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Evangelical Voters' Power Isn't Eroding in the Age of Trump. It's Adjusting.

Pundits keep predicting the religious group's decline as a political force. But they may actually be gaining influence.
by | April 2019

In the summer of 2016, Robert Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute, published a book called The End of White Christian America. It argued that changing demographics were making the white Christian population gradually wither away. White Catholics were aging. The mainline white denominations -- Methodists, Lutherans and Episcopalians -- had shrunk to a fraction of their former size. Most strikingly, Jones continued, evangelical Christians were on the verge of irrelevance. “White Christian America will be survived by significant numbers of its descendants,” Jones allowed. But these survivors, especially in the evangelical camp, would face a stark choice: fight divisive rearguard actions doomed to failure; disengage and withdraw; or resign themselves to a more liberal multicultural future. 

Four months later was the 2016 presidential election. White evangelicals turned out in force, and some 80 percent cast their vote for the Republican candidate, Donald Trump. Evangelicals made up about a quarter of total voters -- as they have in every national election since 2008. A demonstration of irrelevance it definitely was not. 

Nevertheless, in the months that followed, the national media returned to the narrative that traditional evangelicalism’s political influence was coming to an end. This time, the argument went, the issue was generational. “Many young evangelicals are more diverse, less nationalistic and more heterodox in their views than older generations,” declared a writer for The New Yorker after she visited a hip, multiethnic evangelical church in Philadelphia, where she found congregants who supported Black Lives Matter, immigration reform and universal health care, and where the focus was on reducing abortion, not overturning Roe v. Wade. Two months later, The New York Times Magazine published a similar piece, claiming that young evangelicals “were questioning the typical ties between evangelicalism and Republican politics.” 

Three weeks after the Times story ran, evangelical voters turned out for the 2018 midterm elections. Exit polls showed that 75 percent cast their ballots for Republican candidates. That number includes evangelicals of all ages, but surveys taken shortly before the election showed that 78 percent of white evangelicals ages 18 to 29 identified as Republican. “Did we see white evangelicals moving toward the middle of the political spectrum in 2018? Clearly no,” says Ryan Burge, a political scientist at Eastern Illinois University (and a Baptist minister). “White evangelicals are more Republican now than they were two years ago.”

For at least two decades, political observers have been predicting the decline of white evangelicals as a political force. It’s not hard to see why. As a share of the national population, their numbers continue to shrink. But there is also evidence that white evangelical voters are becoming a more engaged, if smaller, voting bloc. That seems particularly true in states such as California, Colorado and Oregon, where evangelicals see themselves threatened by a rising tide of “secular” voters.

The Public Religion Research Institute released a study in 2016 that showed a dramatic drop in the white evangelical proportion of the population. According to PRRI’s research, white evangelicals made up 22 percent of the U.S. population in 1988. By 2014, they had fallen to 18 percent of the population. During this same period, the number of whites categorized as religious “nones” (meaning they describe themselves in survey responses as atheists, agnostic or “nothing in particular”) rose from roughly 7 percent of the population in the early 1990s to over 20 percent. These numbers formed the core of Jones’ argument: “White Protestant Christians -- both mainline and evangelical -- are aging and quickly losing ground as a proportion of the population.” 

It was a dramatic finding. And parts of it were indisputable. Whites as a percentage of the overall population have declined. That’s naturally made white Protestants a smaller part of the overall population too. But there were nuances. The percentage of Americans identifying as evangelical (white and non-white) was 23.8 percent in 2016. That’s down from 29.6 percent in 1988 but not too far below the 25.6 percent who identified as evangelical in 1976. 

White evangelicals might indeed lose political power in the long run. But in the short run, their influence may actually be rising. Consider another figure: Between 2000 and 2010, the most recent years for which county-level data from the U.S. Census is available, the percentage of evangelicals rose in 45 states. How can this be possible?  

There are two reasons, says Burge at Eastern Illinois. The most important is the increase in Latino evangelicals. That growth accounts for large increases in Arizona, Florida, Maryland and Ohio during this period. Another factor may be geographic sorting. “Feminist atheists don’t want to live in Mansfield, Ohio,” says Burge. “They want to go live in D.C. or New York or Philadelphia or Chicago.” That makes the evangelical presence -- and influence -- larger in the small-town and rural areas where evangelicals are actually an increasing share of the population. As less-religious young people leave rural areas, these places become older, whiter and more evangelical. That, in turn, is making politics in many states more polarized, and frequently gives the remaining evangelicals additional clout. 

 


Latinos are the fastest-growing group of evangelicals. On many issues, such as abortion, they are more conservative than white churchgoers. (The Spokesman-Review)

 

There’s another trend that appears to be spurring white evangelicals to get more engaged in politics -- the rising number of religious “nones.” 

Consider Colorado, perhaps the most polarized state in the nation. It has long had a significant evangelical presence. Colorado Springs is the home of Focus on the Family, the global evangelical ministry founded by James Dobson in 1977. In 2016, a quarter of the state identified as evangelical. Since the 1990s, however, the state has experienced a huge increase in the number of religiously unaffiliated residents. Some 37 percent of Coloradans now identify as religious “nones.” This group is almost as reliably Democratic as evangelicals are reliably Republican. The surge in “nones,” along with the growth of Denver and Boulder, has painted much of Colorado purple. One might expect that politicians in this situation would moderate their stances in order to try to attract crossover voters. However, a study published last year found the opposite. Instead of competing for moderates (of whom there were few), candidates instead took more extreme positions in order to turn out their base, either on the evangelical or the non-religious side of the spectrum. 

It’s not just Colorado. Nevada, Oregon and Washington have seen even bigger increases in “nones.” More than 40 percent of voters in those states describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated. All of these states have also seen big increases in white evangelical engagement. “I think evangelicals are more inspired to engage,” says Paul Djupe, a political scientist at Denison University, “when they are surrounded by a greater proportion of ‘nones’ or a greater sense of cultural threat.”

In short, young white evangelicals aren’t moving to the left. They are as reliably partisan as their grandparents. Demographic change will not render their concerns unimportant. And the fastest growing group of evangelicals -- Latinos -- shares many of the larger group’s conservative concerns. Their preferences will only become more important in the years to come. Understanding evangelical voters and the issues that motivate them is an important survival skill for officeholders and candidates -- and not just in the Bible Belt.

 

One area where all of this is playing out right now is the issue of “religious freedom,” as it is invariably described by Republicans and evangelicals. Indeed, it’s fast becoming an issue of paramount concern to evangelical voters.  

The idea of religious liberty has deep roots in American history. The first sentence of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution defends it. The idea of protecting religious liberty also has a track record of bipartisan support. Twenty-six years ago, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which carved out broad protections for the exercise of religion. Its lead sponsor was a young Democratic congressman who is now the Senate minority leader, Charles Schumer. 

But in recent years, evangelicals’ push for broader religious freedom rights has run into a countervailing force: LGBT demands for protection. Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) say evangelicals are insisting on the right to discriminate against LGBT people. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage with its ruling in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. The 5-4 decision was a setback for Christian legal advocacy groups, and also led to a change in emphasis. After Obergefell, references to “religious liberty” among evangelicals began to spike.

Since that landmark case, Christian legal advocacy groups such as the American Center for Law and Justice and the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) have attempted to use the courts to expand protections for religious freedom. Perhaps the most well-known victory in this area was last year’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to create a wedding cake for a gay couple. But religious freedom advocates have been active in many other cases. In Arizona, the ADF has defended a stationery store’s refusal to create wedding invitations for a transgender woman. In Michigan, it’s defended a funeral home operator who fired a trans employee. Christian legal defense groups have also encouraged states to pass legislation expanding the scope of religious liberty. 

The Trump administration has strongly supported these efforts. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) granted a waiver request from South Carolina that allowed a Christian social services organization in Greenville, S.C., one that received government funds, to continue matching children only with foster parents who are Protestant Christians. This effectively overturned a nondiscrimination policy issued by HHS in the final days of the Obama administration. “This is probably the issue where evangelical institutions feel the most threatened,” says Dan Darling of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “The question is a really serious one: Will Christian institutions be allowed to continue to hold to orthodoxy and still operate in the public square?” 

 


Miracle Hill Ministries, which provides child placement services in part of South Carolina, receives government funds but only works with Protestant Christian families. (Religious News)

 

Meanwhile, LGBT civil rights groups such as the Human Rights Campaign have helped turn back most of the efforts to fight same-sex marriage or restrict the activities of transgender individuals. Last year, Massachusetts approved a voter initiative to expand LGBT rights. In New Hampshire, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu signed legislation that expanded housing and nondiscrimination law to protect transgender people. Five states -- Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, New Hampshire and Washington -- last year passed new protections against the practice of so-called gay conversion therapy, bringing the total number of states with such laws or regulations to 15, including the District of Columbia. This year began with New York passing a strong nondiscrimination bill as well as legislation to prohibit conversion therapy, along with executive orders by new governors in Kansas, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin protecting LGBT state employees. However, those and other fights are far from over.

According to the Human Rights campaign, fewer than half the states provide any significant legal protections for LGBT residents. Last year 16 states considered but did not pass laws that would have expanded protections. Some newly elected officials, including Kansas state Reps. Susan Ruiz and Brandon Woodward, two of the 244 openly LGBT people elected in 2018, are now trying to change that. Earlier this year, Ruiz and Woodward introduced a measure to expand state nondiscrimination provisions to include sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. The bill is unlikely to make it through the Republican legislature, but Ruiz believes that changing opinions and business support will eventually carry the day. “It’s an economic necessity,” she says.

A state where the fight is more evenly matched is Texas, which saw its percentage of evangelical residents decline between 2000 and 2010. Last year, a broad coalition of businesses, universities and civil rights groups beat back efforts in the Texas Legislature to enact a “bathroom bill” that would have prevented transgender people from using the restrooms of their choice. This year, for the first time, the Texas House has an LGBT caucus. Its members have proposed legislation that would update state nondiscrimination laws to cover LGBT Texans, streamline the process for transgender people to update their birth certificates, and prohibit state-licensed health-care providers from performing conversion therapy on minors. Opponents such as the religious advocacy group Christian Values have described this effort as a veiled attempt to #BanTheBible. 

Two evangelical organizations that are trying to avoid this kind of divisive fight are the National Association of Evangelicals and the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities. Last December, after years of discussion, the boards of both groups agreed to support legislation that would extend the protections of nondiscrimination law to LGBT people in exchange for broad carve-outs for religious organizations that would allow, for example, Christian colleges to hire only Christian instructors. That upset many evangelicals who saw the compromise as something that would protect institutions but not the rights of individual evangelicals to exercise their faith in their jobs and in public. At issue is a fundamental question: Will courts and legislatures allow evangelicals to act on their faith in their daily life and work? Or will they choose to recognize lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as a protected population, just as legislatures have chosen to protect African-American and disabled persons before?

Gay marriage is one of the few issues on which there is an identifiable generation gap among the evangelical population, with younger evangelicals tending to hold more liberal views than their older peers. But on many other issues, young churchgoers are just as conservative as their parents. On the issue of abortion, in fact, millennials may even be more pro-life than older white evangelicals. The overall numbers do not bode particularly well for a more cooperative, less partisan style of politics. 

That said, while white evangelicals young and old do have strong Republican allegiances, they are not a monolithic voting bloc. In South Carolina, 60 percent of evangelicals describe themselves as identifying or leaning Republican. In Ohio, that number is closer to 55 percent. But in New York, only 35 percent of evangelicals identify as or lean Republican. Forty-three percent lean or identify as Democrats. In California, a quarter of evangelicals consider themselves “strong Republicans.” Another quarter consider themselves “strong Democrats.” That suggests that in some states, at least, evangelical voters don’t identify exclusively with the GOP.

The growth in the number of Latino evangelicals may eventually scramble loyalties as well. Latino evangelicals as a group have been moving toward the GOP for years. A narrow majority voted for Trump in 2016, and their support for the president remains strong. Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, the head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, makes no secret of his distaste for what he sees as the Democratic Party’s recent move to the left. However, Rodriguez says the GOP is also ignoring issues important to Latino voters. “I would like the Republican Party to deal with issues of justice, to talk about poverty alleviation and inequality,” Rodriguez says. Republican rhetoric on immigration is also a problem for Rodriguez and his congregants. 

Unlike Jones at PRRI, Rodriguez is confident that both parties will ultimately take note of evangelical preferences due to the pressure of demographics. “Who has more kids? White evangelicals or white atheists?” asks Rodriguez. The answer is clear. White evangelicals as a group have a birthrate that is 15 percent to 20 percent higher than white people as a whole. Latino evangelicals are having kids at an even higher rate. “We are very familia people,” Rodriguez says. “So as Latino evangelicals, we are growing our families. The evangelical influence in the American political reality will not go away in the 21st century. It may actually surprise everyone. It may actually grow.”

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