Americans who have renounced religion often point to anti-LGBTQ+ teachings
Americans who have renounced religion often point to anti-LGBTQ+ teachings

A central tenet of right-wing politics in the United States right now is the idea that Christians — generally, but not exclusively, meaning white evangelical Protestants — are at war. This is a central aspect of Donald Trump’s rhetoric (and sales pitch) in this election cycle, as it was in 2016 and 2020. America is turning away from God, the argument goes, and this is at the root of our nation’s problems.

Research, including a new analysis from PRRI, supports the idea that Americans are increasingly alienated from religious institutions and traditions. In 2013, one-fifth of respondents to PRRI’s national survey indicated that they were not religiously affiliated: atheist, agnostic, or simply not part of a religious tradition. In the latest iteration of the survey, conducted last year, more than a quarter defined themselves that way.

But there is another important part of this new PRRI data. While most of those who now identify as unaffiliated after growing up in a religious tradition say the reason they left the religion was because they stopped believing in their religion’s traditions, nearly half say it was a function of their religion’s childhood hostility to gay and lesbian people. In 2016, only 3 in 10 identified this reason.

Much of the erosion in religious affiliation has come among Americans who grew up Catholic. In 2016, when PRRI spoke to Americans who grew up in this religious tradition, they found that a significant number had left—far more than had joined the church. (About 31 percent said they were raised Catholic; only 21 percent still said they were.) The most recent data, collected last year, show a similar trend. About 30 percent said they grew up Catholic, most of them white (18 percent of Americans). But now only about 20 percent identify as Catholic, just over half of them white.

The pattern among non-evangelical white Protestants is less dramatic, with a large proportion of those who were Protestant in childhood leaving the faith, but a number subsequently joining. According to the most recent data, the net change was a 4.4 percentage point decrease in the number of white Protestants from childhood.

Among white evangelical Protestants, the change seen in 2016 was not replicated in 2023. The number of people who told PRRI last year they had left evangelical Protestantism was about the same as those who said they had converted.

Then there are the “unrelated”. In 2016 and 2023, only about 1 in 10 respondents said they grew up outside of a religious tradition. Over time, significantly more people adopted this identity.

Again, nearly half of those who indicated they were now religiously unaffiliated — nearly a fifth of the country — said their former religion’s hostility toward LGBTQ+ Americans played a role.

That makes sense. The unaffiliated (a third of whom were Catholic and more than half of whom were Protestant) were skewed younger, and younger Americans were more likely to identify as LGBTQ+ and reject moral condemnations of same-sex relationships. Among singles under 30, 6 in 10 cite religious teachings about LGBTQ+ relationships as a reason for leaving their childhood religion, almost as many as say they no longer believe in the religion’s teachings.

PRRI also found that non-Christian and black Protestant Americans have not seen similar erosions in religious identity. Among black Protestants, for example, there was an erosion from childhood seen in the 2016 and 2023 data, but only subtle.

However, the decline of Christian religious identity, the decline that underlies so much of Trump’s rhetoric, is real and heavily concentrated among white Christians. But while Trump has used this decline to advocate for right-wing policies, hostility to LGBTQ+ relations—itself an element of right-wing and particularly conservative Christian politics—is one of the reasons for this decline in the first place.

In other words, trying to restore the kind of Christian authority that Trump embraces would likely have the effect of turning more people away from Christianity.

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