recoil from changing gender roles, said that “society is becoming too soft and feminine.”
This sense of siege, Jones said, has left many conservative Christian voters open to both Trump’s message of resisting social change and to wild conspiracy theories, such as his disproven claims about massive election fraud in 2020. In recent PRRI polling, roughly one-fourth of White evangelical Protestants expressed sympathy for the QAnon conspiracy theory and as many agreed that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence” to save the US.

“I think as this central tentpole that has been holding up their worldview — America as a White Christian nation, their own private promised land — has fallen, just under the sheer weight of the changing country all around them, it has left them vulnerable to grasping at straws and believing in delusions,” Jones says.

White Christians’ numbers declining

Behind this weakness for ungrounded political fantasy is an implacable demographic reality: White Christians have been relentlessly declining as a share of America’s population.

Whites who identify as Christians composed a majority of Americans through almost all of US history. Even as late as 1968, when President Richard Nixon was first elected, Gallup polling found that 85% of Americans identified as White and Christian. (At that point about 60% of Americans identified as White Protestants and another roughly 25% as White Catholics.)

That number has plummeted over the past half century as the nation has grown more diverse racially (reducing the White share of the population) and religiously (reducing the share of Christians). Different surveys plot the change at slightly varying speeds, but they all show the same trajectory, with the nation reaching a dramatic milestone sometime over the past decade. According to the annual General Social Survey by NORC at the University of Chicago, an independent research organization, White Christians fell below majority status in the country for the first time sometime between 2010 and 2012. Gallup, in figures it provided me, put the tipping point to minority status somewhere between 2016 and 2017. Though the Pew Research Center and PRRI did not conduct polls frequently enough to identify a precise tipping point, in surveys over the past decade both also found White Christians falling to well below half of the population.
Opinion: America is no longer as evangelical as it was -- and here's why
In the PRRI studies, White Christians reached a low point of 42% of the population in 2018. PRRI says the group has rebounded slightly since, to 44% of the population in the latest Census of American Religion, which it released last week. Gallup, though it places the share of White Christians slightly higher, hasn’t found a rebound: It shows their level stable at 47% since 2018. (Neither the General Social Survey nor Pew has numbers more recent than that.)

The growth in PRRI’s data came primarily from an unexpected source: a slight increase in the share of Americans who identify as mainline Protestants, a faith that had seemed the most endangered over recent decades. White Catholics have also stabilized in the PRRI data, but the institute found the share of adults who identify as White evangelical Protestants, the bedrock group in the Republican coalition, continuing to slide; in PRRI’s data, evangelicals now comprise 14.5% of Americans, down from about 21% a decade ago. Jones says that while there is no conclusive proof in the data, there’s evidence to suggest that some White Protestants who once might have identified as evangelical have migrated toward more mainline Protestant denominations over unease with evangelical leaders’ unconditional identification with Trump.

2 snapshots in time

Notwithstanding their slight differences, all the major data sources agree on the broad trend of growing religious pluralism. The shrinking share of White Christians have been replaced partly by non-White Christians, who have grown from just under one-fourth of the population earlier in this century to slightly over one-fourth now. Even more important has been the rising number of Americans who don’t identify with any religious faith: They’ve increased from about 1 in 6 adults earlier in this century to nearly 1 in 4 now.

These powerful currents have washed over both parties, but they have carried Republicans and Democrats to very different places. White Christians still make up 68% of adults who identify as Republicans, PRRI found, with White evangelical Christians (at 29%), the largest religious group in the party (if down from their numbers even in the GOP earlier this century). By contrast, White Christians now compose just 39% of those who identify as Democrats. Non-White Christians contribute about 1 in 3 Democrats, PRRI found, compared with only about 1 in 7 Republicans. The remaining Democrats (nearly 3 in 10) ascribe either to non-Christian faiths or no religion at all; those two groups represent roughly one-sixth of the GOP, only a little over half as much.

In all, the two parties now present religious profiles that amount to snapshots through time. Today’s Republican coalition looks something like the religious profile in America overall about 25 years ago (the last time White Christians represented two-thirds of all Americans in the General Social Survey studies was around 1995); the Democratic coalition’s religious breakdown approximates what America itself might look like 10 or so years from now.

Jones makes the same point from a slightly different vantage point: He notes that the religious composition of the Republican coalition now closely resembles the profile of Americans 65 and older, while the Democratic composition closely overlaps with the overall profile of adults younger than 30.

Strong regional differences

The new county-level data from PRRI shows just how powerfully and pervasively these contrasts now shape the competition between the parties. In its latest report, PRRI made an unprecedented attempt to document American religious affiliation by county, drawing on 459,822 survey interviews with Americans across all 50 states that it conducted from 2013 to 2019.

That report found sharp regional differences in religious affiliation, with all White Christians representing the largest share of the population across the Midwest and outer South, White evangelicals most plentiful in the deep South and unaffiliated, secular Americans most common in the Northeast and especially the West. At CNN’s request, PRRI research director Natalie Jackson crossed those findings with county-level results from the 2020 and 2016 presidential races. The results were striking.

In 2020, White Christians made up 66% of the adult population in the nearly 2,600 counties Trump carried, many of them smaller and rural. In the nearly 550 counties that Biden carried (including 91 of the 100 largest), White Christians represented only 41% of the adult population. The difference was especially stark among White evangelical Christians: They composed 34% of the population in the Trump counties, compared with just 15% in the Biden counties. By contrast, non-White Christians represented almost 1 in 4 adults in the Biden counties, compared with about 1 in 10 in the Trump counties. Other Christians — a diverse group that includes Asian, Native American, mixed-race and Orthodox Christians as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses — constituted a comparably small share in each man’s counties (about 1 in 16). But those who subscribe to non-Christian faiths or no faith at all were a much bigger presence in the Biden counties (roughly 3 in 10) than Trump’s (about 2 in 10).

This divergence was even greater in the counties that gave each side its biggest margins. In the nearly 1,100 counties Trump won by 50 percentage points or more, White Christians made up more than 70% of the population, PRRI found. Trump amassed his biggest margins, beating Biden by 80 percentage points or more, almost entirely in smaller rural counties — like Roberts, Borden, King and Armstrong counties in Texas or Hayes, McPherson and Grant in Nebraska — where White Christians represented about three-fourths or more of the population. By contrast, they made up fewer than one-third of all residents in the roughly 170 counties that Biden won by at least 30 percentage points; in Biden’s 20 best counties, most of them larger urban centers, White Christians constituted more than one-fourth of the population in just five.

Contraction and radicalization

These county-level results confirm the religious divide evident in exit polls and other studies that analyzed the 2020 election results. In the recently released Pew Research Center “Validated Voters” study, for instance, Trump crushed by Biden by almost 70 percentage points among White evangelical Christians and posted solid (if reduced from 2016) margins of about 15 percentage points among both White mainline Protestants and White Catholics. Strong liberal social movements have persisted in both denominations for decades (particularly around issues of racial justice), but the fact that Biden, a White Catholic who positioned himself as a centrist, couldn’t push his vote with those groups much past 40% underscored how many barriers Democrats face with the bulk of their believers.
Biden, in turn, dominated among secular voters and non-White Christians (though Trump apparently ran more competitively, as Republicans often do, among Hispanic Protestants, many of whom are evangelicals). Like polls in previous presidential elections, the Pew analysis also found that within each religious denomination Trump, as other Republican nominees before him, generally ran better with the voters who attended religious services most often, while Biden did better with those who attended less frequently, according to detailed results Pew provided me.

Jones says it’s too early to tell if the recent stabilization in the White Christian share of the population represents a new plateau or merely a pause in their long decline. One key factor argues for the latter assessment: White Christians make up only a little more than 1 in 4 adults under 30 in PRRI’s data, compared with nearly 6 in 10 of those over 65. As the former continue to replace the latter in American society, that disparity suggests White Christians are more likely than not to continue shrinking through the 2020s. When measuring America by race and religion White Christians will likely remain the nation’s largest single group for years, but without the preponderant numbers that made them the clear first among equals in US life for earlier generations.

How White Christians respond to that change in status will play a huge role in determining whether America’s political tensions continue to escalate. (The question is equally pertinent for Whites without college degrees, another core GOP group that also has, for the first time, fallen below a majority of the US population in this century.)

As the new PRRI county data for 2016 and 2020 shows, a strong majority of White Christians have flocked to Trump’s promise to “make America great again” and implicitly restore a social order that placed them at its center. If that large a share of White Christians responded to such arguments when they still constituted a little over 40% of the population, there’s little reason to think that if their numbers shrink further fewer will be drawn to Trump-style messaging — even as he grows more overtly hostile to democracy.

This process of contraction and radicalization is most apparent among White evangelicals, as evidenced by the conflict between relative moderates and militant conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention.

“My fear is that what’s going to happen is as the group shrinks it’s going to become more extreme and what’ll end up happening is that the moderating voices in that group will leave and then it becomes even more extreme,” says Jones.

Such a “radicalization spiral” is very hard to break, he notes, and provides a huge pool of disaffected Whites willing to subvert democratic rules — or even resort to violence — if that’s what it takes to prevent a diverse and increasingly secular liberal coalition from, in their view, remaking American society.

“It’s a crisis,” Jones says flatly. “There’s no other way to say it.”

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