White Christians, once the dominant religious and ethnic combination in the United States, now make up less than 50 percent of Americans as young people turn away from traditional congregations and ethnic diversity increases in society and houses of worship.
The trend is particularly pronounced in California.
A study by the Washington-based Public Religion Research Institute found that 43 percent of Americans identify as both white and Christian, and only 30 percent as both white and Protestant. Less than 50 years ago, more than 80 percent of Americans considered themselves both white and Christian, and 55 percent identified as Protestant. Overall, about 70 percent of Americans identify as Christians.
In California, only 24 percent of state residents surveyed identified themselves as both white and Christian.
“The face of American Christianity is changing dramatically, and this is something that has been apparent in California for some time,” said PRRI research director Dan Cox, who has written books on religion.
Cox said the religious demographics of all Californians most closely mirror those of younger Americans under 30 in other states, making California a good forecaster for future attitudes across the country. He used the issue of LGBT equality as an example of how California perspectives on social topics can predict eventual sentiments in other states.
“If you look at the politics and the policy preferences of California .... it does provide a window though which we can learn something,” said Cox. “Any place where we’re seeing really significant religious divisions with white Christians on one side and ethnic Christians and non-Christians on the other, in places like California, those (latter) groups are ascendent.”
The survey found religion closely tied to politics. Almost half of white evangelical Protestants and 34 percent of white Catholics said they were Republican. Non-white Christians and those of other faiths including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism tended to be Democrats.
The decline of white Christians as a majority is part of a decades-long trend as fewer young white Americans head to church on Sunday, often replaced in the pews with people from different ethnic backgrounds. Many Americans – nearly 1 in 4 – said they didn’t identify with a particular religion, though they may hold some form of spirituality. In California, the religiously unaffiliated jumped to close to 3 in 10, according to a PRRI analysis.
“The unprecedented growth of the religiously unaffiliated has made this group much more complex,” said Cox in a statement. “For example, atheists and agnostics, two of the most known subgroups among the unaffiliated, account for just a sliver of the entire group.”
Those identifying as white Christians also were older than their religious counterparts. The median age of white evangelical Protestants and white Catholics is 55, the survey found. White Catholics under age 30 make up only 36 percent of congregations nationwide, while 52 percent of young Catholics are Hispanic.
The Catholic Church reflects the transition from white Christians to those of color in society overall, said Kevin Eckery, spokesman for the Sacramento Diocese, encompassing about a million Catholics in 20 counties. “White European Catholics are not going away, it’s just that you see the growth of these other communities,” Eckery said, referencing growing numbers of Latino and Filipino Catholics.
Easily half the Catholics in the Sacramento diocese are now non-white, Eckery said. “A great deal of the growth in the Catholic Church locally and nationally has been driven by Latinos, who are now the largest ethnic group in California.” Bishop Jaime Soto, in an interview with The Bee in 2014, said Filipino Catholics were increasingly playing leadership roles in the diocese, California’s third largest.
While the drop in white-identifying church members has been significant for Christian faiths, it corresponds to a rise in non-white churchgoers. About 37 percent of Californians said they were non-white Christians, PRRI found.
Black Americans remain predominately Christian, with 75 percent claiming a Christian-based faith.
Jewish congregations and faiths centered in Asia and India, such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, have the strongest growth in young members, though they collectively remain only about 6 percent of Americans. At least a third of practicing Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims are under age 30, the survey found.
Those faiths are also likely to have the most highly educated members. Thirty-three percent of Muslims reported having a four-year college degree, compared to 25 percent of white evangelical Protestants.
Nearly 40 percent of Hindus hold post-graduate degrees.
California ranked as one of the most religiously diverse states in the nation, along with Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York.
Mississippi was the least religiously diverse state.
Surveyors sampled more than 100,000 people via telephone from all 50 states to determine religious and political affiliation among other information. The interviews were conducted between Jan. 1, 2016, and Jan. 10, 2017, with at least a 1,000 interviews completed each week. The survey has a margin of error of about a half percentage point.
Religion in California
White evangelical Protestant 9%
White mainline Protestant 7%
Hispanic Protestant 7%
Black Protestant 4%
Other non-white Protestant 3%
Don't know/refused 2
Source: Public Religion Research Institute