American culture, not Congress, is changing

New cultural research shows bumpy paths forward for both dominant political parties and better explains why economics wasn’t the sole booster of Donald Trump’s rise to the White House. It also proves most Americans are right: Washington, D.C., and state legislatures are out of step with their constituents, just not for the reasons many think.

The 2016 American Values Atlas, an annual survey conducted by Public Religion Research Institute, was released last week with some very interesting findings on America’s shifting culture. A few key points:

• The share of Americans who identify as white and Christian no longer constitutes a national majority.

• White Christians now make up only 43 percent of the U.S. population, a steep decline from four decades ago when the demographic was at 80 percent.

• White evangelicals, who had previously not experienced the same level of decline as white Protestants and white Catholics, lost 6 percent of their members in the past decade, dropping from nearly a quarter of the country’s population to 17 percent.

• The average age of white Christians in America is 55; groups with far younger average ages are Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and the unaffiliated.

• In 20 states, religiously unaffiliated residents hold the largest population share.

It’s readily apparent what these statistics mean to Republicans, who have continued to enjoy widespread support from white Christians, especially white evangelicals, even while the groups have shrunk. The identity politics that helped propel Trump into the White House aren’t going to represent a successful political playbook much longer. The Moral Majority is slowly but surely losing its might.

And as Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux points out at FiveThirtyEight, the numbers don’t indicate smooth sailing for Democrats.

“Their base is increasingly varied, and while this is certainly reflective of where the country is going as a whole, Democrats must craft a message that speaks to pretty much every faith tradition — as well as people who have no religion at all,” she wrote.

Robert Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, wrote an editorial for USA Today on why he thinks these cultural shifts contributed to evangelical support of Trump.

“Thinking about the white evangelical/Trump alliance as an end-of-life bargain is illuminating,” he said. “It helps explain, for example, how white evangelical leaders could ignore so many problematic aspects of Trump’s character. When the stakes are high enough and the sun is setting, grand bargains are struck. And it is in the nature of these deals that they are marked not by principle but by desperation.”

And quite clearly this also fits into the broad-brush stereotype of a Trump voter as someone who viewed a changing America as dangerous to a specific way of life. Although we can argue whether it should have been, there’s no denying that government policy was different 40 years ago when eight out of every 10 Americans identified as white Christians.

When economic globalization and industry verticalization are added to stress and fear about cultural shifts favoring marriage equality and promoting gender equity, it’s more understandable why some chose to overlook multiple marriages, campaign curses and self-proclaimed questionable sexual conduct. Toss a few rumors of immigrants “stealing” American jobs, an opioid epidemic fueled by despair, ongoing and mostly false tales of class warfare, and emboldened advocates of sexism and racism and we arrive at the hotly contested and incredibly narrow Trump victory.

It is no surprise people in areas hardest hit by job losses, followed by a decline of government subsidies and then a decline in government-subsidized faith-based initiatives, chose to vote for someone who seemed nostalgic for the past. Debating the logic of that vote does not negate the frustration and fear behind it.

It also explains why, over the past several decades as America has undergone massive cultural shifts, Congress and state legislatures don’t look too different than they did in 1960.

The U.S Capitol Building is pictured at sunset in Washington, October 11, 2013.
The U.S Capitol Building is pictured at sunset in Washington, October 11, 2013. (Jason Reed/REUTERS)

The 87th Congress, installed in 1961, the first year such data was collected, was 95 percent Christian and predominantly white. Members of Congress installed this past January are 91 percent Christian and predominantly white.

According to the Pew Research Center, of the 273 Republicans elected last fall, only two are not Christians. The 242 Democratic members are 80 percent Christian. The remainder are 30 Jews (including two House Republicans), three Buddhists, three Hindus, two Muslims, one Unitarian Universalist and one unaffiliated. Ten members, all Democrats, declined to provide their religious affiliation.

Nationally, if we pool all Christian religions — various Protestant, Catholic, Mormon and Orthodox Christians — those groups make up 70 percent of the population. Yet they are 91 percent of Congress.

And perhaps the most interesting aspect of this is the lack of female representation. Not only are women the majority in the overall population, but they also continue to make up the majority of most religious groups. Among black Protestants, women hold 58 percent of congregations. Fifty-six percent of white evangelicals are female, as are 55 percent of Hispanic Catholics, 54 percent of mainline Protestants, 53 percent of white Catholics and 53 percent of Hispanic Protestants. Unitarian Universalists are 64 percent women, and Mormons are 63 percent.

Despite the outsized representation of women among religious groups, none of those statistics translate to Congress or to any state legislature. Nevada and Vermont have the highest percentage of women in their state legislatures, roughly 39 percent. Iowa’s statehouse sits at 22 percent, which is about 3 points below the national average.

Fewer than 20 percent of congressional seats are filled by women.

And while it is true that this Congress is the most racially and ethnically diverse in history, it’s also true the bar for achievement was set incredibly low. Nonwhites are 38 percent of the nation’s population, and 19 percent of Congress. White population as a percentage of the whole has declined over time, even as the gap between white representation in Congress and the general population has widened.

So, the next time you hear someone say that Congress isn’t representative of America, feel free to agree with them and then explain why.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on Sept. 10, 2017. Photo credit: Jason Reed/Reuters