In my last post, I looked at the impact of religion on the 2016 election for President of the United States. From the standpoint of religion, one fact stood out: Donald Trump owed his election “victory” (a victory in the Electoral College, but not the popular vote) to support from white Christians. The vote of every other polled religious group in America went overwhelmingly to Hillary Clinton. For that matter, the vote of white non-Christians also went overwhelmingly to Clinton.
But, why did this happen? How did Trump manage to get enough votes (fewer popular votes than Clinton, but more votes in the Electoral College) to win the 2016 election, when support from white Christians was not enough to secure the 2008 Presidential election for McCain, or the 2012 Presidential election for Romney?
Let’s start by once again dismissing the dominant narrative, that Clinton’s supposed embrace of racial and ethnic “identity politics” turned off so many white voters that Trump was able to win. Again … the dominant narrative runs smack up against the available data. Romney won the white vote in the 2012 Presidential election by 20%. Trump won the white vote in the 2016 election by a nearly identical 21%. The difference between these two margins is not statistically significant; it is well within any polling margin of error. If you want to explain Trump’s improvement over Romney’s performance on the basis of race, you might point to Clinton’s victory margin among Black voters (80%, compared to Obama’s 87% in 2012) or Hispanic voters (36%, compared to Obama’s 44% in 2012). A better narrative to explain 2016 is that Clinton could not replicate Obama’s success among minority voters.
But we can’t really credit Trump’s victory to the 8% of Blacks who voted for him (or for that matter, to the 29% of Hispanic voters who showed up for Trump). The focus here is on the roughly 70% of white Christians who voted for Trump. As we argued last time, Trump’s percentage support among white Christians is about what we’ve seen in recent Presidential elections. But this apparent stability in U.S. voting patterns hides a remarkable change in the composition of the electorate: the relative population of white people in the U.S. is on the decline.
The U.S. Census Bureau projects that the U.S. will be a “majority minority” nation by the year 2044. This shift is driven in part by lower birth rates among white Americans, and in part by immigration: as the above chart shows, population growth from immigration over the next 45 years is expected to be double that produced by the excess of births over deaths. Moreover, 20% of the births in the U.S. over the next 45 years are expected to be by mothers who were born outside of the U.S. So long as most immigrants to the U.S. are non-white (which has been the case since 1985), there will be a decline each election in the percentage of white people in the U.S. electorate.
But the percentage of white Christians in the U.S. is declining even faster than the percentage of white people overall:
The drop in white Christian numbers is remarkable. 2016 was the first Presidential election in U.S. history where white Christians were a minority (around 47%) in the U.S. The above chart shows the decline in the numbers of white Protestants (who were a majority in America at least as recently as 1993). To complete the picture shown above, we must also consider the white Catholic population. Roughly 22% of the American population is Catholic, which means that the Catholic population has more or less held steady over the last 10 years. However, a decreasing percentage of these U.S. Catholics are white. While 85% of American Catholics were white in 1987; only 58% of them were white in 2014.
The decline in white Christian numbers promises to continue, because the white Christian population is skewing older. While white Christians hold a solid majority of the American population over 50 years old, younger white Americans are increasingly falling away from the Church:
Americans aged 18 to 29 are less than half as likely to be white Christians as seniors age 65 and older, and are more likely to be “nones” (religiously unaffiliated) than either white Christian or nonwhite Christian. Young Americans are significantly more unaffiliated than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their life cycle (20% in the late 1990s) and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults (13% in the late 1970s).
So, there is every indication that white America as a whole is becoming less and less Christian. By 2051, if current trends continue, religiously unaffiliated Americans could comprise as large a percentage of the population as all Protestants combined. This means that white Christian America is becoming less and less important to American political, cultural and social life.
But if white Christian America is already in the minority, and if Clinton beat Trump among all groups in America other than white Christians, how did she lose the vote in the Electoral College? One answer is that white Christians continue to represent a majority of American voters. In other words, a relatively large percentage of white Christians turn out to vote, which effectively allows white Christians a disproportionate stake in American political power:
Before the 2016 election, Robert Jones of PRRI projected that white Christian America would make up 55% of the voters in 2016. My guess is that this was an underestimation, though we don’t have the numbers to say so definitively. But in a nutshell, this is how Trump won. He got large numbers of white Christians to vote, particularly in white Christian states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. In contrast, religious “nones” in America did their usually lousy job of turning out to vote.
Trump won the Electoral College because a white Christian American minority turned out to vote in large numbers. In my next piece, I will focus on what Trump did to drive his voter turnout. That piece, too, will tell us much about the present and future of religion in America.