Southern evangelicals dwindling?: RNS blogger examines the numbers behind The Atlantic's claims

Is the South losing its "cultural Christianity," as Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler describes it?

New research indicates that "the percentage of Alabamians not affiliated with a specific religion surpasses the percentage of white mainline Protestants, ranking it third among 'religious' groups," Alabama Godbeat pro Carol McPhail recently reported.

The numbers cited in that story prompted this opinion piece a few days later:

Meanwhile, The Atlantic made a big splash on social media this week with this provocative claim:

From The Atlantic article by Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute:

Compared to 2007, just after the 2006 midterm elections, the five southern states where there are tight Senate races have one thing in common: the proportion of white evangelical Protestants has dropped significantly.
1. In Arkansas, where Republican and freshman Representative Tom Cotton is locked in a tight race with two-term Democratic Senator Mark Pryor, the white evangelical Protestant proportion of the population has dropped from 43 percent to 36 percent.
2. In Georgia, where Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn is battling Republican candidate David Perdue for retiring Senator Saxby Chambliss’s seat, white evangelical Protestants made up 30 percent of the population in 2007 but that number is currently down to 24 percent.
3. The proportion of white evangelicals in Kentucky has plunged 11 points, from 43 percent to 32 percent; here Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell faces the Democratic Alison Grimes, the secretary of state.
4. In Louisiana, where Republican Representative Bill Cassidy is up against three-term Democrat Mary Landrieu, white evangelicals have slipped from being 24 percent of the population to 19 percent.
5. Likewise, North Carolina has seen a dip in the white evangelical proportion of its population, from 37 percent to 30 percent; here incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan battles Republican Speaker of the North Carolina House Thom Tillis.

But what was it that Mark Twain said about "lies, damned lies and statistics?"

The stats reported by Jones made Religion News Service blogger Tobin Grant's "spidey-sense start buzzing," as he put it. Grant decided to examine the numbers behind the numbers.

From Grant's RNS post:

Jones showed results from a massive survey PRRI completed last year and compared them to Pew Research Center’s 2007 Religious Landscape survey. White evangelicals have dropped from 22 percent of Americans to just 18 percent.
Reading this, my spidey-sense started buzzing: that would be an 18 percent drop in just seven years! More than that, the numbers Jones were reporting didn’t match the 26 percent reported by the Landscape Survey. 18-22-26? The numbers didn’t make sense—at least not to me.
Re-reading the piece, I figured out part of the problem. The headline was a bait-and-switch. This wasn’t about all southern evangelicals but white southern evangelicalsAnd “white” meant excluding anyone who was Latino, too.
I ran the Pew data, moving anyone who was neither-white-nor-Latino out of the evangelical tradition.  That reduced the evangelical percentage down to the 22% PRRI reported, but some of the state percentages were still much higher than Jones was reporting.

And Grant is just getting his started. Before retweeting The Atlantic piece, be sure to read his analysis. Read it all.

Please respect our Commenting Policy