The 2016 Election: What’s Religion Got To Do with It?

 

Evangelicals

A Review of The End of White Christian America by Robert P. Jones

One of the best predictors of voter choice is church attendance. Regular church goers of most denominations are likely to vote Republican; the unaffiliated and the infrequent worshipers are likely to vote Democratic. This connection will hold true for the next presidential election. Trump, despite his many imperfections (his dishonesty, hedonism and worldly ambition) will be the choice of regular church goers, especially evangelic Christians. They may hold their nose when they cast their votes for The Donald, but they perceive him to be a far better choice than his opponent. The evangelic Christian segment has represented a sizable portion of the Republican base ever since the 1980s when Republican strategists began courting churchgoers with strong opinions about abortion and gay marriage.

The latest state of affairs in the long standing connection between religion and politics is more than capably illuminated in The End of White Christian America by Robert P. Jones. Jones is the founder and CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, a polling and policy organization focused on the place of religion in American political life. It was the PRRI that first examined the make-up of the Tea Party which emerged in 2010 in the wake of Obama’s first presidential victory. What the PRRI researchers discovered is that the Tea Party, ostensibly driven by economic populism and fears of government expansion and overreach, was in fact more forcefully motivated by the ways in which an African-American president represented a new, much more diverse, and scarier America.

Jones Book

For Jones, The Tea Party, which nostalgically donned costumes of the Revolution and insisted on “taking our country back,” represented not the emergence of a potent new political force but instead the death knell of White Christian America (WCA). Upon closer examination by the PRRI, a sizeable portion of the Tea Party contingent are evangelic Christians who have been fighters in the culture wars of the two previous decades. They are the losers in the culture wars, a shrinking percentage of the total population that has seen no repeal of Roe vs. Wade (despite the minor victories in making abortions more difficult to obtain) and the widespread acceptance of gay marriage. Ten years after Karl Rove, “Bush’s Brain,”  used anti-gay marriage referenda to bring out single-issue voters in order to help Bush win in 2004, legalized opposition to gay marriage has weakened, is occasionally ridiculed, and is the basis for decisions by American corporations and organizations to reschedule conventions and events in more enlightened states. Of course, some analysts believe that mainstream and establishment Republicans, concerned about the financial well-being of the 1%, were really not serious about delivering on the promises of moral improvement.

Although Jones does not talk directly about the 2016 presidential campaign, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that Trumpism is another mask for the disillusioned and dispirited fundamentalist, mostly concentrated in the South. More than any other demographic, it’s the white evangelic Protestant who believes that America has mostly changed for the worse. The 72% who think this way contrasts with the mixed or more positive results from other groups: White Catholics – 58%; Black Protestants – 43%; Hispanic Catholics – 43%;, and the Unaffiliated – 35%. Whether Trumpism is the final mask of WCA or whether the dissipated energy will emerge in a new form remains to be seen.

One can’t help but conclude that Jones would predict a Democratic victory in November. Like many analysts, he documents the rather profound demographic shifts that have taken place in the country over the last quarter century. Quite simply the WCA population – and the white population in general -has been shrinking as a percentage of the whole. If the fundamentalist population remains somewhat stable, it’s because of the growth of Hispanic evangelicals.  Furthermore, the number of “the unchurched” or unaffiliated has jumped dramatically, especially among Millennials, whether college educated or not. Demography is destiny; even if Trump were to secure the vote of every evangelical, the Democratic coalition would prevail.

Jones’s study is informative on a number of other levels. First, the book is a solid review not only the fall but also the rise of WCA: the early rifts between Northern mainline Protestants and Southern fundamentalist denominations; the stigma of Catholicism in the candidacies of Al Smith (1928), John Kennedy (1960) and Mormonism in the candidacy of Mitt Romney (2012); consensus Protestantism in the post-WWII years; the power of the Moral Majority in the 1980s and the Christian Coalition during the 1990s. The fall out of power is especially bitter because during the presidency of George Bush WCA looked very much like an enduring reality. Jones insightfully points out the shifting animosities and alliances between the various strains of Christianity. Catholics who were reviled by evangelicals (some of whom had Klan affiliation) in the 20s and 30s became strange bedfellows in the 1980s, joined together by their shared conviction that abortion was a moral abomination. Reagan’s victories were due, in part, to Catholics (the “Reagan Democrats”) disenchanted by their church’s liberal turn.

Second, Jones cleverly uses Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s influential On Death and Dying (1969) in which the psychiatrist explained the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). He uses this template to explain the ways in which evangelicals have dealt with the diagnosis of their illness. For instance, the post-defeat autopsies of Republican candidates frequently exhibit a form of bargaining: if only we had picked a true conservative, the outcome would be different. Vanquished Ted Cruz will most likely re-emerge as that ideological pure Republican who will assure electoral victory. Another example, this time of anger: Franklin Graham, the son of the mild and reasonably ecumenical Billy Graham, is an enthusiastic Trump supporter. The old man, America’s favorite preacher, cozied up to Nixon (or did Nixon cozy up to him); the son’s embrace of Trump is of a different order.

Finally, Jones, no opponent of religion and its positive record of contributions to American identity and well-being, defines what a salutary state of acceptance might look like. To triumphant liberals and neo-atheists who would like to “dance on the grave” of WCA, he urges a Lincoln-like compassion toward the vanquished. He seeks to find ways in which the Democratic coalition might enfold evangelicals around common issues like environmental stewardship, workplace dignity, and the gospel message of ministry of the poor. He finds untenable the liberal endorsement of the occasional Southern threat to secede from the union.

He’s hopeful that the racism that has always been one of the unacknowledged cornerstones of the Republican Southern Strategy has been exposed by the Trump campaign and can be cut away leaving the building standing. This may be the “blessing in disguise” of the Trump movement. If this happens then Progressives will have to soften their accusations that evangelicals think and behave in un-Christian like ways. He’s hopeful that WCA, especially its Southern evangelic wing, can, though politically marginalized, still exert a positive influence on American life not through direct, national political action but rather through “bearing witness” on individual and local levels. The baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater.

 

About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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