White Christians are no longer a majority in America, but they still make up nearly three-quarters of the Republican Party, according to a sweeping new study of faith in America being released Wednesday.
White Christians accounted for 80% of the U.S. population when Jimmy Carter was president; that number had dropped to 54% by 2006, and white Christians now make up only 43% of the U.S. population, as the number of people unaffiliated with any religion has swelled.
But the GOP remains about 73% white Christian — down slightly from 10 years ago — and 35% evangelical, despite the fact that white evangelical protestants now make up only 17% of the U.S. population, according to the yearlong survey of more than 100,000 people by PRRI, a public policy research firm that specializes in issues of faith.
By contrast, fewer than one-third of Democrats are white Christians, down from about 50% a decade ago.
“We are seeing this widening gap between the two political parties,” said PRRI CEO Robert P. Jones.
“If you think about some of the big worries the founding fathers had about political parties, it was that they would accentuate factionalism rather than smoothing it over,” Jones said. “I think we are really seeing that. We are seeing increasingly the Republican Party becoming more and more a white Christian party that is heavily rooted in the South and Midwest and the Democratic Party kind of following along these demographic changes, becoming less white and less Christian.”
As race and religion become strong predictors of party affiliation, Jones said, “this looks more and more like a tribal identity than a political affiliation.”
Outside politics, the PRRI survey shows a dramatic shift in the nation’s religious views, with a big increase in the number of people — especially young people — declaring themselves “unaffiliated.” About 24% of Americans are now religiously unaffiliated, up from about 10% in 1995. Among people aged 18-29, that number rises to just shy of 40%.
The PRRI survey found 20 states where the “unaffiliated” make up a larger percentage population than other single faith group, including Democratic strongholds like Vermont, Oregon and Washington along with traditional “red” states like Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
But these unaffiliated Americans are not much of a political force. PRRI reported in September that the unaffiliated make up only about 12% of the vote in any national election. And the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life reported in January that the 115th Congress is a little over 90% Christian, a number that has remained largely unchanged for decades.
John Green, director of the Bliss Center of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, said the numbers in the PRRI survey largely reaffirm long-developing trends in American politics, but that does not mean they are without concern for both parties.
"There are real costs for political parties becoming too closely identified with one religious group or cultural group," Green said. Some Republicans voiced concern in the 1980s, as the party began to emphasize a strong faith-based agenda, that it would be at risk of alienating moderates and non-religious people.
By the same token, he said, "there are Democratic leaders today worried about becoming a non-religious party or an anti-white-Christian party."
But Green noted that ethic identity has always been a significant component of American political parties, and "a kind of tribal pattern is not a new thing at all."
Neither the Republican nor the Democratic Party seemed interested in discussing the faith of their members.
"There is no doubt that we must be present in every single community around the clock – not just during an election season," said Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Tyler. "That’s exactly why we’re rebuilding the Democratic Party into an organization that organizes 12-months a year in every single ZIP Code. It’s not enough to show up at a church every fourth October – we want to be a presence every month, every year."
“As evidenced by President Trump’s election, Republican policies and candidates are resonating in a way that Democrats’ simply are not,” said Republican National Committee Press Secretary Cassie Smedile. “This is why Americans continue to elect Republicans across all levels of government, and why the RNC will continue to engage with them and share our message at every possible opportunity.”