The Role of Religion in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election

The Role of Religion in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election

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Robert P. Jones, chief executive officer of the Public Religion Research Institute, discusses American religious dynamics in the 2016 presidential nominating process, as part of CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.

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Robert P. Jones

Chief Executive Officer, Public Religion Research Institute


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President, National Program & Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the national program and outreach at CFR. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record, and the audio will be available on our website,

We’re delighted to have Robert Jones with us to talk about the role of religion in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Dr. Jones is the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to research at the intersection of religion, values, and public life. Dr. Jones writes an online column for The Atlantic on politics and culture, and appears regularly in the “Faith by the Numbers” segment on Interfaith Voices. He also serves as the co-chair of the national steering committee for the Religion and Politics Section of the American Academy of Religion, and is a member of the editorial boards of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion and Politics and Religion. He’s the author of the forthcoming book, “The End of White Christian America,” and he tweets at @RobertPJones. And he has recently released a report which we circulated in advance from the Public Religion Research Institute.

Robert, thanks very much for being with us today. Given that the presidential primaries began this month, could you talk first about how religious dynamics differ in the primary process versus the general election?

JONES: Sure. Well, thanks for having me. And I’m really happy to be a part of the conversation today.

Well, yeah, I guess the first thing to say is that there have been some really major tectonic shifts in the religious landscape, particularly over the last half of the century but accelerating really in the 1990s. And the—my recent book, “The End of White Christian America”, which is a, you know, book with a very provocative title, but is really a data driven book that really looks at these changes and what their implications are.

So I can say a little bit more about the changes in a minute, but to answer the question directly—you know what, I think that what we see here is that the big—(inaudible)—we see in the—are really players in the general election. And in the upcoming primaries, what we see are still shifts happening on the ground, like in—even places like Iowa, for example, we have seen a drop in the number of people who identify as white and Christian by nine points just between 2007 and today, even in heartland America, in Iowa. We’ve seen a drop of 10 points in white evangelical proportion of the population in South Carolina. They’ve got a primary coming right up. So these things are in play in the early states, but they’re muted a bit because, particularly on kind of one side of the other, because religions have kind of sorted themselves in partisan ways, which we’ll talk about in a minute, those changes aren’t quite felt until we get to the general election.

So just a real quick example, in South Carolina, you know, we’re expected to see—historically, in the—in the primaries, South Carolinians on the GOP side have been upwards of two-thirds white evangelical Protestants. So we’re going to see—even though we see a decline in that number of the population in South Carolina and nationwide, we’re still going to see them playing an absolutely outsized role in the primary this weekend. Also, just the early primaries up through March 8, we will see about two-thirds of the total delegates on the Republican side will come from states that have electorates that are at least 50 percent white evangelical Protestant. So that’s a lot of delegates stacked early in the race. So we have the white evangelicals on the Republican side in particular playing an outsized role.

So, should I take us a minute and just talk about the big picture?

FASKIANOS: That would be great.

JONES: Great. All right. So let me just kind of take a step back from that and just talk about some of the big picture changes that I think people in the public have really felt happening around them, see evidence, but haven’t really, I think, fully wrapped their heads around them. So one point of my—of my book is really to kind of take a step back and to really map this out, and to look at the changes that are really clear, and the data, even though I think most of us kind of feel them in anecdotal ways.

So just a few numbers here—if we think about America—kind of the stereotypes of America anyway—being a kind of a WASP-y nation that is white Anglo-Saxon Protestant kind of cultural center, that is, you know, is certainly the case today and has been dissipating over the last half of the 20th century. Just a few numbers here. 1993 was the last year that the country was a majority white and Protestant. That number is down to 34 percent today. So you think about kind of Bill Clinton’s election in the early ‘90s as a real marker. 2008, even if you put all Protestants together, was the last year the country was a majority Protestant. It’s down to 46 percent today.

The religiously unaffiliated, on the other side, have really jumped—9 percent, again, right around President Clinton’s election in 1993, to 23 percent today. In fact, the religiously unaffiliated are now the largest major quote, unquote “religious group” in the country, actually surpassing Catholics in the last few years to take that place. And even if we kind of look at kind of all white Christians in the country together, today they comprise only 45 percent of the country. So that’s something quite new in the American landscape. And you can see it if you look at the generational divides. So two-thirds of the seniors, for example, identify as white and Christian versus only one-quarter of young adults. If you look at the flipside of that—one flipside is the unaffiliated. Only one in 10 seniors are religiously unaffiliated, but 36 percent of young adults are unaffiliated.

And I think the other things in the mix for the election that are relevant—and I can give some numbers later if we do questions, but I’ll just mention them now—are economic anxieties that are really high. So even though, you know, we’re looking at 4.9 percent unemployment, really good macroeconomic indicators, all the economists are saying, you know, we haven’t been in recession for some time, in our polling, we still find more than seven in 10 Americans saying that they still think that the country is in an economic recession.

We’ve also seen an uptick in cultural anxieties, whether that’s concerns or negative attitudes about Muslims, negative attitudes about immigrants. Those things are all on the rise. And then finally, kind of a—what I would say is there’s a kind of nostalgic mood, particularly among, I think, older white Americans in the country. We have a kind of question that ask about whether things have changed for the better or for the worse since the 1950s. And we basically see there that among white Americans, you know, strong majority saying they’ve mostly changed for the worst. Among nonwhite Americans, strong things—people think that they’ve strongly changed for the better.

And finally, just a word about voting patterns. You know, I don’t expect that we’re going to see any great upsets in voting patterns. If you look back—2004, 2008, 2012—in the religious landscape, the voting patterns have been fairly consistent. And what we have basically seen is white Christian groups, whether it’s evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, or white Catholics basically voting, leaning toward Republican candidates. Nonwhite Christians, the religiously unaffiliated, and non-Christian religious groups—Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, et cetera—and Muslims—leaning toward Democratic candidates. That’s, I think, likely to stay stable, although the proportions may shift a bit.

One last thing I’ll say here that I think is kind of relevant is that if you think about kind of, you know, the reliance on white Christian voters as a kind of metric of kind of where the parties are and how they differ in terms of their competition, if we go back to 1992—again, the kind of early ‘90s, where we see these trends really accelerating—Democratic presidential candidates were receiving a little more than eight in 10—or, sorry—six in 10 reliance on white Christian voters, whereas Republicans were relying on 86 percent white Christian voters.

What’s happened over time is that Republican presidential campaigns have relied on about that same amount. So if you look back at Romney in 2012, his voting coalition was comprised of 80 percent white and Christian voters, whereas Barack Obama’s coalition was comprised of only 37 percent white Christian voters. So basically Democratic presidential candidates have been sort of following the demographic shifts in the country, whereas Republican presidential candidates have been kind of relying really on a shrinking pool of white Christian voters at a pretty high rate.

And is actually one of the real dilemmas, I think, for particularly Republicans going forward is how to broaden this tent and not rely so heavily on one fairly homogeneous group. And for Democrats, I think it really is kind of the opposite problem. How do you hold together such a diverse coalition? You can’t really aim talking points at one particular group because you have such a broad group to appeal to. So I’ll stop there and maybe we can kind of move towards some questions.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Let’s open up to the group for questions and comments.

OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time, we will open the floor for questions. (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question will come from Jack Moline with Interfaith Alliance.

MOLINE: Hi, thanks. It’s Moline, but that’s close enough. Robby, thanks for being with us today, and thanks to CFR for hosting this call.

So I’m wondering if you have determined whether a candidate’s lack of professed faith works to his or her advantage with any demographic constituency—sort of the inverse of what the people who are professing a very solid faith are experiencing with white Christians?

JONES: Yeah. Well, we have, you know, in some ways two working examples in front of us. I mean—so we have, you know, Bernie Sanders, who’s Jewish, but not particularly religious in his Jewish identity, so that’s an—that makes him different, say, than, you know, Joe Lieberman. On the Democratic side, what we see in our polling is that most Democratic-leaning voters rank kind of either someone who shares their religious beliefs or someone who is themselves religious at slightly lower levels. One kind of, I guess, exception to that is African-Americans, who tend to be very religious and do tend to say they want someone who—are more likely to say someone who has strong religious beliefs is something attractive to them in the mix. But I don’t—it’s not a deal breaker, I think, on that side.

But, you know, what I would say is more interesting this year is that we are seeing—we had hints of this in the Romney campaign, where evangelicals were very reticent about Romney early in the primary process. Evangelical leaders were meeting and trying to kind of rally support behind kind of almost anyone but Romney. Didn’t really work out. And in fact, evangelicals, as Romney became the clear nominee, ultimately rallied behind him and voted at levels that were comparable to their support for McCain, their support for Bush—about eight in 10 evangelicals lined up, voted for Romney. They also turned out at relatively high levels.

But we may see kind of a different script happening here with Donald Trump. I’ll say just a little bit about this, and if we have another question we can kind of come back to it more in depth. But what I would say is that Trump’s appeal to “make America great again”—probably the most important word in that slogan is the word “again” at the end. And again, if I kind of tie this to that question I had about the 1950s—white evangelical Protestant voters score the highest on this thing about whether America’s changed for the better or for the worse since the 1950s. About seven in 10 white evangelicals say it’s changed for the worse. And white evangelicals also tend to be sort of most opposed to some of the kind of deep cultural changes around gay rights, other things. So still over—one of the—there’s only really two major religious groups strongly opposed to same-sex marriage, and that’s Mormons and white evangelical Protestants.

But what Trump’s appeal is, I think, is really an appeal—I’ve been sort of thinking about this. And it might be worth noting that, you know, white evangelical Protestants might not be just thought of as values voters, you know, as they were in kind of all the hype around 2004, but might be thought of as nostalgia voters. And in that front, Trump doesn’t really have to appeal to them on religious grounds. He can really appeal to them on, I mean—just today, there was an interview out with CBN’s David Brody and Trump, where Trump just flatly said: You know, I’m going to give more power to the Christian churches. Like, that’s a goal of mine as a presidential candidate. And he’s speaking straight to people, I think, who feel like the cultural world that they have been accustomed to and the cultural power that they’ve been accustomed to having is slipping away, and I think Trump is speaking directly to those fears.

MOLINE: Thanks.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Michael Jerryson with Youngstown State University.

JERRYSON: Thank you.

This is a very interesting conversation, and I’m appreciating the way—looking at the intersections of race and religion. I had a question about methodology as we move forward, as you noted the decline in the white Christian group. Places like the PRRI, that you head, as well as Pew Research seem to be conducting bilingual telephone interviews, whereas if we’re trying to get a sense of the non-Christian—for example, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu—we need a wide array of language capabilities. It seems that sometimes the hinder the ability to assess fully these changes in demographics.

JONES: Yeah, no, it’s a great question. So you’re right. So we, you know, conduct all the—all the polls that are conducted by PRRI are conducted in English and Spanish, and are conducted on cell phones and on landlines as well. And that’s to ensure the kind of—ensure broad coverage. It is, you know, absolutely not perfect. And you’re correct to kind of, you know—if you were to get, you know—you wanted a random sample of Muslim Americans, you know, you would need to sort of go beyond—you would need Arabic, you would need Farsi, you would need, you know, maybe even a couple of other languages to really get a true random sample. I think what we’re really looking at here is, you know, some of the limitations, really, that have to do with cost—primarily, really. And are we casting the net quite wide enough to get a full account of, sort of, yeah, non-English, non-Spanish speaking—particularly Muslims or Buddhists? You know, I think the answer to that is clearly we’re not, particularly on telephone polls.

And I think we’re looking at a real limitation. So what I would say is that, you know, even these large surveys—and we just released, you know, our American values survey that has more than 80,000 interviews—it’s one of the largest surveys ever conducted here—but it is all in English and Spanish. So what I would say is certainly when you’re looking at public opinion polls that have been conducted by telephone, you know, even the gold standard polls—like our organization, Pew—you really do—you are going to have to look at those numbers. And when you see, you know, 0.7 percent Muslim, you recognize that, well, that’s English and then Spanish-speaking Muslims only, right? It’s certainly a conservative count, if anything.

JERRYSON: Thank you.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question will come from Syed Sayeed from Columbia University.

SAYEED: Good afternoon, and thank you very much both to the speaker and to the Council for Foreign Relations for, you know, arranging for this conference call. It’s a very timely discussion that we are all sort of engaged in.

I wanted to sort of, you know, look at this issue as, you know, on the part of people who are raising the, what should I say, the religious, you know, item in these elections. Irrespective of who is doing that, whether Muslims or non-Muslims, whether candidates or parties or groups, it’s major distraction from what the issues at hand we have in the present election.

I wanted to sort of ask the speaker the question, what does he think of the use of religion, or language, or immigration—whatever issues we have, they should be looked at in a broader context of the global setting that we have now, and the role U.S. has to play in the issues that are important in the global, you know, setting. So I just want to sort of leave it there and see what, you know, response do you have. Thank you.

JONES: Sure, so I think can, you know, use that as a jumping-off point to address a couple of things that you raised. I mean, so one is that, you know, if we look attitudes toward American Muslims, for example, or Islam, what we see, the kind of general pattern is that after 9/11, mostly really as the result some very sort of quick and positive work that President Bush did to say that we were not at war with Islam, that—to affirm, you know, the presence of, you know, American Muslims as an important part of American society. Those things he did very consistently in a whole set of speeches right after 9/11. And most Americans didn’t have strong opinions, and so what we saw is kind of a benefit of the doubt period in the—in the data.

And then we’ve seen sort of—sort of more negative attitudes sort of creeping up. And then at around the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the country was basically divided on a—on a set of questions about—like one benchmark about whether Islam was at odds with American values and way of life—Americans were basically divided. They were divided generationally, along party lines, along ideological lines that basically kind of divided down the middle. And we’ve seen in the past few years these numbers kick up a bit. So there, our last numbers were 56 percent of Americans agreed that the values of Islam were at odds with American values and way of life. That’s mostly been the results of sort of people who are more conservative moving out of the middle and over onto that side. But again, it divides people by race, by age, and by party.

But I think it’s really indicative of a bigger kind of cultural anxiety, and I think that’s the more important underlying thing. And the reason why we’re hearing about these things from presidential candidates, you know, rather than maybe talking straight up about particular issues, or laws, or a policy position, you know—in particular in the primaries—is because they, you know, they have their own polling and they know that their base is worried about these—about these issues. And so I think we’re hearing a lot about them, but that’s reflective of the fact that there is some kind of anxiety in the—in the culture about changes in the country.

And, you know, kind of again, back to the—to the kind of title of the book, I really do think it is about a real shift. And we’ve kind of reached a tipping point where institutionally, culturally, and even by the numbers, you know, a group that—kind of white Christians in the country have really slipped to being a minority in the country. And that’s kind of a new thing. And I think there’s a sense of kind of vertigo among many particularly conservative white Christians about what that means; what it means for the country; what it means for the future. You combine that with economic anxiety and it’s a pretty volatile—a pretty volatile mix. I think that’s some of what we’re seeing going on, and why we’re seeing presidential candidates trade in some of these—even diatribes along these lines.

SAYEED: If I may follow up, I mean, you mentioned about Bernie Sanders. He made it very clear that he does not align himself with, you know, the kind of rhetoric that’s going on. In fact, he came out very openly against it. And he has a vast majority of people, you know, from within the Democratic Party and the younger generation. So would you see any, you know, underlying logic why the people from, you know, that group are not really as much, you know, sort of anxious and negative about what, you know, other politicians are saying?

JONES: Yeah, I mean one of the things I could say is that, I mean, you’re right—Bernie Sanders has been doing really well among younger voters. And I think that one of the things going on, particularly around these kind of cultural anxieties that have to do with Latinos, or Muslims, or changing kind of demographics in the country, are that the younger generation, you know, has grown up amidst a very—that generation is very diverse, certainly compared to seniors. So they’re much more likely to know someone Muslim, much more likely to know someone Latino, have close friendships—and those all make a real, you know, make real difference in the country on these attitudes.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Patrick Carolan with Franciscan Action Network.

CAROLAN: Thank you. And my question’s going to kind of almost be a follow-up question to the previous question, but a little different topic.

You mentioned about white evangelicals, and particularly some hot-button issues such as gay marriage. And I’ve seen some recent studies—and I apologize, because I can’t tell you exactly where—but that have shown that gay marriage, or opposition to gay marriage is not as strong of an issue with younger evangelicals as it is with older evangelicals. And that may be the same—may have the same answer to that as it had to the previous question about Muslims with the younger generation, but I’m wondering if you’ve seen that in your data, and what does that bode for the future, particularly for the future of the Republican Party, whose whole—you know, is based on these kind of hot-button issues if the younger generation of evangelicals are more supportive of gay marriage?

JONES: Yeah, that’s a great question.

You know, I think it’s worth kind of dialing it back to 2004, you know, where we saw kind of abortion and gay marriage as these wedge issues that were playing very prominently in that campaign. We had a dozen ballot initiatives on the ballot to—that were constitutional amendments or prohibitions on same-sex marriage that all passed in 2004. That wasn’t that long ago. It’s been a real sea change on this issue that’s been led really by younger people. It turns out that everyone in the country, even older Americans, have been shifting their attitudes on this issue, but it’s kind of a wave of younger people really pushing it.

And so you’re right, here, that if you look at—we just released, actually, one of the largest studies on LGBT issues that’s ever been issued on—we had over 42,000 interviews conducted in 2015. So we could actually break out, like, just—we had nearly 8,000 white evangelical Protestants in this study, so we could break them out by age with quite a bit of confidence. And what we found is that if we look at younger white evangelicals under 30, that basically they’re divided on the question. So if you look at seniors, for example, three-quarters of white evangelical seniors oppose same-sex marriage, but only 49 percent of evangelicals under the age of 30 oppose same-sex marriage. So you have a younger generation that’s, you know, divided on the issue, and, you know, a good, you know, nearly 30-points—25-point difference, generation gap, between seniors and younger evangelicals on this issue.

So the other thing to say is that this issue just doesn’t rank that high on younger voter’s kind of priority list. And so I, you know, I think that’s why we’re not seeing actually a lot of it in this election cycle, because, particularly as Republican candidates, you know, want to reach out, they want to reach out not just to older evangelicals, but younger evangelicals. And foregrounding something like this is just not going to—it’s going to fall kind of flat among younger evangelicals.

Having said that, the issue of abortion is still kind of as divisive as ever. And so we’ll—I think we’re—that’s why you’re seeing almost no talk about same-sex marriage and LGBT issues, still some talk around Planned Parenthood and reproductive health and rights, and abortion, because those issues are still, I think, fairly divided along party and ideological lines, even among younger Americans.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Adam Estle with the National Immigration Forum.

ESTLE: Hi, Robert. Thank you so much for all the work that you guys do—it’s really incredible. And really appreciate this American values model.

JONES: Thank you.

ESTLE: I’m noticing there’s a little immigration coming soon, so I’m very excited about that section.


ESTLE: I do have a question about the—about the religious tradition categories and wondering, as you’ve—as you’ve mentioned, our country’s becoming less and less of a white-dominant culture. Is there any way that you guys can have data already, or can start asking about different categories like Hispanic evangelicals, for example, or, you know, breaking down each of the black Protestant or Hispanic Protestant categories a little bit more?

JONES: Yes. You know, what you’re talking about is absolutely true. So yeah, I’ve been talking a lot about kind of the country wrapping their heads around the demographic changes, but social scientists and political scientists are also having to wrap their heads around these changes. It does mean that—you’re absolutely right, that, you know, our traditional categories for sorting people are getting bent, and some of them are getting bent to the breaking point. So we’re going to have to kind of rethink this pretty soon, especially where you have increasing number of people not identifying—just if you were only talking about race, people not identifying just as white, black, you know, Asian, Pacific Islander, but many people identifying as mixed race, right? And that’s a new category to try to figure out what, you know, how does that fit into the landscape and how do you report out on that in a coherent way?

We have been breaking out in our largest surveys for example, Hispanic Protestants as a separate category when we have enough. In our smaller surveys and typical political surveys that you see of a thousand people, there are not enough Hispanic Protestants to break them out with any confidence. But in our larger surveys, like the American Values Atlas, we are breaking them out separately. And what we tend to see generally is that Hispanic Protestants look a lot more like their white Evangelical cousins than they look like Hispanic Catholics. They tend to be—lean Republican, be conservative on social issues, and kind of have worship styles that look like—and kind of, religiously speaking, have worship styles that look more like Evangelical charismatic Protestants.

But we are seeing—in, like, every report we put out now we are differentiating between white Catholics and Hispanic Catholics, because they have just developed over time such a different political profile. You know, so we had Romney winning white Catholics and Obama handily winning Hispanic Catholics, for example, kind of heading two different directions of presidential years. One little side anecdote, though, is on—we were just talking about same-sex marriage. Notably, white Catholics and Hispanic Catholics are both majority support for same-sex marriage. So there’s actually not a divide on that. But if you get into other issues and more—and things that are around vote and party, there are those differences. But you’re absolutely right to flag it. It’s something we’re certainly struggling with and continue to think hard about, about how to—but we already have—we certainly have more religious categories than we had 10 years ago. And that’s just the response of king of dealing with the continued complexity of American life.

And the other piece that we’ll have to deal with soon, I think, and we’re already thinking about, is that we have about one in 10 Americans now saying that they identify with more than one religion, all right? So they don’t just practice one religion. And that’s beyond intermarriage. That’s like individuals themselves saying that they are the follower or practitioner of more than one religion. And so reporting out about that, again, in a coherent way, is also a challenge we’re still working on.

ESTLE: Thank you very much.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Michelle Bentsman with Harvard Divinity School.

BENTSMAN: Hi. Thanks so much for your comments thus far. I’m really interested in this phrase you’re talking about, about the nostalgia voters and Donald Trump. And I’d like to know more about how we understand sort of the cultural-religious distinction. And also, it seems to me that there might be maybe a little bit of cognitive dissonance in thinking about a prior time when the political landscape was far more steeped in religion, and then sort of applying Donald Trump to that image. So I’m wondering if cultural position is taking the place of religion, even for the faithful, and why this seems acceptable for those that are professing faith.

JONES: Yes. I think that’s an interesting way of putting it, that—you know, cultural position taking place over religion or identity politics, because I do think—you know, we’re showing Trump still ahead nationally, even in South Carolina, a state steeply—or, you know, steeped in religion, and particularly in Evangelical religion. He’s still out ahead. He’s ahead among Evangelical voters in South Carolina. Now, how is that the case? And it’s worth saying, right, that there’s all kinds of ways that that should not be the case. You know, he’s talked about, like, two Corinthians, he accidentally put money in the communion plate thinking it was the offering plate. I mean, all kinds of—you know, plenty of gaffes that have been—that would communicate, right, that I’m not one of you.

But at the same time, I think he’s been able to say, OK, maybe I’m not one of you. And he’s not—and that’s the script that, like, Rubio is using and Cruz is using to kind of convince them that they are one of them. It’s more of an identity appeal. I mean, Trump’s appeal is really more of a—it is more of a cultural appeal, or an appeal to their interest—their cultural interests, right, that I get that you feel like you’re on the outs, I get that you feel like your power is slipping away.

I mean, the interview he gave today to Brody that I mentioned earlier today was about as straightforward as I’ve seen, just saying: I will restore power to the Christian churches. Like, that is what I’m going to do as president. He’s made other comments like this in the international scene, saying: I will protect Christians. You know, ISIS is beheading Christians abroad and I’m going to protect Christians in the world. And I think those appeals really are about, you know, an appeal to an America that many Evangelicals feel in some ways is slipping away, in both kind of cultural and religious terms, and even the statistical terms. And I think that’s been a big part of the appeal.

I think we had hints of this with Romney, though. And I think we kind of missed it, frankly, that—you know, Romney also wasn’t about to straightforwardly make the I’m one of you appeal with Evangelicals. But ultimately, he was able to kind of be their candidate, even though he wasn’t able to make the I’m one of you appeal.

FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you very much. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question will come from Gary MacDonald with Southern Methodist University.

MACDONALD: Yes, hi. Thank you for participating today. I had a question about a news item today. I read a report that the pope had commented on the wall—the border wall between Mexico and Texas, and saying that Donald Trump’s comments indicate that he is not a Christian. Now, I’m not sure if that’s a quote or not, but that’s what the report had said. And I’m wondering what kind of influence a religious leader like the pope, in particular, or religious leaders in general are having on the so-called faithful.

JONES: Yeah. It’s interesting. I mean, I think, you know, clearly his—Trump’s concerns would be more about, like, what is the Catholic response to this? I mean, it’s worth nothing that, you know, at least in the short-term thinking, that South Carolina is not a state with a large number of Catholics. Only 6 percent of the state is—identifies as Catholic. So that’s—so there may be some short-term calculus going on here as well. But you know, I think the other thing to say is that—I mean, Trump certainly knows how to be in the media, right? So there’s no bigger way to be in the media than taking on the pope on Twitter.

So, you know, I saw Trump tweeting back, actually, today that—you know, pretty much right back, you know, at him, and said anyone who questions anyone’s faith, that that’s disgraceful, is what he said back at the pope. So you know, there’s basically a Twitter war going on between the pope and Donald Trump. Now, that’s a little surreal to think about in the context of a presidential election, but it certainly lands Trump back on the headlines. And I think that may be part of—you know, part of the strategy here.

But on immigration, it’ll be really interesting to see, you know, what happens. And I mentioned, to kind of tie it back to the bigger thing, this—and maybe the first question we got asked is that, you know, the general election versus the primaries, that it’s very clear that all the Republican candidates are running away from immigration reform, even Rubio was part of this gang of eight bill in the Senate. But in the general election—you know, George W. Bush got 40 percent of the Latino vote. And in the general election, Republicans are going to have to reach out to the Latino community to do well. And I think this is going to be a real, I think, challenge, given where kind of the immigration stances have lined up on the issue.

So yeah, I don’t pretend to know everything that’s going on here, but there may be some short-term calculus where being tough on immigration plays well among a Republican electorate. But having said that, you know, one thing we have been seeing pretty clearly is that Republicans overall are basically divided on comprehensive immigration reform, even one that includes a path to citizenship. We have about half of Republicans actually supporting that policy and then, you know, very strong (minorities ?) of independents and Democrats supporting that policy. So I think that’s something that the Republican candidates are really going to have to contend with, even among their own base, that this is not an issue that, you know, they have overwhelming majorities behind them on.

MACDONALD: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Andrew Gerhart with Stanford University.

GERHART: Hi, Dr. Jones. And thank you for your work, and all of you for this call. Can you hear me?

FASKIANOS: Yes, we can.


GERHART: Oh, great. I wanted to ask—I was playing around with your really neat Atlas here, and I saw that you have a climate change button that might come online soon. And I was extremely interested in how this plays out. I guess so it’s a two-part question. What do you expect to be showing in that data? And then I guess when you mention that the unaffiliated have gone from 9 to 23 percent, I’m kind of wondering if you can clarify or nuance a little bit more about how they are and where they’re coming from.

JONES: Yeah. All right, I’ll work backwards. The unaffiliated, yeah, so they basically nearly tripled in size since the early ’90s. And for the most part, you know, they’re coming from younger people. Like I said, 36 percent of Americans under the age of 30 are religiously unaffiliated. That’s more than triple the number of seniors who are religiously unaffiliated. So they’re clearly coming from kind of the younger generations. But the other places they’re coming from, so people coming up and sort of not continuing to be involved in religions as they become young adults. But they’re also coming from other people who are leaving religions.

And there really is—really I’m thinking about the biggest—the group that has lost the most to religious switching are Catholics, in the country, particularly white Catholics. And in fact, if we didn’t have kind of Hispanic replacement through immigration and higher birthrates, the number of Catholics would have plummeted in the last 30 years as well. But the one thing that’s holding them steady is actually a rising number of Hispanic Catholics. But there’s been a kind of attrition of white Catholics contributing. But this has been true. Also white mainline Protestants have seen disaffiliation among that group. Even white Evangelicals really—but only in the last 10 years have we seen a drop in kind of white Evangelical protestants in the country as well.

And there’s a lot of factors here. We actually did a couple surveys where we asked kind of, you know, people, particularly who were raised religious but then left kind of why they left. The biggest reasons people gave were very mundane—like, it just didn’t hold their interest, they felt like they grew out of it, they weren’t, like, hard rejectionist kinds of answers. The only group that we had—we had about a third of people saying that they left over negative teachings about gay and lesbian people. That was kind of the biggest category. But it was still only a third who said that’s why they left. So I think it’s a variety of reasons.

One quick thing to say about who they are, only about a third of them are actually atheist or agnostic, and kind of nontheistic beliefs. The rest of them are kind of a hodgepodge. And I think we’re still trying to kind of wrap our heads around it. But there seem to be two other groups in there: one, a group that is kind of basically secular, who tend not to be that religious, religion is not that important to them but they’re not—also not atheist. They believe in God, but religion itself is just not that important.

And then there’s another group that’s about a third of this group that is actually pretty religious. They tend to be heavily minority, a little bit economically downscale, and they believe in God at high levels. They pray. They look like more traditionally religious people, but they just don’t claim a connection to organized religion. So I think there’s still a lot of work to be done there. That’s about what I can say about what we know. But that group is really bit. As I said, it’s now the biggest, quote, unquote, “religious group” in the country. And I think that’s an area ripe for a lot more research.

On the climate change button, so the last climate change survey we did, in conjunction with the American Academy of Religion, was in 2014. That’s up on our website. The button is—we are hoping to have funded this year, which means it would come online in 2017—about this time of year in 2017. So we haven’t really worked out the questions. There’s like to be two or three benchmark questions. That tends to be how the American Values Atlas is constructed. That kinds of gives us a 50-state map of American attitudes on the particular topic.

So we hope to be collecting data this year and have it out the following year. It takes—it should be said, since we’re collecting such large data sets, you know, there’s more than 40,000 interviews that we’re conducting here, it’s a very long field period to collect that many. We basically collect them basically 1,000 interviews a week for 40 weeks, and then compile the data set. And then we’ll have it available next year.

GERHART: Thank you very much.


FASKIANOS: Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Rachel Shepard, with Sister of Social Service.

SHEPARD: Yes. This is Rachel Shepard.


SHEPARD: Hi. Oh, as I understand it, there’s no religious test for the presidency, that there’s not to be a religious test. This election thing seems to be all about religion. And it’s kind of deflecting from what’s important. Is it higher this year than it was in the last elections?

JONES: Well, it’s interesting. You know, there was a lot of religion—I’m thinking back to Romney—a lot of stuff around, you know, religion, particularly in the primaries. And again, I think this is where it really plays out, and particularly for Republicans who have these early states like Iowa and South Carolina, where there is one religious group in these states—white Evangelical protestants—that are so important. Like, you will not—if you don’t do well with white Evangelical protestants in Iowa and South Carolina and a number of other southern states prior to March 8th, you’re not going to do well in the Republican primary. So I think we always see this kind of early part. We see religion kind of coming out of the woodwork for this early part of the primary season.

I do think because we’ve got Cruz, and Rubio, and Trump at the top of the ticket, and particular Cruz and Rubio, I think are both kind of vying in very kind of overt ways, and kind of like religious identity appeals. So I think we’re seeing maybe a little more of that and a little more straightforward than we saw. But you know, you got to remember, we had Rick Santorum, who was making very similar—even though he was Catholic—making very similar kind of appeals. In the last election we had Mike Huckabee who hung in there much longer than he did this time, who was also an Evangelical pastor himself.

So I’m not sure we’re seeing a little more of it. I think, you know, certainly the kind of more chaotic race, I think, is—and the kind of number of debates has cast more spotlight on it, on this year. And you’re right to say, right, constitutionally speaking we have no religious test for office. But of course, that kind of legal separation of church and state is never really separated religion and politics. And we’ve kind of seen, you know, that Americans have historically—but I think this is changing. Certainly among younger people it is much less true, that they don’t link patriotism and religion the way that past generations did. And so I think we may be seeing a sea change on that.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Paul De Vries with New York Divinity School.

DEVRIES: Hi, Robert Jones. I thank you again for your participation.

JONES: Hey, Paul.

DEVRIES: And thank you, Council on Foreign Relations.

I’m intrigued that we’re continuing to divide white Evangelicals, from black Evangelicals, from Asian-American Evangelicals, Hispanic Evangelicals, when at the same time there is at least some movement toward more multiethnic churches, multiethnic collaboration, church movements. Is there—are there two different winds going here in opposite directions, where there’s also a trend for more unity across these sociological racial divides?

JONES: Yeah, it’s a great question. And you know, I think some of it depends on what lens you’re bringing to it. You know, so if you’re inside a religion department or a seminary, you know, the kind of commonalities and the efforts to bridge racial divides, to kind of bridge the denominational divides, and even the kind of diversification we’re seeing inside of denominations, and even in denominations as historically white as the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, seeing some diversification of African-American and Latino churches, even inside that traditionally white denomination—I mean, all that is true. You know, that’s sort of one lens.

I mean, the other interesting lens—the other lens that I think that tends to get brought at it, not from inside of kind of the religious world but in the political world, and a lot of polling is driven, or most polling is driven, by a kind of political science lens, as a quantitative kind of scientific study of religion. It does take into account kind of political behavior and tendencies. And I think one of the reasons, for example, that African-American Protestants, who are predominantly Evangelical, are separated out from white non-Hispanic Evangelical Protestants, and who are also separated out from Hispanic Protestants.

Although, they—it is interesting, if you ask them questions about their belief about the Bible, their belief about traditional kind of orthodox religious beliefs, you will not see a lot of daylight between these groups. But just as kind of one quick, you know, thing, if you look at the last presidential election, African-American protestants voted 95 percent for President Obama. And white Evangelical protestants voted almost nearly 79 or 80 percent for Romney. So just completely divergent political proclivities, in terms of partisanship, and in terms of a lot of—a whole range of issues—economic issues, social issues—in very different places.

So I think that’s why they get sorted out. But, I mean, there’s nothing magical about that. You’re right to kind of remind us that, OK, there’s a kind of theological family here that makes some sense. But it tends to kind of fall apart when we start talking about politics.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from David Brenner with University Presbyterian Church. Sir, your line is open.

BRENNER: Yes. Can you hear me?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. We can hear you now.

BRENNER: All right. Sorry. Here’s my question: Looking at your—I just googled while you were talking here, your book that’s coming out on Amazon. I saw at the end of the description you say that: Looking ahead, Jones forecasts the ways that white Christian American might adjust to find their place in the new America, and the consequences for all of us if they don’t. And I wondered if you might give us a little foretaste of how you see that going. (Laughter.)

JONES: Yeah. You know, I think it’s going to be fraught. And you know, we’re already seeing, I think, some of that. But I do think, you know, the—I’ll point to a couple things just to make it really concrete. Like, I think that Russell Moore and the Southern Baptist Convention, right, it’s the largest—it’s the largest Protestant denomination in the country. It is deeply rooted in the South, has, you know, a pretty horrific history on race and slavery, was formed out of being a pro-slavery part of the Baptist world.

You know, and that’s the denomination that that, as I said, has been making some inroads, sort of both in internal diversity—had its first African-American president of the denomination just recently—and, you know, I think Russell Moore has been doing a lot to sort of reach out to not only just the black Baptists, but other African-Americans. Wrote I think a pretty important piece that I think would have been unimaginable a few decades ago about the confederate flag, and, in his view, its inconsistency with Christianity—displaying the confederate flag in the South. So I think there’s a lot of things happening there that are new and important.

At the same time, I think white Christians are still struggling pretty hard to wrap their heads around the Black Lives Matter movement—what does that mean, what’s it about? And we still see in the country these huge divides. And one of the things I talk about in the book is just the big social segregation that we still have in the country, that when we measure, for example, the kind of friendship networks of the average white American, it still remains 91 percent white. And so you have more than 9 in 10 of your friendships—you know, of your close friendship circles, where you really sort of form opinions, check your opinions, being that homogeneous, you know, reaching across these divides is going to be—you know, it’s going to be a pretty tricky endeavor.

So I think we’re still in for a lot of bumps in the road, a lot of—I don’t—you know, as someone who’s sort of a social scientist who thinks about, like, taking snapshots of the country and describing what I see and kind of looking back to the past, always a little reticent of looking too far ahead to the future, but I think we’re in—there are some signs for hope. And I think there’s—you know, that sort of this is—there’s no doubt this is a transition, that it’s a big one that we’re currently kind of working our way through as a country.

I think there’s signs of hope that, you know, this is a transition that we will make, and still kind of hold things together. And, you know, I think there’s always some reasons to be, you know, pretty concerned. So I don’t know—that’s a little bit of a vague thing, but I think that’s kind of where I come out at the end of the day.

BRENNER: Great. Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I think we have time for one last question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Michael Saahir from Nur-Allah Islamic Center.

SAAHIR: Hello?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Your line is open.

FASKIANOS: Yeah, go ahead.

SAAHIR: OK. Yes, I wanted to ask a question regarding—the topic is the role of religion, where it’s, of course, in America Christianity is dominant religion. What is the role that other religions may play in the 2016 elections, please?

JONES: I’m sorry, the question was kind of what is—

FASKIANOS: So I think it’s the role—what role religion will play in the elections, just getting back to a wrap up of that, answering that question, Robby, would be great.

JONES: OK, yeah.

SAAHIR: What I wanted to ask was not just the role of Christianity, but the role of other religions as well, like Islam.

JONES: Got it. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Got it, yes.

So you know, it’s—I should say that what we’re looking at in the country today—you know, it’s still, I mean, answering with the kind of shifts and changes that we have in the country—you know, we’re still looking at a country that is, you know, two-thirds Christian, it’s about 5 percent kind of non-Christian religious, and then about a quarter were loosely unaffiliated. So you know, we’re still looking at Christianity playing an outsized role, it’s just that there’s—you know, there is a much more diverse Christianity out there than there has ever been, you know, with a lot of nonwhite Christian groups in the mix, and reaching kind of critical mass.

You know, I think the role of kind of smaller religious groups in the country is certainly growing, but again it’s about 5 percent of the country now that is religiously affiliated but not Christian. And so I think in terms of just absolute numbers it’s less. But I think sort of what we are seeing is places where it’s working its way into the vocabulary of the country. And one thing I would say, is even though I sort of talked about that number of people worried about Islam being incompatible with American values and way of life, that is true. We also found though that, at the same time, about six in 10 Americans say that American Muslims are an important part of the U.S. religious community.

So it’s a very complex picture out there. And I guess the other thing I would say is that we’re seeing it. Presidents kind of think about—so I think George Bush was the first president who talked about churches, synagogues, and mosques. He used that phrase in many speeches that he gave to just describe the kind of religious institutional makeup of the country. President Obama has continued that practice. And President Obama has also added those of no religious faith to a lot of his speeches, kind of giving a nod to the rise of religiously unaffiliated Americans in the country.

So I think we’re seeing kind of in our leaders, you know, some moves from, you know, both sides of the political aisle to kind of acknowledge the diversity. I mean, I think where we’re at is that it’s certainly that can’t be ignored, and that we’re going to see, you know, playing an important symbolic role, even if the kind of absolute votes aren’t going to sort of tip it at the end of the day. But certainly among younger people, you know, it’s playing a more outsized role among younger people too. So I think candidates appealing to younger people have got to remember they’re talking to a much more diverse—religiously, culturally, racially—audience than they—you know, than they might be talking to anyone else.

FASKIANOS: Well, thank you. We have come to the end of our hour. And we really appreciate all your questions and to you, Robert Jones, for this thoughtful analysis that you’ve—and your comments that you’ve shared with us today. And so the amazing work that you’re doing at the Public Religion Research Institute. If you haven’t already looked at it, today they released a report on same-sex marriage, if you want to look at that. And we also sent out an American Values Atlas, which is a really amazing research tool that allows you to look at demographic political and religious attributes of the United States today. So I commend that all to you.

You can also follow Robert Jones on Twitter at @RobertPJones. So I hope you will look there. The Public Religion Research Institute is at @PublicReligion. And the CFR’s religious Twitter at @CFR_Religion, for announcements like upcoming events such as these, and other information about CFR resources that may inform your work. So, Robby, thank you, again, for today. We really appreciate it.

JONES: Thank you. Thanks, everyone.


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