PRRI Releases Groundbreaking 2020 Census of American Religion

The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) today released the inaugural 2020 Census of American Religion, which provides unprecedented county-level data on religious identity and diversity in the United States. Based on interviews with more than 500,000 respondents between 2013 and 2020, the census report reveals the shifting dynamics of American religious affiliation across geography, race and ethnicity, age, and political affiliation over the last decade. It provides the most detailed estimates of American religious affiliation since the U.S. Census Bureau last collected religious data in 1957. 

“The religious makeup of an area has a considerable impact on life experiences for Americans, and we are proud to release the 2020 Census of American Religion, which enables us to see that religious landscape all the way down to the county level,” noted Natalie Jackson, PRRI research director. “Using this tool, we are able to see how Americans’ religious context varies based on geography, as well as how religious identities are changing. We see some trends continuing, like the continued decline and aging of white evangelical Protestants. We are also seeing shifts in others, such as a leveling out in the religiously unaffiliated and a rebound among white mainline Protestants.”  

Key Findings on Religious Diversity and Affiliation

Based on analysis using a Religious Diversity Index, the census report shows that religious diversity continues to be highest in more urban counties. The most religiously diverse counties in the United States are Kings County, New York; Queens County, New York; Montgomery County, Maryland; and Navajo County, Arizona. Religious diversity is lowest in southern regions of the country and in rural areas, with the least religiously diverse counties concentrated in Mississippi and Alabama. 

Over the last few decades, the white Christian proportion of the U.S. population has declined by nearly one-third, hitting an all-time low in 2018 of 42%. That trend seems to have slowed, however. In 2019 and 2020, that proportion ticked upward slightly, to 44%, driven primarily by an increase in the proportion of white mainline Protestants and a stabilization in the proportion of white Catholics. 

White evangelical Protestants are the oldest religious group in the U.S., with a median age of 56 (compared to 47 in the general population), and they have also experienced the most precipitous drop in affiliation over the past decade, shrinking from 23% in 2006 to 14% in 2020. White evangelical Protestants are most heavily concentrated in counties in the South and the southern Midwest. By comparison, white mainline Protestants, which comprise 16% of the U.S. population as of 2020, are spread more broadly around the country, with the heaviest concentrations in counties in the Midwest.

The share of religiously unaffiliated Americans has also been on the rise over the past decade but has stabilized in the last three years around one-quarter of the population (25% in 2018, 24% in 2019, and 23% in 2020). Religiously unaffiliated Americans are most prevalent in counties located in the Northeast and the West. 

The Relationship Between Religious and Political Affiliation

Christianity continues to play a significant role in American politics: Both major political parties are majority Christian, with 83% of Republicans and 69% of Democrats identifying as Christian. The biggest difference in the religious makeup of self-identified Republicans and Democrats is the proportion of white Christians compared to Christians of color. Nearly seven in ten Republicans (68%) identify as white and Christian, compared to less than four in ten Democrats (39%). Three in ten Democrats (32%) are Christians of color, compared to only half as many Republicans (14%). Additionally, nearly one in four Democrats (23%) are religiously unaffiliated, compared to 13% of Republicans. 

“Analysis of the religious identities of the two political parties reveals an increasingly homogeneous Republican Party, comprised overwhelmingly of white Christians, even as the country continues to become more diverse,” noted Robert P. Jones, CEO and founder of PRRI. “In terms of racial and religious diversity, self-identified Democrats look like 30-year-old America, whereas Republicans look like 70-year-old America.” 

Other notable findings from PRRI’s Census of American Religion include: 

  • Most religious groups are getting older, with the exception of white mainline Protestants and Jewish Americans. The median age of Black Protestants has increased most, from 45 in 2013 to 50 in 2020. In 2013, the median age of white mainline Protestants was 52, and in 2020 it was 50. Jewish Americans have decreased in median age, from 52 in 2013 to 48 in 2020.
  • Americans ages 65 and older are the only group whose religious profile has changed significantly since 2013. Among Americans 65 and older, the proportion of white evangelical Protestants dropped from 26% in 2013 to 22% in 2020, and the proportion of white Catholics dropped from 18% in 2013 to 15% in 2020. Finally, connected to these trends, the proportion of religiously unaffiliated seniors increased from 11% in 2013 to 14% in 2020.
  • Black Protestants, most heavily concentrated in the South and the Southeast, overwhelmingly identify with the Democratic Party. 65% of Black Protestants identify as Democrats, 7% identify as Republicans, and 26% identify as independents.
  • Educational attainment varies considerably across religious groups. Majorities of Hindu (67%), Unitarian Universalist (59%), and Jewish (58%) Americans have four-year college degrees or higher. Comparatively, three in ten white evangelical Protestants (29%) and Black Protestants (29%) hold college degrees, while one in five or less Jehovah’s Witnesses (20%), Hispanic Protestants (17%), and Hispanic Catholics (15%) do.

Census of American Religion County-Level Maps

The 2020 Census of American Religion includes 13 county-level national maps showing the proportion of the population for the 13 different religious affiliation categories included in the report, including white evangelical Protestants, white mainline Protestants, Black Protestants, Jewish Americans, and more. A preview of selected maps included in the report is available here:

The full 2020 Census of American Religion is available on PRRI’s website. https://www.prri.org/research/2020-census-of-american-religion/

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Methodology 

The county-level religion census estimates are based on PRRI American Values Atlas data from 2013 to 2019, which includes interviews with random samples of 459,822 U.S. adults (ages 18 and over). Interviews were conducted via telephone (both landline and cell phone) in both English and Spanish. A technique called small area estimation modeling generated county-level religion estimates in 3,142 counties in all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, by combining the AVA data with county-level data from the 2014–2018 American Community Survey to increase the certainty of the estimates, particularly in counties with small populations. The estimates have varying measurement error based on the size of the county and the number of surveys completed in each county. Smaller counties have larger measurement error.

The 2020 American Values Atlas survey was designed and conducted by PRRI. The survey was made possible by generous grants from the Arcus Foundation, the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, the Gill Foundation, and the Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock. Interviews were conducted via telephone (both landline and cell phone) in both English and Spanish between February 11, 2020, and November 22, 2020, among a random sample of 50,334 U.S. adults (ages 18 and over). The margin of error for the total sample is +/- 0.5 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence.

About PRRI

PRRI is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to conducting independent research at the intersection of religion, culture, and politics. 

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