PRRI poll: White Christians are in decline

Some see the nation’s capital as out of step with the average American. When it comes to basic religious demographics, new data seems to confirm that’s true.

A huge poll released Wednesday about U.S. religious identity included rare local breakdowns — not easy to get without massive sample sizes — and it showed that D.C.’s religious profile stands out in some core ways from the U.S. public overall. Basically, there are way fewer white evangelical Protestants and way more black Protestants and more unaffiliated people in D.C. than in the country in general.

The pattern is still true, but less dramatically, when you compare the country to the metro Washington area, according to the data released Wednesday by the Public Religion Research Institute.

Nationally, according to the PRRI poll of more than 101,000 Americans, white evangelicals make up 17 percent of the population, compared with 7 percent in the D.C. region and just 1 percent in the nation’s capital. Other numbers that stand out: black Protestants are 8 percent nationally, compared with 14 percent in the D.C. area and 21 percent in the city. Unaffiliated Americans — people who say they have no particular religious affiliation — make up 24 percent of Americans overall, compared with 28 percent in the D.C. area and 32 percent in the District.

Yet for longtime watchers of the District’s religion scene, this one data set doesn’t tell the whole story.

“I don’t know I’d say we’re out of step — we’re the way the rest of the country will be looking in the future, to some extent. We’re on the cutting edge in terms of diversity,” said Terry Lynch, the longtime head of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, which tries to pull together the city’s faith groups for social activism.

He noted that D.C. has become more diverse in certain ways in recent years — even as it has gentrified more and drawn younger and wealthier occupants as its economy boomed. It used to lean more toward Baptists and Catholics, while today “we have Buddhists, Unitarians — [religious] diversity some states don’t have. People feel more welcome, more able to express themselves. I think it’s for the good.”

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The PRRI poll continues to document other major long-term — and well-established — trends in U.S. religious identity, including the shrinking percentage in the national population of white Christians. This trend plays a role in many aspects of American public life, including U.S. politics, with anxiety among some white Americans and much debate over whether America was, will be or should be a “Christian nation” and what exactly that entails anyway.

“As recently as 1996, white Christians still made up nearly two-thirds of the public. By 2006, that number dropped to 54 percent … but over the last decade the proportion of white Christians in the U.S. has slipped below the majority,” PRRI said in its report. “Today only 43 percent of Americans identify as white and Christian — and only 30 percent as white and Protestant.”

There are many factors adding to this, but perhaps the two biggest are the expanding size of the nonwhite population and the growth of religious disaffiliation.

PRRI’s polling and analysis finds that, between 2006 and 2016, the percent of Americans who identify as white evangelical Protestants went from 23 percent to 16.8 percent. White Mainline Protestants went from 17.8 percent to 12.8 percent, PRRI finds. White Catholics fell to 11.4 percent from 16 percent.

That’s a 6.2 percent decrease for white evangelicals, and a 16 percent decrease for white Christians in general.

Other polls in recent years have shown similar trend lines, just not quite as steep. For example Pew Research’s Religious Landscape Surveys found a 2.1 percentage point drop in the size of the white evangelical population from 2007 to 2014, from 21.1 percent to 19 percent according to calculations by The Post. The General Social Survey found when comparing religious identification from 2002-2006 and 2016 that white evangelicals dropped in size by 2 to 4 points.

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In popular lingo, the word “evangelical” has often — wrongly — been used interchangeably with “white evangelical.” That is due to pollsters often lumping together white evangelicals because of their statistical similarities — their shared views, beliefs, behaviors — and also doing the same with black Protestants, who could also be seen as “evangelical” based on their theological beliefs.

PRRI notes that whites are becoming a smaller share of America’s evangelical world. Fewer than two-thirds are white; nearly 19 percent are black, 10 percent are Latino and 6 percent identify as mixed-race. And this trend is accelerating. Half of evangelicals under the age of 30 are white, compared with more than 77 percent of evangelicals over the age of 65.

Mormons are the exception to this trend. In the country, 1.9 percent of people identify as Mormon — the same as it was in 2011, PRRI says. Mormons are also younger as a group than other largely white Christian communities.

Another key long-term trend in the PRRI poll is the growing religious diversity among the young. All of the youngest religious groups are non-Christian, PRRI finds. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and the unaffiliated are all much younger than white Christian groups (or as a group). At least one-third of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists are under 30. Those numbers for white Catholics are 11 percent, white evangelicals also 11 percent and white Mainline Protestants 14 percent.

However all non-Christian religious groups added up are still less than 1 in 10 Americans combined.

Dan Cox, PRRI research director, said the rise of non-Christian groups is influenced by two big factors: Immigration and the fact that people who immigrate tend to be younger, and religious disaffiliation, which is also more likely to happen among the young.

When it comes to looking at religious identity through the lens of the nation’s capital, Lynch said D.C. isn’t the “old Southern town we used to be.” Religious leaders and institutions don’t have the power and influence the did just a few decades ago.

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Black congregations in particular left the city in order to follow parishioners who moved to the burbs, and were to some degree replaced by a range of nondenominational churches or churches seeking to serve LGBT believers, or institutions aimed at the spiritual-but-not-religious.

Religious leaders in D.C. lost some of their local power, Lynch said, because frankly they aren’t focusing on it. “Religious leaders now are much more interested in national and international issues, not local. Pastors don’t necessarily have the clout locally.”

“It’s not the way it was in the ’50s or the ’80s, and those times are not coming back.”

The Public Religion Research Institute Survey was done in January 2016 among a random national sample of 101,43 adults reached on cellular and landline phones. The margin of sampling error for national results is plus or minus 0.4 percentage points; for the 1,865 respondents in the D.C. region it’s 2.7 points and among the 288 respondents in D.C. itself the margin is 6.7 points.

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