New county-level findings on Americans’ religious affiliations show the two parties glaring across a deep chasm in America’s changing spiritual landscape. The religious fault line between the two sides is only deepening, adding another explosive dimension to the volatile separation between red and blue America.
Whites who identify as Christians composed a vastly larger share of the population in the counties Donald Trump won last fall than those captured by President Joe Biden, according to previously unpublished data provided to CNN by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute from a pathbreaking new study estimating religious affiliation at the county level.
While White Christians have fallen below a majority of the US population over the past decade, they still made up almost exactly two-thirds of the adults in the counties Trump carried – and an even higher percentage in the counties that provided him his largest margins, according to the new findings. By contrast, White Christians represent only about two-fifths of the population in the counties that voted for Biden – and an even smaller percentage in the counties that gave him his biggest margins.
These new county-level findings fill in the picture that exit polls and other surveys have painted over recent years. On one side they show a GOP coalition still dominated by the White Christians who constituted a majority of the nation itself for most of our history; on the other is a Democratic coalition that has been fundamentally reshaped by America’s growing religious and racial diversity and is now split almost in thirds among White Christians, non-White Christians, and those who adhere to non-Christian faiths or no faith at all, according to the latest PRRI findings. Those latter two groups represent an absolute majority of the population in the counties Biden carried, PRRI found.
The grounding of today’s partisan differences in such elemental components of social identity as religion – as well as race, education and age – helps explain why the balance of power has grown so difficult for either party to fundamentally shift, despite all the tumultuous events of recent years. It also explains why so many Americans consider the stakes in the political competition higher than ever. The PRRI results point toward a political competition that now revolves less around individual policy disputes than the larger question of whether America’s direction will be set by the predominantly White and Christian voters who have historically wielded the most power or by an emerging America defined by both religious and racial diversity.
“What we’re seeing unfolding over the last four years, and coming into full flower now, the [political] divides really are about American identity, much more than they are about a policy or even economics,” says Robert P. Jones, founder and CEO of PRRI. “Today we should probably replace ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ with ‘It’s American identity, stupid.’ “
Still a Christian nation?
Jones, like other analysts, believes a pervasive sense of loss and displacement in a diversifying country has solidified the strong affinity for Trump-style politics among many White Christians, especially White evangelical Protestants.
“It really is hard to overstate how central to White Christians’ worldview is this idea of America as a White Christian nation,” says Jones, author of the book “White Too Long,” a history of the relationship between Christian churches and racial inequality. A poll of Trump supporters earlier this year by the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center underscores his point: Fully 87% of them agreed that “Christian faith is an essential part of American greatness.” That number rose to a near unanimous 97% among White evangelical Trump supporters.
Both the Ethics and Public Policy Center polling and the Public Religion Research Institute’s annual “American Values Survey” document deep concern among Trump’s White Christian supporters, especially evangelicals, that social change of all sorts is eroding Christianity’s central position in American life. In the EPPC poll, 89% of all Trump supporters (and 94% of his evangelical backers) said that “Christianity is under attack in America today.” In the latest PRRI polling, three-fourths of White evangelicals agreed that immigrants are “invading” America and replacing its culture; just over 7 in 10 agreed that Whites now face as much discrimination as Blacks and that the values of Islam are incompatible with American values. Nearly 6 in 10 of them, in a recoil from changing gender roles, said that “society is becoming too soft and feminine.”
This sense of siege, Jones said, has left many conservative Christian voters open to both Trump’s message of resisting social change and to wild conspiracy theories, such as his disproven claims about massive election fraud in 2020. In recent PRRI polling, roughly one-fourth of White evangelical Protestants expressed sympathy for the QAnon conspiracy theory and as many agreed that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence” to save the US.
“I think as this central tentpole that has been holding up their worldview – America as a White Christian nation, their own private promised land – has fallen, just under the sheer weight of the changing country all around them, it has left them vulnerable to grasping at straws and believing in delusions,” Jones says.
White Christians’ numbers declining
Behind this weakness for ungrounded political fantasy is an implacable demographic reality: White Christians have been relentlessly declining as a share of America’s population.
Whites who identify as Christians composed a majority of Americans through almost all of US history. Even as late as 1968, when President Richard Nixon was first elected, Gallup polling found that 85% of Americans identified as White and Christian. (At that point about 60% of Americans identified as White Protestants and another roughly 25% as White Catholics.)
That number has plummeted over the past half century as the nation has grown more diverse racially (reducing the White share of the population) and religiously (reducing the share of Christians). Different surveys plot the change at slightly varying speeds, but they all show the same trajectory, with the nation reaching a dramatic milestone sometime over the past decade. According to the annual General Social Survey by NORC at the University of Chicago, an independent research organization, White Christians fell below majority status in the country for the first time sometime between 2010 and 2012. Gallup, in figures it provided me, put the tipping point to minority status somewhere between 2016 and 2017. Though the Pew Research Center and PRRI did not conduct polls frequently enough to identify a precise tipping point, in surveys over the past decade both also found White Christians falling to well below half of the population.