A ten-percent solution, a ten-percent problem

An enduring American meme within the contemporary Republican party*, especially in this latest primary season, is that America is a white country. This one is no longer explicitly vocalized as plain and notorious expressions of racial supremacy have become less acceptable, but in the current political climate the layer of rhetoric that is cloaking the racist motivations behind many of the statements made by mainstream politicians are about as thick as an onion skin (and nearly as transparent).

Another salient foundational myth (and one that has more than a little currency in Canada) is that it is, and always has been, a “Christian nation”. The contemporary face of this quaint notion is the Republican Party’s current fascination with historical fiction yarn-spinner David Barton (a man who lacks the decency to advertise or even admit that his accounts are not based on fact). And despite the minimalizing language I’m using to describe the meme and its champion, the idea of America as a Christian nation has major national currency, to the point where it meaningfully informs policy.

It is an interesting exercise to try to imagine what the world looks like when seen through Republican eyes. In order to maintain any of these myths, one needs someone like David Barton with a knack for selectively abstracting enough fact to build a framework and then plastering over that framework with a thick layer of conveniently-invented bullshit. However, knowing what we know about how privilege can strip away levels of awareness by blinding you to significant facts, and the magnifying effect that being surrounded by others who share your perspective can have, I found the following exercise interesting.

A Pew research poll put the number of Christians in the United States at about 78% of the population. Granting the most ecumenical of assumptions and granting some currency to the idea that the various religions out there are just ‘different paths to the same god’ or something to that effect, we can add in the 4.7% of the population who adhere to religions other than Christianity. Stretching that assumption to its absolute limit, we can include the 5.8% of the population who describe themselves as ‘religious unaffiliated’ – believers, but not part of any particular faith group.

Table of American religious responses - Pew Forum

Click to enlarge

Adding these groups together, we arrive at an America that is roughly 89% religious in the sense that they believe in something supernatural**. It is therefore no surprise that when Americans look around, they see a religious country – nearly everyone surrounding them is a religious believer.

More recently, the good people at Pew looked at political party affiliation across a number of demographic factors, including race. The results are… perhaps not terribly surprising:

Profiles of the parties among registered voters

Today’s Republican party is 89% white. It is therefore similarly no surprise that when Republicans look around, they see a white country – nearly everyone else surrounding them is white.

First, I have to make a point of this: the similarity in terms of numbers here, while fascinating, is merely coincidence. White people are in fact, as a population, less religious than many other ethnic groups. The 89% of the American population that are believers are also split across party lines (although even this is skewed Republican). The trend is not a coincidence, but the fact that both numbers add up to the same value is just a neat accident of polling.

Second, it is also interesting to note the similarity in terms of numbers and resulting minority denial among religious black Americans who deny the existence of black nonbelievers, even though their number is roughly equivalent to the number of black folks in the USA. Again, the numerical similarity is coincidental, but the psychological processes by which majority groups arrive at their conclusions about minorities is perhaps not quite so accidental.

Third, and probably most importantly, it is interesting to note the parallel trends between white America and religious America. Both are poised precariously on a demographic precipice, and staring their own unprecedented obsolescence in the face. There are in fact some voices of moderation who have an eye toward re-branding and making themselves more accessible and future-friendly. There is, however, a major headlong rush among many to attempt to legislate their way back into the relevance they enjoyed for generations, thus making their rapidly-diminishing privileged position a permanent one.

Ultimately, however, the impulse to dodge toward the meanest, and most myopic conservative impulses will be the undoing of both of these movements. The number of religious ‘nones’ grows year by year, many citing dissatisfaction with the level of hatred evinced by their clergy toward gay people and members of other religions. The proportion of white Americans is dropping as well, as immigration, economics, and social policies interact with diminishing public acceptance of racism and increased rates of cross-racial marriage.

In either case, the day is quickly approaching when the only people advocating positions classically held by these soon-to-be-former majority groups will be those desperate holdouts, ranging against the rising sun and bitterly clutching at the scraps of their tattered history.

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*I take pains to word it this way, as many Republicans have suddenly discovered the value of studying history and will angrily point out that Democrats used to be explicitly white supremacist. Nobody is disputing that; however, it happened 60 years ago and all of them abandoned the Dems to join… oh that’s right they joined your party. Pointing to Southern Democrats to deflect from the racism in the Republican platform is like demanding that all adults be forced to wear diapers because they used to be infants. Yes, that’s true – but eventually they learned to stop shitting themselves.

**It is perhaps worth noting that the 11% of Americans who identify as atheist, agnostic, or ‘secular unaffiliated’ are a larger bloc of voters than all the other mainstream non-Christian faiths combined – by a factor of 2. I wonder when the news will start reporting how politicians are doing with the “non-theist vote”.


  1. says

    In either case, the day is quickly approaching when the only people advocating positions classically held by these soon-to-be-former majority groups will be those desperate holdouts, ranging against the rising sun and bitterly clutching at the scraps of their tattered history.

    And when that day comes, the world will be a slightly better place. Until then, unfortunately, I am reminded of an analogy involving animals in corners. With voting levels what they are, combined with the steps the Republicans are taking to prevent minorities from voting, overall numbers just aren’t that important right now :-(.

  2. says

    I prefer the GOP when they only pander to conservative white folks. That way in a few more years as that group loses its majority status, say by next election, they can lose their relevance.

    I spent my entire childhood in the US south, watching desperate attempts to preserve the imaginary white utopia the GOP down there thought the past was. Now it has become as bad on the national level probably because of the cornered animal thing.

  3. smhll says

    There are in fact some voices of moderation who have an eye toward re-branding and making themselves more accessible and future-friendly.

    I’m going to be mostly “watching” the Republican National Convention on the radio, so, hey presto, I won’t “see color”.

    My thoughts have been running in the same direction on re-branding. Especially back when Newt was still in the race for US Pres, I would just shake my head and think “Repubs have to get a new brand.” I just find cranky, old, white, Christian man to be a really stale and tiresome brand. Especially the cranky Christian part. Blech. Like Akin, the dumb ones are the worst, but the most fun to make fun of!

  4. says

    It will be fascinating to see the twin edifices of religion and race crumble (a guy like me can only dream about those both happening simultaneously). The modern GOP is so explicitly based on both of those things, it will be fascinating to see how long it takes them to reorient their policies without being able to justify them in religious terms and without being able to mobilize a base through that particular angry comparison.

    But don’t get it twisted – there are other democracies that have active conservative movements without the trappings of religion and racism to fall back on. It will just be interesting to see what the USA looks like in 60 or so years (hopefully not mostly submerged by sea water).

  5. says

    I would hope that what is conservative then is not as vile. But conservatism at its heart is just reactionary politics. Which is why the rich assholes attached themselves to it, because reactionary people are irrational people and irrational people are easy to manipulate. That is why every election I watched entire families on welfare march to the polls to vote against government assistance.

    I think the Objectivist leanings we’ve been seeing recently may come out front. Right now they are having trouble reconciling Jesus with Rand, but as they move away from Jesus babble they will probably spout more randian BS, since it benefits the ones up top at the GOP and other conservative parties. At least in countries who are leaving religion behind.

  6. Trebuchet says

    It will be fascinating to see the twin edifices of religion and race crumble…

    Don’t forget the third edifice, gender. Although non-theists have had their difficulties in that area of late, the Repubs are getting ever more blatant in having men controlling women’s bodies. And as can be seen in your demographic chart, paying for it.

  7. says

    Don’t underestimate the degree to which the aging white population will cling. When frightened they WILL vote. Especially during midterm and other interim elections.

  8. rcs says

    I think they realize their inevitable loss of majority and this is why they are working so hard to disenfranchise non-white voters and to strip personal autonomy rights from women. When they are in the minority by number, they will still be in the power positions making laws and controlling the economy.

    [META – Ian, is there any way you can hyper-link your footnotes to your asterisks in your articles? For longer articles especially, the scrolling down and back up is kind of awkward.]

  9. kbonn says

    This post is pretty relevant to what you are talking about I think. Several Republicans understand the problem, but are either unwilling or unable to convince the party that it needs to make changes now in order to avoid becoming a permanent minority party in the near future. Personally, I think it is already too late for them to save it for some time. Rebranding won’t work, they will have to abandon many of their allies in the religious right in order to appeal to a majority again, and they simply aren’t going to do it. I find it more likely that there will be a split in the party, between the religious right, and actual conservatives.

  10. ischemgeek says

    Um, it’s been a while, but I think in HTML there’s a way you can tag something as a sub-heading, and then hyper-link to the url of the sub-heading in the same way you can link to a specific comment.

    It’s been years since I had to do it (I was a geeky kid who built web pages for fun but haven’t really looked back since I got bored with it after a year or two), so don’t ask me what the tags are. The ones I knew are probably obsolete anyway. For all I know, WordPress might have a way to do it in their GUI.

  11. karmakin says

    In wonk circles the number that is used is 29% or something close to that. You could have a bill where the Democrats are saying that kicking puppies is bad and 29% would oppose it. That’s the tribal base.

  12. says

    If a man wants to kick a puppy, is kicking that puppy not good for that man? There is no higher good than the satisfaction of ones desires, and if that desire is to kick puppies, then as long as one purchases fairly every puppy one wishes to kick, and does not kick the puppies of others, what right have others to impose their herd morality on you?

    Indeed, a man who kicks puppies is truly great, for he has grown beyond the limitations imposed artificially upon him by the judgement of others, and self-actualized. He has brought what is within him to fruition, made concrete his ideas, imposed his will upon the fabric of reality. He is a titan striding purposefully amongst milling sheep. For the government to take the side of the weak against the strong is unconscionable – it can only lead to the collapse of civilization, as the strong withdraw their support.

    If you REALLY want to stop puppies from being kicked, I suggest prayer.

  13. says

    Really enjoyed the post.

    It is therefore similarly no surprise that when Republicans look around, they see a white country – nearly everyone else surrounding them is white.

    I’ve always thought this when it comes to religion — that people look around them (especially in areas where there is an overwhelming majority of people of one religion and very few of other religions) and conclude that ‘everyone’s Christian’ and I can see how a similar thing probably happens with race as well.

    I think there’s an additional element of just seeing certain groups as more American. I think there’s this weird expectation that white people and Christians should be in the majority, in terms of demographics, because they’re seen as real Americans. And changing demographics are seen as the country becoming less American, even though the people of different races and different religions consider themselves American.

    I think there’s a similar assumed religiosity in other minority racial groups as well, and it does get really frustrating.

    That’s really funny about the coincidental close numbers.

    And I love the Sherlock Holmes reference …

  14. StevoR says

    Off topic sorry but think (hope) you might be interested in knowing there’s an article on racism and its history – “Deeper than skin”</i by Nina Jablonski pages 26 -30 – incl. Encyclopedia Britanica (Americana?) in the latest (1st Sept. 2012) issue of New Scientistmagazine.

    Wondering :

    I)If you’ve read it or heard of that?

    II)If your’e interested?


    III) If you have read it what your thoughts are?

    Course it could be that you’ve just posted on this even as I’m typing in which case, d’oh! Mea culpa.

  15. says

    It hasn’t changed since HTML 3, actually. Predictably, any useful feature that some non-trivial fraction of the population used will be retained exactly as it was in all future versions of the standard for backwards compatibility reasons.

    Intra-document linking is done with the anchor tag <a>. Use an anchor with the the name attribute at the point where you want to define the target. Then, use an ordinary anchor with the href attribute to create the link. If it’s on the same page, you don’t need to include the full URL, but merely a pound ‘#’ sign and the name you declared earlier.

    Check HTML Links and then scroll to the name attribute section for an example.


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