Bob Neal

The vinyl sign stretched over an older wooden sign outside a church in Belgrade could have been a symbol of what appears to be a sea change in Americans’ views on religion.

The vinyl sign proclaimed the name of a church from another part of town, suggesting the old church was gone and another had taken its place. I passed the Belgrade Bible Church — a fundamentalist ministry — a thousand times, and a friend’s funeral was held there. The talking sign always caught my attention. When I passed on a Sunday, I counted cars in the parking lot. Nothing systematic, but it had seemed the number of cars was falling.

Then came articles that the share of Americans who identify as “evangelical Protestants” has fallen by more than a third. The Public Religion Research Institute, a non-partisan and non-denominational body, reported July 8 that self-identified fundamentalists had fallen to 14.5% of Americans from 23.3% in 2006.

So maybe my impression of lower attendance at that church in Belgrade had been right.

Even more surprising from the PRRI study was the finding that Americans who identify as traditional or mainstream Protestants had increased to 16.4%. So, I muttered to myself, there are now more of us than of them. Disclosure: I’m a deacon in a traditional Protestant church, the United Church of Christ (Congregational).

Before I got smug, though, I studied the report more carefully. Americans who identify as “unaffiliated” remain the most common, at 23.3%, though their share fell a bit. Those calling themselves Catholic have settled in just below 12%.

More interesting to me than just those numbers is their meaning to our political life.

Quick background. Franklin Roosevelt built a Democratic coalition that stood for 40 years, made up of southern whites, industrial workers and northern Blacks. That coalition lasted until the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of 1964 and 1965.

Ronald Reagan assembled and held together a coalition of fundamentalists and big business that seem about as likely to be bedfellows as are peaches and frisbees. But Reagan got and kept the peaches and frisbees together, and Republicans won six of 11 presidential elections. Reagan’s coalition also stood for 40 years, until Donald Trump began undermining it. Under Reagan and for the most part both Bushes, the big business side of the coalition ascended. Under Trump, fundamentalists ascended.

The PRRI numbers present challenges and opportunities for the Republicans, who have relied heavily on fundamentalist voters.

The Republican puzzle with respect to fundamentalists is twofold. First, do they kowtow to fundamentalists who have lost more than a third of adherents? When fundamentalists were 38% of all Republican voters, as in 2006, they easily dominated Republican primaries. But now that they are only 29% of Republican voters, their grip may loosen.

Second, Republican strategy rests on keeping their edge in the Electoral College. The PRRI study shows that fundamentalists now hold majorities or near majorities in only a few states, all in the confederacy. Can a fundamentalist loss of influence in a few states beyond the confederacy spell doom?

Robert P. Jones of PRRI tied the fundamentalists’ losses at least partly to young people. “The positions that white evangelical churches have become known for . . . (opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion, denial of climate change, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment) are all strongly out of step with the values of younger Americans.”

But young folks are not a monolith. About 35% of young voters went for Trump. And, since other Republicans ran better than Trump almost everywhere outside the south, lots of younger-than-30s who voted for President Biden voted Republican for other offices.

While pollsters and the Census Bureau lump together all Hispanics, they are also not a monolith. Chicanos have a different culture from Cubans. Puerto Ricans — already citizens when they reach the mainland — are different from Central Americans, who are usually fleeing oppression. Nor are Hispanics a religious monolith. The PRRI study shows that while half of all Hispanics are Catholic, 24% are Protestant and 19% are unaffiliated.

Republicans have gained among Hispanics — they probably gave Florida to Trump in 2020 — and those numbers on religion suggest fertile fields for more Republican votes.

The question is not whether Republicans can find new voters. It is whether they will try. Jones isn’t sure. “With 84 percent of (fundamentalists) voting for Trump, there are few new voters to be gained.” Instead of reaching out to new voters, Republicans “drive down the votes of the growing number of Americans who are not white and Christian,” he said.

That doesn’t sound like a recipe for success.

Bob Neal sometimes thinks of fundamentalists as flash hares and traditional Protestants as drab tortoises. The PRRI study suggests the tortoises are doing OK after all. Neal can be reached at [email protected]


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