In analyzing data from the Pew Research Center’s massive Religious Landscape survey, National Journal’s Ron Brownstein writes that long the dominant group in America’s religious life, White Christians have fallen below a majority of the U.S. population. Among the findings:
White Christians now represent just 46 percent of America adults. That’s down from 55 percent majority as recently as 2007, and much higher figures through most of U.S. history.
In 1944, polls showed that White Christians accounted for more than eight-in-10 American adults, account to John C. Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron.
Surveys found that number declined only slightly, to just under eight-in-10, by 1964.
Even in 1984, White Christians still accounted for just under seven-in-10 American adults.
As Brownstein writes, “the end of majority status for White Christians marks another milestone in America’s transformation into a kaleidoscope society with no single dominant group.”
Politically speaking, White Christians now comprise 69 percent of all Republicans and only one-third of all Democrats. “The contrasting religious mix in the two party coalitions help explain their widening distance on cultural issues,” according to Brownstein. “The declining importance of White Christians in the Democratic electoral coalition made it easier for party leaders to move left on cultural questions.” He adds, “while the Republican coalition still revolves around Christians, Democrats increasingly rely on Americans who identify with non-Christian faiths, or no religious tradition at all.”
Demographic milestones like this may help explain the powerful feelings of alienation that exists among many Republicans and conservatives these days. One recent poll found 62 percent of Republicans say “These days I feel like a stranger in my own country” while 72 percent said, “More and more I don’t identify with what America has become.” This corresponds with things I’ve heard from people I know – a feeling that the country is lost, that we are reaching (or have reached) the point of no return, that they are aliens in their own land.
It’s true we are going through a time of massive changes – in our economy, in our culture, and in our demographics. This has created significant anxiety and fear in people, some of whom are resigned to the changes and given up hope while others are determined to reverse them by rallying around political figures who are vehicles for their unease and despair, their worries, and resentments. This helps explain, in part, the Trump phenomenon. (It’s notable that the title of Trump’s newly released book is Crippled America.) His no-longer-disguised nativism and xenophobia are viewed by some significant number of people as evidence of strength, as part of a national reclamation project, as central to “making America great again.”
This is a disastrous moral and political road for Republicans to travel. The GOP needs to produce leaders – most especially a presidential nominee — who recognize the changes that are happening and, rather than resorting to lamentations, work within their principles to appeal to an increasingly multi-cultural America. Who recognize the changes we’re experiencing and can channel them in a constructive way. Who don’t fear the future but have the ability to wisely shape it. This involves a mindset that places a frame around policies, campaign themes, and acts of symbolism.
We’re at a moment in the life of the Republican Party that is in some respects reminiscent of the rise of the Know Nothings, a political movement that gained influence in the aftermath of a massive wave of immigration from Ireland and Germany after 1845 and that led to an outburst of anti-foreign and anti-Catholic sentiment. Nativists tapped into deep-seated antagonisms directed toward The Other, feelings that were amplified by concerns over the changing demographic composition of America. It was the greatest Republican, Abraham Lincoln, who argued that the party’s nativist platform was a violation of America’s founding principles.
Today in America, and in the Republican Party, in particular, we’re seeing the rise of nativism and xenophobia that is connected to demographic shifts and their fear-inducing anger. The best politicians, the true statesmen, will listen to those fears, sort through what’s legitimate and what is not (there are elements of both), and help us to adjust to shifting circumstances in ways that make us stronger and better. It’s been done before; it can be done again. But that will require, as a necessary step, the repudiation of Donald J. Trump and all the ugliness he stands for.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Previously he worked in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.