Members Only | July 19, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

PRRI report says white evangelical Protestants are coming to their senses? Yeah, don’t hold your breath

The religious triumphalism is premature.

PRRI report says white evangelical Protestants are coming to their senses? Yeah, don't hold your breath

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Don’t get too excited about that report from Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) with its finding that white evangelical Protestants have now sunk below white mainline Protestants in their share of the American population. It was an eye-opener, to be sure, but there’s good reason to temper our enthusiasm over the survey’s results.

For example, you absolutely should not read the results (white evangelical Protestants went from 23 percent of the population in 2006 to just 14.3 percent today, while white mainliners were 17.8 percent to 16.4 percent over the same time frame) as saying that parishioners are flooding out of evangelical congregations and into mainline ones. 

Today’s GOP seems committed to minority-rule apartheid, and white evangelicals are right there, leading the charge. No relative loss to white mainliners is going to change that, writes the Editorial Board’s chaplain, Rev. Daniel Schultz.

As political scientist Paul Djupe explained, because PRRI measures affiliation by self-identification, not denominational membership, the most likely scenario is that the evangelical brand has taken a beating in the last 15 years. Most people are doing church (or not) the same way they have been—they’re just embarrassed to be called an evangelical these days. And as pollster and former PRRI member Robert Griffin points out, it’s hard to square these results with other ways of examining religious identity. None of this is to say that PRRI is wrong. They might or might not be. But it’s worth taking the results with a grain of salt until they can be corroborated by other data.

Another way to misread these results is to say, as Jennifer Rubin or Michelle Goldberg do, that a gnawing sense of this reality is driving white evangelicals to ever-deeper extremes of right-wing paranoia and white entitlement. It’s a take shared by Robbie Jones, PRRI’s chief executive, who told Goldberg that: “As the group has become older and smaller …. ‘a real visceral sense of loss of cultural dominance’ has set in.”

It’s easy to think this way. Particularly over the last four years, evangelicals appear to have situated themselves ever closer to the unsettling authoritarian heart of modern conservatism. But in the end, John has it right: “[White evangelical protestants] are not embracing anti-democracy out of fear of losing their place in the republic. WEPs are anti-democratic, because that’s what it means to be a white evangelical Protestant.”

You have only to read any non-hagiographical account of Billy Graham’s career to understand this point. White evangelicals have been anti-democratic for quite some time now. If you’re hoping that they’ll somehow come to their senses, or that other Christians will convert them to a broader faith, don’t hold your breath. Today’s GOP seems committed to minority-rule apartheid, and white evangelicals are right there, leading the charge. No relative loss to white mainliners is going to change that.

Perhaps the best reason to take a pass on the religious triumphalism, however, is simple math. In a few years, the evangelical brand could be popular once more, and overtake white mainline Protestantism again. And while white evangelicals are getting older, which could mean that young people are deserting their churches, it could also mean that their birth rate has declined. That’s the best sociological guess as to why mainline churches have been shrinking since the late 1960’s, after all. It could have nothing to do with national politics and everything to do with human biology.

And while the shifts over time stand out, in the end, PRRI reports a difference of seven million people between the white branches of Protestantism, or about 2 percent of the entire population of the United States. That might seem like enough to swing a tight election, but it’s really not, at least not yet. A very rough estimate is that Dems lost white Christians to Republicans by a 43-point margin in 2016—and by 33 points in 2020. It’s an improvement, to be sure, but it’s still a very solid margin of not winning. 

While white mainline Protestants and white Catholics aren’t as conservative as white evangelical Protestants, they’re still pretty darn conservative. Fifty-seven of white mainliners voted for Donald Trump in 2016. 2020 saw the same percentage. Sixty-four percent of white Catholics voted for Trump the first time, 57 percent in the second. 

That might seem like a steep decline, but it meant essentially that white Catholics remained about the same over the cycle. Because white evangelicals increased their vote for Trump from 77 percent to 84 percent in the same period, despite apparent population losses, they made up only 1 percent less of the GOP vote than they did in 2016. Meanwhile, white mainliners increased their share of the Republican coalition.

By now, you’ve probably gone completely glazed over due to assault-by-numbers. Truth comes with a lot of details. But the takeaway is actually pretty straightforward. It’s far too early to write off white evangelicals as a social or political force. The data’s not conclusive. It demonstrates only a modest effect at best. And it’s only tenuously connected to shifts in attitudes. Keep an eye on developments. Savor the moment if you must. But it’s not time to break out the schadenfreude champagne quite yet.

Rev. Daniel Schultz

Rev. Daniel Schultz is an activist, minister and writer in Wisconsin. Follow him @pastordan.

Published in cooperation with Alternet.

Rev. Daniel Schultz is the Editorial Board's resident chaplain and a minister in Wisconsin. He writes the Dandadad newsletter. Follow him @pastordan.

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