The Nones are Causing the White Evangelical Aging Crisis

A recent piece in Newsweek about”President” Trump’s high approval levels with white evangelical Protestants highlights a problem in that community: they are not getting any younger. According to the article, current surveys find that white evangelicals are older than the general population. That makes sense since whites are generally older than the overall U.S. population. The article also states that young people are leaving over issues of same-sex marriage and the role of science. However, the story is more complex. Two big cohorts are leaving white evangelical churches, and they are quite different.

According to the 2014 Pew Landscape survey, 29 percent of white Americans are evangelical Protestants, and 10 percent are former evangelical Protestants. So, who is leaving? About 4-in-10 of those who have left the faith became nones, and about 4-in-10 joined mainline Protestant churches. This is an important fact left out of the Newsweek article. Many white people are not just leaving their own churches, they  are leaving religion altogether. But, do those joining mainline churches and those becoming nones have the same profile?

Let’s look first at their age profile. The 2014 Pew poll finds that 49 percent of whites are under the age of 50, similar to the 46 percent of evangelicals in that age cohort. However, 59 percent of former evangelicals joining mainline denominations are over 50 years old. By contrast, more than two-thirds (68 percent) of the former white evangelicals who are now nones are under 50.

Indeed, among whites under 30 who have left evangelical denominations, those who became nones outnumber those who became mainline Protestants by nearly 3-to-1 (29 percent vs. 10 percent). The proportion of young former white evangelicals who are now non-religious is nearly double of actual white evangelicals under 30 (29 percent vs. 15 percent).

Are all these people leaving over the treatment of LGBTQ people and science? There’s some truth to that. Only 28 percent of white evangelicals in 2014 favored same-sex marriage. Among those who left and became mainline Protestants, just a plurality (48 percent) reported being in favor of same-sex marriage. Certainly more liberal, but not earth-shattering. Among the former white evangelical who became nones, nearly three-quarters (74 percent) favored same-sex marriage.

A similar pattern occurs with evolution. Nearly four-in-ten (38 percent) of white evangelicals think that “Humans and other living things have evolved over time.” A majority (56 percent) of those who joined mainline churches also agree that humans evolved, while 81 percent of those who became nones accept evolutionary theory.

While these numbers lend some credibility to the idea that people leaving evangelical congregations are doing so over their positions on LGBTQ rights or evolution, I think it is a political matter. If people were leaving their theologically conservative churches over these issues, they would be joining other congregations. Some of that is happening, since many people are switching to, presumably more liberal, mainline churches. That’s certainly the case with the older folk who are leaving evangelical congregations. But why the younger people are leaving organized religion altogheter?

I guess they are leaving more because of politics than theology, while the older folk are leaving due to theology. Why do I think this? Because the political differences between white evangelicals and former white evangelicals are wider among people who left religion than people who switched congregations.

Only 13 percent of white evangelicals and 15 percent of former white evangelicals who are now mainline Protestants identify as liberals. More than one-third (34 percent) of nones who were white evangelicals say they are liberals. While current evangelicals are more than twice as likely to say they are very conservative than former-now-mainline (15 percent vs. 6 percent), they are not very different in the proportion calling themselves just conservative.

The white evangelical “age problem” is mostly driven by young people leaving religion altogether, something that is not clear in the Newsweek piece. But the data shown here also hints at why white evangelical Protestants are so supportive of President Trump. That particular religious cohort is essentially pruning not just those who have stopped trusting religion altogether, but also people who seem to be appalled by anti-science and bigotry. This also means that “true believers” in the President will remain to identify as white evangelicals. The number to watch now is not just the overall white evangelical support for the President, but also if an increase in support is also mixed with a shrinking cohort.

If I have time, in a future post will be interesting to explore the educational profile of whites who remain Christian but are leaving their evangelical faith behind and how it compares to those remaining in the cohort.

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The Nones are Causing the White Evangelical Aging Crisis
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One thought on “The Nones are Causing the White Evangelical Aging Crisis

  1. 1

    An interesting analysis, thanks. It shows another significant pathway to a more secularized society beside just the “actuarial” one (by that I mean, other than older, less secularized people just dying off). It might be interesting to see any data on the attitudes of those that join evangelical religions from other religions too, to see if there is any balancing influx.

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