Lakewood Church is a nondenominational Christian megachurch in Houston. It is one of the largest congregations in the U.S., occupying a former sports arena. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Why white evangelicals are at odds with America

(RNS) — White evangelicals are much more likely than other groups to see conflict between their own religious beliefs and mainstream American culture. According to a new Pew survey, 66% of them see either "a great deal" or "some" conflict (37% answered "some conflict," and 29% answered "a great deal" of conflict), as opposed to 42% for all U.S. adults. 

For non-evangelical white Protestants, the total is just 36% seeing conflict, with only 7% seeing "a great deal" of conflict and 29% seeing "some." Of course, we always knew that mainline Protestants are pretty much at home in mainstream American culture. 

But it's striking that the numbers for black Protestants and Catholics are all but identical to the white mainliners', with 62% seeing "not much" or "no conflict at all" between their own religious beliefs and mainstream American culture. Notably, a higher proportion of Hispanic than white Catholics see not much or no conflict — 67% versus 59%.

Nones, meanwhile, are about as comfortable with mainstream culture as Hispanic Catholics, with 34% seeing a great deal or some conflict and 65% seeing not much or none. To be sure, 57% of those nones who say they're atheists see a great deal or some conflict, but no group is more comfortable with the culture than the nones, who say they're "nothing in particular." Fully 71% of them see little or no conflict.

So what has set white evangelicals apart?

For starters, they, more than the rest of us, think that American society is moving away from what they believe. Whereas just over half of all Americans (53%) think that Christianity is in decline in America, no group thinks that to be the case more than white evangelicals, who are at 67%. Moreover, when it comes to identifying major causes for that decline, white evangelicals are more likely than any other group to blame society at large.

Seventy-two percent of them say a major cause is "more permissive attitudes about sexual behavior and sexuality in popular culture," as compared to 53% of all Americans. Sixty percent of them say a major cause is "negative portrayals of Christianity in pop culture," as compared to 41% of all Americans. Forty-three percent say a major cause is "government policies have limited religion’s role in public life," as compared to 28% of all Americans.

Under the circumstances, we should not be shocked (though I confess I am) that fully 68% of white evangelicals take the position that if the Bible and the will of people conflict, it's the Bible that should have more influence on U.S laws. This anti-democratic position is embraced by only 28% of all U.S. adults — and less than 20% of everyone who's not a white evangelical.

Genital issues appear to play a major role in evangelicals' alienation, their sense that mainstream American culture is at odds with what their form of Christianity teaches. While 61% of all U.S. adults believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, only 20% of white evangelicals do. While 61% of all U.S. adults now support same-sex marriage, that goes for just 29% of white evangelicals. And 61% of white evangelicals believe that American society has gone too far in accepting transgender people, as opposed to 32% of all U.S. adults.

Yet it's not all about sex. In a new PRRI survey of American attitudes on immigration, 67% of white evangelicals agree that immigrants "threaten traditional American customs and values," and 66% believe that immigrants "are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background." That's significantly higher than white mainline Protestants (51% and 42%) and white Catholics (50% and 47%), much higher than black Protestants (30% and 38%), and much, much higher than Hispanic Catholics, (29% and 27%) and nones (22% and 17%).

In the moral, ethnocultural world that constitutes their belief system, white evangelicals see themselves losing ground to an American mainstream they once bestrode like a colossus. Sooner or later they're going to have to take the advice of (ex-)Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and get over it. They'll be better Americans when they do.