Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
The Christian Right and the Decline of White Evangelicalism | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Update: This post is republished over at Red Letter Christians on July 30, 2021.

A person with dark sunglasses, dressed in a black coat, wearing gloves with skeleton bones for fingers, stands in front of the US Capitol building holding a book with the words Holy Bible written in gold on the front, as two "Trump - 2020" campaign flags wave in the background.
A participant in the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol poses with a Bible. Image credit: John Minchillo/AP via Word and Way .

The headlines tell the story.

All of these articles are responses to the 2020 Census of American Religion, released by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) earlier this month. Salient findings of that report include:

  • White evangelical Protestants now make up 14% of the population, down from 23% in 2006. On the other hand, white mainline Protestants have now surpassed white evangelicals, with 16% of the population (up from 13% in 2016). 
  • With an average age of 56, white evangelical Protestants are the oldest religious group in America. (White Catholics are next, at 54.) More than this, white evangelicals constitute only 7% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29. while 12% of this age group are white mainline Protestants and 8% are white Catholics. Most striking. 36% of Americans in this age group identify as “nones,” i.e., religiously unaffiliated.
  • Overall, the percentage of Americans who are “nones” has dropped from 26% in 2018 to 23% in 2020. Regarding one of the above headlines, I don’t think this qualifies as a “shrinking,” given that the religiously unaffiliated is easily the largest “religious” group  in the United States (white mainline Protestants are second), and given the dramatic rise of the “nones” over the past three decades. 
  • 51% of white evangelicals identify as Republican, while only 22% identify as Democrat. On the other hand, white mainline Protestants and white Catholics lean toward the Democratic party as opposed to the Republican party (35% v. 33% and 38% v. 32%, respectively). Christians of color are overwhelmingly Democratic, as are the “nones.”

Earlier this year Oxford University Press published Empty Churches: Non-Affiliation in America (edited by James Heft and Jan Stets), which includes a host of essays by terrific scholars such as Nancy Ammerman, Joseph Baker, David Campbell, Matt Hedstrom, and Bernard Prusak. I am honored to have an essay in the volume: “Religious Non-Affiliation: Expelled by the Right.” 

At the heart of my essay is a conundrum that, it turns out, is not a conundrum at all. On one side of this apparent conundrum is the triumph of political evangelicalism. Despite prediction after prediction that the Christian Right was dead or dying, white evangelicals have become the most dependable and influential constituency in the Republican Party. More than this, the takeover of the GOP by Trumpism was/is, first and foremost, a triumph of white evangelicals, who supported Trump by overwhelming numbers in both 2016 and 2020. 

It is not an overstatement to say that the contemporary Republican Party is tightly tied to – and dependent upon — the evangelical Right. This has been, of course, a huge political score for white evangelicals and, especially, their leaders. But simultaneous with this development has been the dramatic reduction of white Americans who identify as evangelical, a fact further evinced by PRRI’s 2020 Census of American Religion

So here’s the conundrum: evangelical political success, on the one hand, and the decline of white evangelicalism, on the other.  But as I argue in this essay, it turns out that these two phenomena are related. That is to say, the success of the Christian Right in conflating evangelicalism/Christianity with conservative culture-war politics is a primary factor in the shrinking of white evangelicalism, in particular, and religious disaffiliation in the United States, in general.

As always (says the historian), a little historical perspective helps here. In the decades after World War I many or most white evangelicals in America were staunch and sometimes vocal political conservatives. But they had not been galvanized into an organized political movement, nor had they been attached to one political party. This began to change in the late 1970s, when political operatives connected with the Reagan presidential campaign aggressively worked to mobilize these politically conservative evangelicals into a reliable Republican voting bloc. Over time the Christian Right became politically sophisticated; over time evangelical leaders and pastors merged their religious and political identities, making it quite explicit that to be a Bible-believing Christian means that one is an ultraconservative Republican who is stridently (even viciously) opposed to LGBTQ+ rights, denies or elides climate change, aggressively opposes immigration (especially if the immigrants are people of color), and rejects the reality of historical and structural racism. 

It should thus not be surprising that many political moderates and liberals have been persuaded that to identify as an evangelical or even as a Christian is to identify as an intolerant right-wing culture warrior. And many of these moderates and liberals have been so convinced that they have disaffiliated from religion altogether. In my essay, I highlight some excellent social scientific research that provides solid evidence that political backlash is pushing people away from evangelicalism in particular and religion in general. As confirmed by the 2020 Census of American Religion, this is particularly true when it comes to youth, who find – thanks to the identification of Christianity with the Christian Right – religion to be homophobic, hypocritical, and judgmental. And so they disaffiliate. 

In short, as I argue in the essay, the quantitative and qualitative evidence – and, I will add, my own anecdotal evidence – strongly support the argument that the Christian Right has been a primary factor in the decline of white evangelicalism in the last decade and the dramatic rise of the nones since the 1990s. And given the past four years, and given the January 6, 2021 insurrection (with the Jesus flags and Bible T-shirts at the U.S. Capitol), it makes sense to me (as I suggest in my essay) that the Christian Right is pushing even greater numbers of Americans out of evangelicalism. 

The editors of Empty Churches pressed me to conclude my essay with a personal response. I resisted this, rather strongly, but in the end I surrendered. So here’s how I conclude “Religious Non-Affiliation: Expelled by the Right”:

In the days of Jerry Falwell, Sr. and the Moral Majority, the claim was that [the Christian Right] was all about Christian values, all about rescuing America from sinking into a morass of immorality. So, for example, the Christian Right’s aggressive campaign against President Bill Clinton was explained as an attack on his egregious sexual sins and in defense of a now-bygone virtuous Christian America. But now, with the Christian Right’s enthusiastic support of Donald Trump – led in part by Jerry Falwell, Jr. – their cover is blown. We can now see (some of us had already seen) that the Christian Right is not about personal morality and Christian/religious values, but is instead about a particular right-wing politics – a politics in keeping with the history of fundamentalism – involving white nationalism, hostility to immigrants, unfettered capitalism (which includes a disinterest, at the least, in global warming), and intense homophobia. 

So as a scholar, I appreciate the clarity that we now have about (much of) white evangelicalism, the clarity about what the Christian Right is all about, and the clarity about the fact that the Christian Right is but one more sign of the secularizing of America. That said, it is of course true that one could argue that it is not just (much of) white evangelicalism and the Christian Right that has been unmasked. One could argue that Christianity itself has been unmasked, that the above values – white nationalism, homophobia, and the like – are actually Christian (maybe even religious) values. Certainly many of those who abandon religion because of the Christian Right have come to something like this conclusion. And I get it. It makes sense to me. If I thought the Christian Right = Christianity, or Christian Right = religion, I would want nothing to do with it, either. 

But as a person of faith, I understand Christianity to be something else. I understand it to be centered in the Gospels, in the message (stated quite clearly in Matthew 25) that in the end we are to be judged on how we treat our brothers and sisters, on how we treat “the other.”  So while I appreciate the clarity with which we can now see (much of) white evangelicalism, I am also saddened by the fact that the secularizing of America occurs in part because the Christian Right has been so successful in articulating what it means to be Christian.

And if you are so inclined, here’s a link to “Religious Non-Affiliation: Expelled by the Right.”