A new survey by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) underscores that America’s religious landscape continues to be on the move. Nearly one in four Americans (24%) say they previously followed a different religious tradition or denomination than the one they belong to now. The number of Christians has dropped from 90% in the early 1990s to 67% today. White Christians, still 72% of the population in 1990, now comprise just 42%. Christians of color make up 25% of the country. And the unaffiliated (“nones”) have grown to 27%.
On one hand, these numbers reflect the healthy and thriving religious freedom our founders intended and saw as a hedge against theocracy. The idea was that if we had a lot of diversity, no one religious group would get so powerful that it could control the government.
“For where there is such a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest,” wrote James Madison in 1788 in his General Defense of the Constitution.
On the other hand, the changes are also complex and challenging. To give an example I know well, consider Jews’ attitudes towards marriage between Jews and non-Jews. Some Jews regard interfaith marriage as a positive sign of America’s acceptance of Jews and point out that if the interfaith couples raise their children in a Jewish home, it could be a greater multiplier of Jews than when Jews marry each other.
But many Jews, including some of those who also see the positive, are apprehensive about Jews “marrying out” and further shrinking the Jewish population. They worry about the survival of the Jewish people, who lost six million during the Holocaust and are just 2% of the American population. Some ultra-observant Jews go so far as to disown their children when they marry non-Jews, a cruel reaction in my view.
As a Jewish parent of three kids who are not yet married, I understand how it’s hard to contemplate your child or grandchild leaving or even dialing down the religion of your family. It’s painful to think that they may someday believe something that you profoundly don’t, or that they may not share your valued family traditions.
This personal understanding informs my thinking about America’s changing religious landscape. In just one generation, the Christian population has declined more than 20%. That’s a significant change, and many families are experiencing a version of the loss or fear of loss I just described. As we reflect on the demographic changes in American religion, we should also understand and acknowledge this very human reaction to this type of loss by these families.
At the same time, there is a different kind of loss also at play for white Christians. PRRI’s poll shows that the population of white Christians has declined 40% in the last generation. For white Christians, who comprised the majority in America until quite recently (2014), the loss isn’t only about changing family beliefs and traditions — it’s about the fear of loss of racial and religious power and privilege.
At this pivotal moment, there appear to be two main paths for white Christians: They can accept this loss of privilege and welcome this change as an important part of realizing the American experiment and one’s own full humanity — or rage against the dying of their privilege and strive to take over the country.
This is where church-state separation comes into play. Many white Christians are using their privilege to support our diversity, and they understand that keeping church and state separate is the cornerstone of this work. AU has these Christians on our board, Faith Advisory Council, as plaintiffs in our lawsuits and as steadfast and loyal collaborators in our work.
But then there are those who are hellbent on destroying church-state separation to codify their privilege in our laws — at the expense of the American democracy. We call them white Christian Nationalists. Though this group is a minority, their rage and disproportionate power is fueling a horror show of bans on abortion, attacks on transgender Americans, bans on teaching about racism, censoring of books in our public schools and libraries, and diversion of taxpayer dollars to primarily white Christian religious schools.
As America continues to realize the diversity our founders intended, we’re going to need church-state separation more than ever. This is precisely the wrong time for the Supreme Court — or any arm of government — to undermine this foundational principle.
Rachel K. Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.