By Sarah E. Jones
Donald Trump is winning the evangelical vote. Recent polls show him with 78 percent support among this bloc of voters.
Some in the media are confused. Why has a thrice-wed businessman of dubious piety done so well with devout voters?
Some have called it the end of the Religious Right. This is a premature conclusion. The Religious Right hasn’t gone anywhere; it still clings to the broadest strokes of its political agenda. But it certainly faces a serious identity crisis, and in his new book for Simon & Schuster, the Public Religion Research Institute’s Robert P. Jones argues that it, and the demographic to which it belongs, faces the end of an epoch.
In The End of White Christian America, Jones tracks the heyday and arguable demise of White Christian America (WCA), which he defines as an entity composed of white evangelical and mainline Protestants. He begins with its obituary: WCA, he writes, “succumbed in the latter part of the first decade of the 21st Century.” The cause? Unprecedented demographic change.
Jones’ conclusion isn’t quite as provocative as his title seems to predict. He runs a polling institute, not an advocacy organization; he doesn’t argue that WCA should die, only that it is dying. So he carefully works backward from his obituary, citing historical events and statistical evidence to bolster his argument.
He begins with mainline Protestantism’s peak, which Jones dates roughly from the turn of the 20th century. Mainline groups banded together at the time to pass the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) – a monumental political success. But the Great Depression and growing evangelical influence eventually hampered their campaign for further political influence.
White Protestants had never been a monolith, but in the 1920s they fought bitterly over scientific advancements that apparently contradicted their religious beliefs. According to Jones, Protestants divided roughly into two ideological camps: Modernists, who treated the Bible as a culturally and historically significant piece of literature, and Fundamentalists, who believed it should be taken literally, word for word.
The Scopes trial became a catalyst for schism. Jones argues that the sectarian wounds inflicted by the trial never totally healed. Instead, Fundamentalists began to view Modernists, who were, almost universally mainline, as nearly heretical for their decision to accommodate evolution. And they believed that the decision to accommodate could be ascribed to a profane motivation: political cynicism.
According to Jones, Fundamentalists accused Modernists of sacrificing Christian orthodoxy for mainstream acceptance and political power. The perception that mainline denominations had willingly secularized for their own gain emboldened evangelicals. So too did the Cold War against a godless Soviet Union and the outcomes of the civil rights movement and major church-state separation cases in the 1960s.
Evangelicals arguably won the race to become the voice of WCA. But as Jones tells it, they won a Pyrrhic victory at best. Evangelical Protestants weaponized their version of orthodoxy in service of the GOP. This pragmatic alliance has achieved great success; when we refer to the Religious Right in the pages of Church & State, we refer to this movement and to the threat it consistently poses to religious pluralism. With the assistance of the GOP, white evangelicals managed to capitalize upon existing discomfort with drastic shifts in American cultural values.
But pendulums swing back around.
White evangelicals couched their bid for power in nostalgia for a more moral age – something Jones himself argued in a recent commentary in The Atlantic. Though their electoral success is due in significant part to their reliance on this nostalgia, they have recently discovered the narrative’s limits. Conservative white Christians can recall the 1950s with fondness, but for everyone else, the era evokes memories of gross discrimination and political repression.
And public opinion is swinging sharply against discrimination. According to poll after poll, a majority of Americans reliably support marriage rights for same-sex couples and oppose discrimination against LGBT people and others. Key evangelical causes – such as the alleged religious freedom right of business owners to refuse to make cakes and floral arrangements for LGBT people – are simply tougher sells now than they were even five years ago.
The evangelical Protestant experience here parallels the mainline experience. The former’s weakened grip on power coincided with profound economic instability and an anti-culture war backlash. They are now dramatically out of step with an America that is gradually becoming less dogmatic and more accepting of LGBT rights, and as a result, they face a serious political crisis.
Jones cites a 2015 PRRI survey to demonstrate just how wide the gulf between white evangelicals and everyone else, including their mainline brothers and sisters in Christ, has become. Seventy-two percent of white evangelicals believe that America has changed for the worse since the 1950s. But 63 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans say the opposite, that the country has improved since the 1950s. So do most black Protestants, Hispanic Catholics and religious minorities.
PRRI’s data consistently shows that white Christian America’s ranks have begun to thin. In March, PRRI released a study showing that married, white Christians have significantly decreased as a share of the population. In 1974, that category described 62 percent of Americans. That number has steadily declined, and in 2016, it sits at 28 percent.
If trends continue, WCA’s condition is indeed terminal. Jones believes 2024 will be a “watershed year”: According to a linear forecast, it is the first year white Christians will no longer comprise a majority of American voters.
So Jones has called a time of death and notified the next of kin. Its survivors, he thinks, will linger. In his opening “obituary,” he identifies “two principal branches of descendants” separated by geography as well as ideology – “a mainline Protestant family living mainly in the Northeast and upper Midwest and an evangelical Protestant family living mostly in the South.”
This too is supported by PRRI’s data. PRRI reported in March that white evangelical Protestants vote at significantly higher rates compared to other demographics throughout the presidential primary process. This political activity only reinforces the divide between white evangelical and mainline Protestants. Most white evangelical voters identify themselves as socially conservative Republicans; mainline voters, however, tend to support marriage equality and other socially liberal positions.
But Jones sees a way forward. “While the descendants of White Christian America still wield considerable financial assets and cultural influence, their future will depend less on imposing presences than on strategic partnerships and alliances,” he writes.
Regular observers of the Religious Right will already have noticed this phenomenon in action. Evangelicals have already begun working with Catholics, Mormons and others to promote socially conservative views on reproductive rights, LGBT rights and religious freedom issues.
Look no further than the consolidated briefs in Zubik v. Burwell for evidence. Catholic groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor and the Archbishop of Washington filed suit against the Obama administration alongside Protestant institutions like Geneva College and East Texas Baptist University to demand an exemption from existing religious accommodations in the Affordable Care Act’s contraception coverage provisions. White Christian America may cease to exist as a unified entity, but theocratic impulse clearly will not.
The End of White Christian America is an accessible and engaging read. Jones provides readers with a valuable, evidence-based look at how WCA splintered, and what that balkanization may mean for American politics. He also injects some much-needed empathy into the conversation over its fate.
Jones is himself a WCA defector – he’s an ex-Southern Baptist – but he argues that it’s possible, even necessary, to acknowledge WCA’s failings and “the deep sense of loss” many feel at its demise. White Christian Americans, after all, are responsible for more than the Religious Right. Its progressive wing devised social reforms to benefit the underprivileged, participated in the civil rights movement and more recently, supported marriage rights for same-sex couples. From this position, WCA is a tragic casualty of friendly fire.
Its critics may be tempted to celebrate, but they should hold off on the champagne. WCA shaped America’s moral vision for centuries. It’s our responsibility to offer a compelling alternative in its absence.