The End of White Christian America
Robert P. Jones
October 16, 2018
“You have one day to make every dream you’ve ever dreamed for your country and your family come true. You have one magnificent chance to beat this corrupt system and to deliver justice for every forgotten man, every forgotten woman, and every forgotten child in this nation. It will never happen again—it will never happen again, folks. In four years, not going happen. Not going to happen. It’s never going to happen again. Do not let this opportunity slip away.” —Donald J. Trump, speaking at a campaign stop in Pennsylvania, November 7, 2016 (CNN)
Trump and the “Last Chance” Election of 2016
Down the home stretch of the 2016 presidential campaign, one of Donald Trump’s most consistent talking points was a claim that America’s changing demographics and culture had brought the country to a precipice. He repeatedly cast himself as the last chance for Republicans and conservative white Christians to step back from the cliff, to preserve their power and way of life. In an interview on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) in early September, Trump put the choice starkly for the channel’s conservative Christian viewers: “If we don’t win this election, you’ll never see another Republican, and you’ll have a whole different church structure.” Asked to elaborate, Trump continued, “I think this will be the last election that the Republicans have a chance of winning because you’re going to have people flowing across the border, you’re going to have illegal immigrants coming in, and they’re going to be legalized, and they’re going to be able to vote, and once that all happens you can forget it.”[i]
Michelle Bachmann, a member of Trump’s evangelical executive advisory board, echoed these same sentiments in a speech at the Values Voters Summit, an annual meeting attended largely by conservative white Christians. That same week, she declared in an interview with CBN: “If you look at the numbers of people who vote and who lives [sic] in the country and who Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton want to bring in to the country, this is the last election when we even have a chance to vote for somebody who will stand up for godly moral principles. This is it.” [ii] Post-election polling from PRRI and The Atlantic showed that this appeal found its mark among conservative voters. Nearly two-thirds (66 percent) of Trump voters, compared to only 22 percent of Clinton voters, agreed that “the 2016 election represented the last chance to stop America’s decline.”[iii]
Not Dead Yet? Trump’s Victory in Context
What should we make of Trump’s unexpected victory? Does it represent a resurrection of White Christian America? The consequences of the 2016 elections are indeed sweeping. Republicans entered 2017 with control of both houses of Congress and the White House. And because the
The evidence, however, suggests that Trump’s unlikely victory is better understood as the death rattle of White Christian America rather than its resuscitation. Despite the election’s immediate and dramatic consequences, it’s important not to over-interpret Trump’s win, which was extraordinarily close, as a mandate. Out of more than 136 million votes cast, Trump’s victory in the Electoral College came down to a razor-thin edge of only 77,744 votes across three states: Pennsylvania (44,292 votes), Wisconsin (22,748 votes), and Michigan (10,704 votes). These votes represent a Trump margin of 0.7 percentage points in Pennsylvania, 0.7 percentage points in Wisconsin, and 0.2 percentage points in Michigan. If Clinton had won these states, she would now be president.[iv] And of
Trump’s intense appeal that 2016 was the “last chance” election seems to have spurred conservative white Christian voters to turn out at particularly high rates. Two election cycles ago in 2008, white evangelicals represented 21 percent of the general population but, thanks to their higher turnout relative to other voters, comprised 26 percent of actual voters. Two presidential election cycles later, in 2016, white evangelicals continued to represent 26 percent of voters—even as their proportion of the population fell to 17 percent.[vi] In other words, white evangelicals went from being overrepresented by 5 percentage points at the ballot box in 2008 to being overrepresented by 9 percentage points in 2016. This is an impressive feat to be sure, but one less and less likely to be replicated as their decline in the general population continues.
Updating two trends with 2015–2016 data also confirms that the overall patterns of demographic and cultural change are continuing. The chart below plots two trend lines that capture key measures of change: the percentage of white, non-Hispanic Christians in the country and the percentage of Americans who support same-sex marriage. In Chapter Two, I noted that the percentage of white Christians in the country had fallen from 54 percent in 2008 to 47 percent in 2014. That percentage has fallen again in each subsequent year, to 45 percent in 2015 and to 43 percent in 2016. Similarly, in Chapter Four, I noted that the percentage of Americans who supported same-sex marriage had risen from 40 percent in 2008 to 54 percent in 2014. That number stayed relatively stable (53 percent) in 2015—the year the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states—but jumped to 58 percent in 2016.
In summary, despite the outcome of the 2016 elections, the key long-term trends indicate White Christian America’s decline is continuing unabated. Over the last eight years, the percentage of Americans who identify as white and Christian fell 11 percentage points, and support for same-sex marriage jumped 18 percentage points. In a New York Times op-ed shortly after the election, I summarized the results of the election this way: “The waning numbers of white Christians in the country today may not have time on their side, but as the sun is slowly setting on the cultural world of white Christian America, they’ve managed, at least in this election, to rage against the dying of the light.”[vii]
The Transformation of White Evangelicals from Values Voters to Nostalgia Voters
One of the most perplexing features of the 2016 election was the high level of support Donald Trump received from white evangelical Protestants. Since Reagan’s presidency, white evangelicals have overwhelmingly supported Republican presidential candidates. But Trump, of course, was no typical Republican candidate. So how did a group that once proudly identified itself as “values voters” come to support a candidate who had been married three times, cursed from the campaign stump, owned casinos, appeared on the cover of Playboy Magazine, and most remarkably, was caught on tape bragging in the most graphic terms about habitually grabbing women’s genitals without their permission? White evangelical voters’ attraction to Trump was even more mysterious because the early GOP presidential field offered candidates with strong evangelical credentials, such as Ted Cruz, a longtime Southern Baptist whose father was a Baptist minister, and Marco Rubio, a conservative Catholic who could talk with ease and familiarity about his own personal relationship with Jesus.
The shotgun wedding between Trump and white evangelicals was not without conflict and objections. It set off some high drama between Trump suitors, such as Jerry Falwell Jr. of Liberty University and Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas, and #NeverTrump evangelical leaders such as Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention. Just days ahead of the Iowa caucuses, Falwell invited Trump to speak at Liberty University. In his introduction, Falwell told the gathered students, “In my opinion, Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment.”[viii] And a week later, he officially endorsed Trump for president. Robert Jeffress, the senior pastor of the influential First Baptist Church in Dallas and a frequent commentator on Fox News, also threw his support behind Trump early in the campaign but took a decidedly different approach. Jeffress explicitly argued that a president’s faith is “not the only consideration, and sometimes it’s not the most important consideration.” Citing grave threats to America, particularly from “radical Islamic terrorism,” Jeffress’s support of Trump for president was straightforward realpolitik: “I want the meanest, toughest, son-of-a-you-know-what I can find in that role, and I think that’s where many evangelicals are.” Moore, by contrast, remained a steadfast Trump opponent throughout the campaign. He was aghast at the high-level embrace of Trump by white evangelical leaders and strongly expressed his incredulity that they “have tossed aside everything that they previously said they believed in order to embrace and to support the Trump candidacy.”[ix]
In the end, however, Falwell and Jeffress had a better feel for the people in the pews. Trump received unwavering support from white evangelicals from the beginning of the primaries through Election Day. As I noted in an article for The Atlantic at the beginning of the primary season, the first evidence that Trump was rewriting the Republican playbook was his victory in the South Carolina GOP primary, the first southern primary and one in which more than two-thirds of the voters were white evangelicals.[x] The Cruz campaign had considered Super Tuesday’s South-heavy lineup to be their firewall against early Trump momentum. But when the returns came in, Cruz had won only his home state of Texas and neighboring Oklahoma, while Trump had swept the southern states, taking Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Virginia, and Arkansas.[xi] Trump ultimately secured the GOP nomination, not over white evangelical voters’ objections, but because of their support. And on Election Day, white evangelicals set a new high-water mark in their support for a Republican presidential candidate, backing Trump at a slightly higher level than even President George W. Bush in 2004 (81 percent vs. 78 percent).[xii]
Trump’s campaign—with its sweeping promise to “make America great again”—triumphed by converting self-described “values voters” into what I’ve called “nostalgia voters.” In the final chapter of The End of White Christian America, I predicted that “siren song of nostalgia” would be the strongest for the white evangelical branch of the WCA family tree because they had only recently been confronted with the evidence of their own decline.[xiii] Trump’s promise to restore a mythical past golden age—where factory jobs paid the bills and white Protestant churches were the dominant cultural hubs—powerfully tapped evangelical anxieties about an uncertain future.
The 2016 election, in fact, was peculiar because of just how little concrete policy issues mattered. The election, more than any in recent memory, came down to two vividly contrasting views of America. Donald Trump’s campaign painted a bleak portrait of America’s present, set against a
The gravitational pull of nostalgia among white evangelicals was evident across a wide range of public opinion polling questions. Just a few weeks before the 2016 election, two-thirds (66 percent) of white evangelical Protestants said the growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens traditional American customs and values. Nearly as many favored building a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico (64 percent) and temporarily banning Muslims from other countries from entering the United States (62 percent). And 63 percent believed that today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. White evangelicals also stood out on broad questions about cultural change. While Americans overall were nearly evenly divided on whether American culture and way of life have changed for worse (51 percent) or better (48 percent) since the 1950s, white evangelical Protestants were likelier than any other demographic group to say things have changed for the worse since the 1950s (74 percent).[xv]
It is perhaps an open question whether Trump’s candidacy represents a true change in evangelicals’ DNA or whether it simply revealed previously hidden traits, but the shift from values to nostalgia voter has undoubtedly transformed their political ethics. The clearest example of evangelical ethics bending to fit the Trump presidency is white evangelicals’ abandonment of their conviction that personal character matters for elected officials. In 2011 and again just ahead of the 2016 election, PRRI asked Americans whether a political leader who committed an immoral act in his or her private life could nonetheless behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public life. In 2011, consistent with the “values voter” brand and the traditional evangelical emphasis on the importance of personal character, only 30 percent of white evangelical Protestants agreed with this statement. But with Trump at the top of the Republican ticket in 2016, 72 percent of white evangelicals said they believed a candidate could build a kind of moral dike between his private and public life. In a head-spinning reversal, white evangelicals went from being the least likely to the most likely group to agree that a candidate’s personal immorality has no bearing on his performance in public office.[xvi]
Fears about the present and a desire for a lost past, bound together with partisan attachments, ultimately overwhelmed values voters’ convictions. Rather than standing on principle and letting the chips fall where they may, white evangelicals fully embraced a consequentialist ethics that works backward from predetermined political ends, bending or even discarding core principles as needed to achieve a predetermined outcome.
Fears about the present and a desire for a lost past, bound together with partisan attachments, ultimately overwhelmed values voters’ convictions. Rather than standing on principle and letting the chips fall where they may, white evangelicals fully embraced a consequentialist ethics that works backward from predetermined political ends, bending or even discarding core principles as needed to achieve a predetermined outcome. When it came to the 2016 election, the ends were deemed so necessary they justified the means.[xvii] As he saw the polls trending for Trump in the last days before the election, in no small part because of the support of white evangelicals, Russell Moore was blunt, lamenting that Trump-supporting evangelicals had simply adopted “a political agenda in search of a gospel useful enough to accommodate it.”[xviii]
The Road Ahead
It’s clear that white evangelicals have entered a grand bargain with the self-described master dealmaker, with high hopes that this alliance will stem the tide and turn back the clock. And Donald Trump’s installation as the 45th president of the United States may in fact temporarily prop up, by pure exertions of political and legal power, what white Christian Americans perceive they have lost. But these short-term victories will come at an exorbitant price. Like the biblical story of Esau, who exchanged his inheritance for a pot of stew, white evangelicals have traded their distinctive values for fleeting political power. Twenty years from now, there is little chance that 2016 will be celebrated as the revival of White Christian America, no matter how many Christian right leaders are installed in positions of power over the next four years. Rather, this election will mostly likely be remembered as the one in which white evangelicals traded away their integrity and influence in a gambit to resurrect their past.
Meanwhile, the major trends transforming the country continue. If anything, the evangelicals’ deal with Trump may accelerate the very changes it is designed to arrest, as a growing number of nonwhite and non-Christian Americans are repulsed by the increasingly nativist, tribal tenor of both conservative white Christianity and conservative white politics. At the end of the day, white evangelicals’ grand bargain with Trump will be unable to hold back the sheer weight of cultural change, and WCA’s descendants will be left with the only real move possible: acceptance.
Robert P. Jones is the founding CEO of PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute). From the book The End of White Christian America by Robert P. Jones. Copyright © 2016 by Robert P. Jones. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.
[i] Brody, David. “Exclusive Trump: ‘This Will Be the Last Election that the Republicans Have a Chance of Winning.’” The Brody File, CBN News. September 9, 2016. Accessed January 31, 2017. http://www1.cbn.com/thebrodyfile/archive/2016/09/09/brody-file-exclusive-donald-trump-says-this-will-be-the-last-election-that-the-republicans-have-a-chance-of-winning.
[ii] Vladimirov, Nikita. “Bachmann: If Clinton wins, 2016 will be ‘last election,’” The Hill. September 2, 2016. Accessed January 31, 2017. http://thehill.com/blogs/ballot-box/presidential-races/294283-bachmann-if-clinton-wins-2016-will-be-last-election, Accessed January 31, 2017.
[iii] “Nearly One in Five Female Clinton Voters Say Husband or Partner Didn’t Vote, PRRI/The Atlantic Post-election Survey.” PRRI. December 1, 2016. Accessed December 15, 2016. http://www.prri.org/research /
[iv] McCormack, John. “The Election Came Down to 77,744 Votes in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan.” The Weekly Standard. November 10, 2016. Accessed January 31, 2017. http://www.weeklystandard.com/the-election-came-down-to-77744-votes-in-pennsylvania-wisconsin-and-michigan-updated/article/2005323.
[v] Krieg, Gregory. “It’s Official: Clinton Swamps Trump in Popular Vote.” CNN. December 22, 2016. Accessed January 31, 2017. http://www.cnn.com/2016/12/21/politics/donald-trump-hillary-clinton-popular-vote-final-count/.
[vi] General population numbers are from the General Social Survey (2008– 2012) and PRRI surveys (2013–2016). Voter numbers are from the National Exit Polls (2008–2016). Note that the PRRI general population polls use a more precise definition of “white evangelicals” than the National Exit Polls. PRRI polls define white evangelicals as those who
[vii] Jones, Robert P. “The Rage of White, Christian America.” The New York Times. November 20, 2016. Accessed January 31, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/11/opinion/campaign-stops/the-rage-of-white-
[viii] Costa, Robert, and Jenna Johnson. “Evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr. endorses Trump.” The Washington Post. January 26, 2016. Accessed January 31, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2016/01/26/evangelical-leader-jerry-falwell-jr-endorses-trump/?utm_term=.520c135251a9.
[ix] Allen, Bob. “‘Evangelical elite’ just doesn’t get it, claims pastor and Trump supporter.” Baptist News Global. March 16, 2016. https://baptistnews.com /article/evangelical-elite-just-
[x] Jones, Robert P. “How ‘Values Voters’ became ‘Nostalgia Voters.’” The Atlantic. February 23, 2016. Accessed January 31, 2017. https:// www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/02/the-trump-revelation/470559/. “South Carolina Exit Polls.” The New York Times. February 20, 2016. Accessed January 31, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/02/20/us/south-carolina-primary-exit-poll.html.
[xi] Graham, David A. “Trump’s Super Tuesday.” The Atlantic. March 2, 2016. Accessed January 31, 2017. http://www.theatlantic.com/liveblogs/2016/03/super-tuesday-results/471666/.
[xii] National Exit Poll, 2004, 2016.
[xiii] Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), 230.
[xiv] The latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates have revised this number, predicting that the U.S. population will become majority-minority in 2044. See U.S. Census Bureau, Projections of the Size and Composition of the U.S. Population: 2014 to 2060. March 5, 2015. Accessed January 31, 2017. http://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2015/cb15-tps16.html.
[xv] Jones, Robert P., Daniel Cox, Betsy Cooper, and Rachel Lienesch, “The Divide Over America’s Future: 1950 or 2050? Findings from the 2016 American Values Survey.” PRRI. October 25, 2016. Accessed January 31, 2017. http://www.prri.org/research/poll-1950s-2050-divided-nations-direction-post-election/.
[xvi] “Clinton maintains double-digit (51% vs. 36%) lead over Trump, PRRI /Brookings Survey.” PRRI. October 19, 2016. Accessed January 31, 2017. http://www.prri.org/research/prri-brookings-oct-19-poll-politics-election-clinton-double-digit-lead-trump/.
[xvii] I unpack this at length in a post-election column in Time Magazine. See Jones, Robert P. “Donald Trump and the Transformation of White Evangelicals.” Time. November 19, 2016. Accessed January 31, 2017. http://time.com/4577752/donald-trump-transformation-white-evangelicals/.
[xviii] Allen, Bob. “Russell Moore: Religious Right Must Change or Die.” Baptist News Global. October 25, 2016. Accessed January 31, 2017. https://baptistnews.com/article/russell-moore-religious-right-must-change-or-die/#.WJjTgbYrI3E.