Why Evangelicals say US is no longer Christian

Increased levels of immigration, the rise of non-religious "nones," and cultural shifts have contributed to a growing perception among Evangelicals that the US is no longer a Christian country.

Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP
Nurisa Zaynullina, right, originally from Russia, is congratulated by her daughter Karina Arif after receiving her Certificate of Citizenship on April 25, 2012, at a United States naturalization ceremony at Parkway South High School in Missouri. Increased levels of immigration from non-Christian countries have contributed to a growing sense among Evangelicals that the US is no longer a Christian country.

Evangelical Christians are mourning a cultural shift they see as a loss in both their influence at home and the nation's ability to hold a Christian standard for the world. 

A majority of white Evangelical Protestants - 59 percent - say the United States has lost its Christian identity, according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and Brookings Institution. This represents an 11-point jump from 48 percent in 2012.

"[Donald] Trump's politics of nostalgia calling to 'Make American Great Again' resonate with the great majority of Evangelicals," R. Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, tells The Christian Science Monitor. "[They] miss the Reagan era or even the Eisenhower years when, in their view, a more masculine and Christian nation commanded greater respect abroad and reflected their own white Evangelical political and cultural attitudes."

Evangelical Christians do not welcome the rise of the secular "nones," and the data shows 70 percent believe the country has changed for the worse since the 1950s. The general feeling that the country is on the wrong track is echoed by 72 percent of Americans generally, however, suggesting the view partly reflects an Evangelical Christian interpretation of the country's mood overall.

Politics play a role, as the mostly Republican Evangelicals are lamenting both the traditional give-and-take of the two-party system and the reality that they have lost several key political battles.

"Seven years of a Democrat in the White House have caused most of them to feel relatively powerless in the face of great changes that they steadfastly reject, such as same-sex marriage," Professor Chesnut says. "Kentucky county clerk [Kim Clark] became a lightning rod of resistance when she was jailed, but gay marriage remains the law of the land."

Neither former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee nor Texas Sen. Ted Cruz marshaled enough support beyond Evangelicals to win the Republican nomination. Although presumptive presidential nominee Mr. Trump is courting Evangelicals, he has demonstrated too much unfamiliarity with their faith for them to be comfortable making him the standard-bearer for American Christianity, Chesnut says.

“Over the last four years, a growing number [of white Protestant Americans] are seeing that [their cultural dominance in the US has been] lost irretrievably,” said Henry Olsen, senior fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center, according to Religion News Service. “That has massive implications for our politics going down the road.”

The perception is also backed by demographic and census data. The demographic reality is that Protestant Christianity has been losing ground for half a century, and even the conservative sects long thought to be immune have seen membership decline over the past decade, as The Christian Science Monitor reported previously.

China replaced Mexico as the top source of new America's immigrants in 2013, and Asians have been the nation's fastest growing ethnic group since 2000, according to data released Friday by the US Census Bureau. 

Asians have maintained this growth through immigration, rather than birth rate, thus supplying a continual stream of immigrants from traditionally non-Christian countries such as China or India, the Associated Press reported. By contrast, other immigration waves in the 20th centuries originated in predominantly Catholic Ireland, Italy, or Mexico, or from the more traditionally Christian nations of eastern Europe. These immigrants altered the nation's cultural and religious landscape, but they did so without diminishing its perceived Christian character.

High levels of immigration are making Americans generally feel threatened, particularly when the immigrants are not Christian. Almost six in 10 worry that the values of Muslim immigrants conflict with the American way of life, and that fear is heightened among Evangelical Christians, the survey shows. Muslims represent just 1 percent of the country, but their disproportionate media presence belies their actual numbers, contributing to an Evangelical sense that cultural and political power have vanished irretrievably.

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