White evangelicals no longer believe that the United States is a Christian country, according to a new Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) survey. The survey, which was conducted in conjunction with the Brookings Institution, shows that 59 percent of white evangelicals believe that the country has moved away from its “Judeo-Christian” roots.
That’s a change from previous years. PRRI reports that in 2012, most white evangelicals still believed that America is now, and had always been, a Christian nation.
As Americans United has explained repeatedly, the United States was not founded to be an officially Christian nation. But the insistence that it was – against all evidence – has been a hallmark of conservative evangelicals for decades.
PRRI’s overall results reveal significant evangelical discomfort with demographic change. Seventy percent of white evangelicals believe that America has changed for the worse since the 1950s. Another significant majority – 77 percent – say that discrimination against Christians in the United State matches the discrimination faced by minority religious groups, and 74 percent think Islamic values are incompatible with American values.
Admire the 1950s for its cars, not its culture. Source: DutchScenery
But there’s no evidence that evangelical voters intend to abandon the so-called “culture war.”
“No religious group is more likely to believe that it is important to keep fighting laws and cultural changes that go against their personal beliefs, regardless of prevailing public sentiment, than white evangelical Protestants,” the report states.
Fully 70 percent of white evangelicals agreed that it’s important to “fight cultural change” – even if their religious views aren’t held by most people. It won’t surprise many readers, then, to find out that the same report shows that three quarters of the same demographic share what PRRI terms an “authoritarian” orientation toward politics.
It’s important to view PRRI’s results with certain caveats in mind. The “evangelical” label means different things to different people; not all self-identified evangelicals belong to the Family Research Council or the American Family Association. Some do support marriage equality, access to contraception and other socially progressive values. Others may not support those issues but do oppose the Religious Right’s ongoing campaign to sanction discrimination in the name of religious freedom.
But data reliably shows that this demographic overall tends to affiliate with the Religious Right, and PRRI’s poll is therefore a useful look at the movement’s current mindset.
Though it’s tempting to applaud the headline, most white evangelicals haven’t actually stopped believing in the sort of revisionist history promoted by figures like David Barton. They simply think the country strayed from its theocratic roots. It doesn’t appear to matter to them that this version of American history has been debunked multiple times – something we’ve covered repeatedly on this blog and in Church & State. They’re still committed to the idea that our country benefits from some unique divine mandate, evidence be damned.
Of course evangelicals have the right to believe whatever they wish about the country’s religious character – even if it’s wrong. But PRRI’s data tells us that this belief isn’t actually harmless. Instead, it correlates to nostalgia for a less-progressive America, a time when many people were legally second-class citizens. (How many African Americans, Latinos and Asians pine to return to the 1950s?) It also promotes xenophobia and prejudice toward other religions, like Islam.
And that could mean we’re in for troubling times. The United States is becoming more ethnically and religiously diverse every year. Most Americans welcome that pluralism. But the Religious Right seems determined to man the same old barricades.