18 October 2019

Religion, Race, Gender, Urbanization and Politics In the United States in 2019

Religion in America in 2019

Today, about two-thirds of American adults are Christian and a third are not Christian. 

About a quarter of American adults of "born again" or evangelical Christians, one fifth are Roman Catholic, about one in six are Christians who do not identify as "born again" or evangelical (roughly speaking, "mainline Christians") and 2% are Mormons, with a tiny percentage being Orthodox Christians or otherwise not classifiable into the categories above.

A little more than one in six American adults are not religious but do not identify as atheists or agnostics. A little less than one in six American adults are atheist, agnostic or adhere to a non-Christian religious faith - 9% of atheists or agnostics, 7% are religious non-Christians (about 2% are Jews, 1% Muslim, 1% Buddhist, 1% Hindu, and 3% "other").

A little more than half of Americans are mainline Christian or not Christian, and a little less than half are "born again" or evangelical Christian, Roman Catholic, or Mormon.

The Intersection of Race, Religion and Politics

In terms of ideology, politics and culture, the picture is a bit more complicated. 

Black Christians who identify as "born again" or as evangelical Christians tend to be politically liberal and to have very different ideas about how a good Christian should live than white Christians who identify the same way. Hispanics who identify as "born again" or as evangelical Christians tend to have political views more similar to white mainline Christians than to white "born again" or evangelical Christians.

White mainline Christians tend to be part of denominations that adhere to relatively liberal views on social issues but to be fairly conservative anyway, while nonwhite mainline Christians tend to be much more liberal personally. White Roman Catholics are culturally and politically very similar to white mainline Christians, while Hispanic Roman Catholics tend to be more politically liberal, and also tend to look different from white Roman Catholics culturally, demographically and socio-economically.

Also, at least among white Christians, those who attend church more often often tend to be more conservative, and those who attend church less often tend to be more liberal.


From the Pew Research Center, "In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues At Rapid Pace" (October 17, 2019).

The percentage of adults in the United States who identify as Christian has been declining for my entire life. When I was born,  in 1970, about 90% of American adults identified as Christians. As of 2019, that percentage has dropped to about 65%. The percentage of American adults who identify as Christian has declined at a rate of about one percentage point a year since 2007, and more than half a percentage point a year for the entire time period since the early 1970s.

Most of that decline has been among Protestants who now identify as having no religion. Their percentage of the U.S. adult population has dropped by a quarter in that time.

The decline in the percentage of American adults who identify as Roman Catholic has declined at only about half the rate of Protestants. But, this is almost entirely a function of Hispanic Catholic immigration. In the Northeast U.S., where this hasn't been all that much Hispanic Catholic immigration, the percentage of adults who are Catholic has dropped by the same 25% that is seen for Protestants nationally.  In the South and West, where many Catholics are Hispanics with recent immigrant roots, the decline in the percentage of the population that is Catholic has been much more modest.

And, even among adult Hispanics in the U.S., less than half now identify as Catholic. The percentage of Hispanics who are Protestant, Mormon, or Orthodox Christian has basically held steady over the last decade (there was a statistically insignificant increase in the percentage identifying as Protestant from 23% to 24%). But, the percentage who identify as Catholic has fallen from 57% to 47%, while the percentage who identify as non-religious has surged from 15% to 23%, and the percentage who adhere to a non-Christian religion has surged from 1% to 3%. Over time, Hispanics are becoming more similar culturally, religiously and socioeconomically to whites as the process of immigrant assimilation continues relentlessly.

Since 2007, the decline in the percentage of Protestants who identify as "born again" or evangelical, and the decline in mainline Protestants, has taken place at the same rate. And, church attendance among people who identify as Christian has been basically unchanged in that time period.

This shift in religious identity has been demographically broad based and is not driven just by one subgroup (other than younger people). It is a shift that crosses the bounds of race, gender, education and geographic region, and has impacted both Republicans and Democrats although the shift has been bigger for Democrats than for Republicans.

The Generation Gap

This reflects a generational shift. The younger you are in the U.S. today is, the less like you are to be religious, and other studies show that Generation Z (my children's generation) is similar in ideology to the Millennials before them, and maybe a bit more so.

Older generations excepted young people who weren't religious to return to active Christian practice when they got older, but that didn't happen.

Every death in the United States, on average, makes the adult population of the United States less Christian (this population is about 80% Christian). Every child who turns eighteen, on average, makes the adult population of the United States less Christian (this age group is slightly less than 50% Christian).

The parents of older children who are closer to turning eighteen (who are slightly less than 50% Christian) tend to be members of Generation X (who are 67% Christian), like myself. Parents of younger children tend to be Millennials who are slightly less than 50% Christian, and if the persistent trend lines of the last 40 years continue to hold, their children will be Christian in lower percentages than their parents. When they become adults, it wouldn't be unreasonable to estimate that about 35% of them will be Christians.

Younger voters, for reasons very much related to their differing religious preferences are also more likely to vote for Democrats as the results below from the 2018 midterm elections demonstrate (in that election, "Nationally, voters favored Democratic candidates for Congress over Republican candidates by a margin of about 7 percentage points, according to a preliminary estimate by The New York Times.").

Race And Ethnicity In The United States In 2019

The non-Hispanic white population in the United States from 1910 to 1940 was in the range of 88.1% to 88.5% and this percentage has declined every decade since then. 

In 1970 when the overall non-Hispanic white population was 83.5%. The percentage of the population that is non-Hispanic white has decreased in every single U.S. state since 1970. 

In 1990, about 75.6% of the U.S. population was non-Hispanic white and Hawaii was the only U.S. state that was not majority non-Hispanic white. As of 2016, every U.S. state except Hawaii, California, New Mexico, Texas and Nevada was still majority non-Hispanic white, although by 2020, Maryland will also probably no longer be majority non-Hispanic white. (Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia are also not majority non-Hispanic white). 

As of July 2016, the United States was about 61.3% non-Hispanic white, 17.8% Hispanic, and 12.4% non-Hispanic African American, with non-Hispanic people who identify as Asian-American (about 4.8%), mixed race (about 2.2%) Native American or Alaska Native (about 0.9%), Pacific Islander (0.2%) and other (about 0.4%) making up most of the remaining population of the United States. The non-Hispanic white percentage of the U.S. population continues to fall steadily.

The declining percentage of the U.S. population that is non-Hispanic white is due mostly to relative numbers of births and deaths in each category racial and ethnic category, an increasing number of children who are of mixed race, and immigration:
In 2009, approximately 90% of all immigrants came from non-European countries. The U.S. does receive a small number of non-Hispanic white immigrants, mainly from countries such as Brazil, Canada, Poland, Russia, and the UK, as well as Egypt and Iran.


The percentage of Americans who live in urbanized areas has increased every decade from 1790, which it was 5.1%, to 2010, when it was 80.7% (except for a slight increase in the rural population percentage from 1810 to 1820 when the U.S. acquired a great deal of frontier land), and for every decade in each of the four main subregions of the U.S. (Northeast, South, Midwest and West). A majority of the population of every U.S. state today lives in urbanized areas except in Maine, Vermont, West Virginia and Mississippi. Rural areas contain only 19.3% of the population of the United States but cover about 97% of its land area.

The increase in urbanization was 2.7 percentage points from 2000 to 2010, 1.0 percentage points from 1990 to 2000, 4.3 percentage points from 1980 to 1990, and 1.1 percentage points from 1970 to 1980. Over that forty years period, the increase in urbanization was 9.1 percentage points. So, urbanization is a slow, but extremely steady trend, and the urban percentage of the U.S. population will no doubt be higher in 2020 than it was in 2010. Rural populations are older than the U.S. average and have fewer births and more deaths per capita.

Maine is something of an outlier in this regard. It was 51.7% urban in 1950 and has become more rural in every decade since then to 38.7% today (the lowest percentage in the United States).

The Racial, Gender And Religious Political Divide

Republican voters are disproportionately non-Hispanic white and male. For example, in the 2018 midterm elections:

In the 2018 midterm elections, 37% of voters identified as Democrats (and voted 95% for Democrats), 33% identified as Republicans (and vote 94% for Republicans), and 30% identified as unaffiliated (and voted 54% for Democrats). Democratic men made up 14% of voters, Democratic women made up 23% of voters, Republican man made up 17% of voters, Republican women made up 16% of voters, unaffiliated men made up 16% of voters and unaffiliated women made up 13% of voters. Non-Hispanic whites made up 72% voters, 11% of voters were black, 11% of voters were Latino, and 6% of voters were "other" (mostly Asian). The gender divide between the political parties is also apparent in this data.

Based upon the same exit poll data, voters who voted for Republican candidates in 2018 were 85.9% white, 2.3% black, 7.3% Latino, and 4.5% other (mostly Asian), while voters who voted for Democratic candidates in 2018 were 62.3% white, 19.4% black, 14.6% Latino, and 3.8% "other" (mostly Asian). 

People who voted for Republicans were 54% men and 46% women, while people who voted for Democrats were 58% women and 42% men (the number do not total to 100% because some people would not answer or voted for a third-party candidate).

Voters who identify religiously as Christian, and especially white voters who identify as "born again" or evangelical Christian, are particularly likely to support Republicans at the ballot box. Of the 26% of voters in 2018 who identified as white "born again" or evangelical Christian, 75% voted for Republicans, while 66% of those who did not voted for Democrats.

Most Democrats who are white, mixed race, or Asian-American, are not Christians. But, more than 80% of white Republicans are Christian.

Religious “nones” now make up fully one-third of Democrats. And about six-in-ten people who identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party say they attend religious services no more than a few times a year.

The Bleak Demographic Future Of The Republican Party

The Republican Party has increasingly tried to identify itself as a (non-Hispanic) white Christian party more oriented towards small towns and rural areas than urban centers. But, all of the demographics that are at the core of the Republican Party's identity are in decline. 

As explained above, the share of the nation's population that is Christian is steadily falling; the share of the nation's population that is non-Hispanic white is steadily falling; and, the percentage of the nation's population that is rural continues to fall.

The Democratic Party, meanwhile, has become mostly a big tent coalition of non-Christians, and predominantly Christian non-whites (including Hispanics), with an urban orientation. Population density in your neighborhood is one of the better predictors of political affiliation. 

The end analysis is tricky. In the United States, national political power isn't simply a product of how many votes are cast for each party. Electoral votes and U.S. Senate seats must be won state by state and Congressional seats must be won district by district, and those factors due to historical decisions about state boundaries and gerrymandering, mean that it takes almost 57% of the popular vote for Democrats to win the Presidency, the Senate or the House, although the barrier is highest for the Senate, lowest for the House, and in between with respect to the Presidency. Some of this built in systemic advantage is pretty much permanent.

Voter turnout is also tricky. Democratic demographics are less reliable in their voter turnout, on average, than Republican ones, particularly younger voters. And, Republicans in state legislatures and election administration posts have worked hard to maximize that the turnout discrepancy between likely Republican voters and likely Democratic voters. 

But, ultimately, if a political party's base of supporters shrinks year after year, it has to expand its coalition or lose elections. And changing religious identities and the changing racial makeup of the nation, nudged by a slowly increasingly urbanized population, could tip the balance in large key states like Texas and Florida that could tip the balance eventually. Since religious identity is the fastest shifting of these factors, it is potentially the most threatening to the GOP.

This is the political calculus that has made Trump's anti-immigrant and white Christian nationalist rhetoric so popular with Republicans. Non-whites and non-Christians may not be a threat to our nation, but they are definitely a clear and present danger to the future of the Republican party.

Sooner or later, however, fighting against the coming of the night will prove futile, and the Republican party will face inexorable pressure to try to take some constituency from the Democratic Party's coalition into its own. It has lots of plausible choices from which to pick, but needs to decide which changes in its platform and image that could lure in a new constituency is least likely to alienate its existing base.

Also, there are really two tents that need to be considered. The analysis above has focused on rank and file voters and those among them who care enough to become party volunteers. But, each party also needs to mobilize money for its cause, which may come from other quarters. And, a successful party needs both an adequate rank and file constituency to command a majority in national elections, and an adequate coalition of donors to fund those election campaigns, to win. Changes to gain rank and file members and to gain donors must be managed in a way so that the gains on both fronts more than outweighs the losses from existing members of the coalition who prefer the status quo to the proposed changes that would bring in new supporters.

It isn't obvious how such a deal could be brokered, which is why the Republicans are so heavily rallying around Trump and why they are willing to resort to violent rhetoric, violence itself, "cheating" with respect to laws and political norms, and more in order to stay in power without having to deal with the inevitable reality that some day they will need to reform themselves to widen their base of both rank and file voters, among whom they have lost an entire generation, and donors, whom Trump is increasingly alienating.

I wouldn't be surprised if this Gordian knot is eventually broken by some successor political party to the Republican party in the American political landscape replacing it and securing a significant number of defectors from Republican party who are at peace with the necessary changes (and some Democratic defectors who aren't really at home in its currently coalition), perhaps "moderates" to the extent that either major political party still has any, to provide a base with which newly recruited elected officials and party officers can be added.

While most talk about the need for new political parties in the U.S. comes from the political left, it is actually the political right that most direly needs to be having this conversation.

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