Trump Cannot Reverse the Decline of White Christian America –

Trump Cannot Reverse the Decline of White Christian America –  By Robert P Jones | The Atlantic

Two-thirds of those who voted for the president felt his election was the “last chance to stop America’s decline.” But his victory won’t arrest the cultural and demographic trends they opposed.

Robert P Jones | The Atlantic

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.”

Michele 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 live 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.”

Post-election polling from the Public Religion Research Institute, which I lead, 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.”

Does Trump’s victory, then, represent the 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 Republican-controlled Senate refused to consider an Obama appointee to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in early 2016, Trump was able to nominate a conservative Supreme Court justice right out of the gate. Trump’s cabinet and advisors consist largely of defenders of either Wall Street or White Christian America.

The evidence, however, suggests that Trump’s unlikely victory is better understood as the death rattle of White Christian America — the cultural and political edifice built primarily by white Protestant Christians — rather than as its resuscitation.

Despite the election’s immediate and dramatic consequences, it’s important not to over-interpret Trump’s win, which was extraordinarily close.

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.

Of course, Clinton actually won the popular vote by 2.9 million votes, receiving 48.2 percent of all votes compared to Trump’s 46.1 percent.

The real story of 2016 is that there was just enough movement in just the right places, just enough increased turnout from just the right groups, to get Trump the electoral votes he needed to win.

Trump’s intense appeal to 2016 as the “last chance” election seems to have spurred conservative white Christian voters to turn out to vote 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.

In 2016, even as their proportion of the population fell to 17 percent, white evangelicals continued to represent 26 percent of voters.

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.

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.”

One of the most perplexing features of the 2016 election was the high level of support Donald Trump received from white evangelical Protestants. 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 long-time 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 him to speak at Liberty University, where he serves as president. 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.” 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’ 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.”

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.

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.

White evangelicals have entered a grand bargain with the self-described master dealmaker, with high hopes that this alliance will 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 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 most 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, evangelicals’ deal with Trump may accelerate the very changes it was designed to arrest, as a growing number of non-white 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 their descendants will be left with the only real move possible: ACCEPTANCE.

This article has been excerpted from the new Afterword in the paperback version of Robert P. Jones’ book, The End of White Christian America.

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  • Clyde Duncan  On July 9, 2018 at 9:29 pm

    White Evangelicals Fear the Future – Yearn for the Past and Trump is Their Hero

    John Fea | USA Today

    White evangelicals saw in Donald Trump a president who could help them in their fight against diversity, abortion and the shrinking role of religion.

    Like most Americans on Nov. 8, 2016, I sat in front of my television to watch election returns, fully expecting that Hillary Clinton would be declared the country’s first female president.

    When this did not happen, I was saddened and angry. But my emotions were less about the new president-elect and more about the way my fellow evangelicals were using their social media feeds to praise God for Donald Trump’s victory.

    I sent off a quick tweet: “If this is EVANGELICALISM — I am out.”

    Five days later, I could barely muster the will to attend services at my central Pennsylvania evangelical megachurch. As I stood singing Christian worship songs, I looked around the room and realized that there was a strong possibility, if the reports and polls were correct, that eight out of every 10 people in that sanctuary — my brothers and sisters in my community of faith — had voted for Trump.

    I eventually calmed down and decided that, at least for now, I would still use the word “evangelical” to describe my religious faith. The word best captures my belief in the “good news” of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I have experienced the life-transforming message of this Gospel and I have seen its power in the lives of others.

    My raw emotions gave way to my training as a historian and my study of American religion. My distress about Trump’s election did not wane, but I should have seen this coming. Trump’s win was just the latest manifestation of a long-standing evangelical approach to politics.

    Ever since World War II, white evangelicals in the United States have waged a desperate and largely failing war against thickening walls of separation between church and state, the removal of Christianity from public schools, the growing ethnic and religious diversity of the country, the intrusion of the federal government into their everyday lives – especially as it pertains to desegregation and civil rights – and legalized abortion.

    Donald Trump is about to name his second conservative Supreme Court justice now that Anthony Kennedy is retiring. Conservative evangelicals are celebrating.

    They have been waiting, to quote the Old Testament book of Esther, “for a time such as this.”

    For the last year I have been thinking deeply about WHY so many of my fellow evangelical Christians support Donald Trump?

    WHY they backed his zero-tolerance immigration plan that separated families at the border?

    WHY some of them give him a “mulligan” (to use Family Research Council President Tony Perkins’ now famous phrase) for his alleged adulterous affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels?

    WHY did so many evangelicals remain silent, or offer tepid and qualified responses, when Trump equated white supremacists with their opponents in Charlottesville, Virginia last summer?

    WHAT kind of power does Trump hold over men and women who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ?

    Evangelical support for Trump goes much deeper than simply a few Supreme Court justices.

    In the 1980s, Jerry Falwell Sr. and other conservative evangelicals concerned about this moral drift devised a political playbook to win back the culture and restore America to its supposedly Christian origins.

    It is a playbook that has too often led its followers toward nativism, xenophobia, racism, and intolerance. It is a playbook that divides rather than unites.

    The social and cultural changes of the Obama administration — particularly regarding human sexuality — sent conservative evangelicals into a state of panic. They saw Donald Trump as the GOP candidate best suited to protect them from the forces working to undermine the values of the world they once knew.

    But these anxieties extend even deeper into the American past. They are the logical result of 300 years — from the Puritans to the American Revolution, and from nativism to fundamentalism — of evangelical fears about the direction in which their “Christian nation” was moving.

    The politics of FEAR inevitably results in a quest for POWER. Clergymen and religious leaders have, at least since Billy Graham, regularly visited the White House to advise the president.

    Like members of the king’s court during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, who sought influence and worldly approval by flattering the monarch rather than prophetically speaking truth to power, Trump’s “court evangelicals” boast about their “unprecedented access” to the president and exalt him for his faith-friendly policies.

    Evangelical support for Donald Trump is also rooted in nostalgia for a bygone Christian golden age.

    Instead of doing the hard work necessary for engaging a more diverse society with the claims of Christian orthodoxy, evangelicals are INTELLECTUALLY LAZY, preferring to respond to cultural change by trying to reclaim a world that is rapidly disappearing and has little chance of ever coming back.

    Trump is Partial to Dark Historical Moments

    This backward-looking approach to politics can be seen no more clearly than in the evangelicals’ embrace of Trump’s campaign slogan: “Make America Great Again”.

    This mantra is, at its core, a historical one:

    It assumes that there was a moment in the American past that was indeed “great”

    Of course, national “greatness” is often in the eye of the beholder. A bygone era that may have been great for one group of people may have been oppressive for others.

    Sadly, whenever Trump turns to the past, he usually alludes to some of the nation’s darkest moments.

    When Trump speaks to his followers in the mass rallies that have now become a fixture of his populist brand, he loves to use the phrase “believe me”.

    The Internet is filled with video montages of Trump using this signature catch phrase even more frequently than “Make America Great Again”.

    “Believe me, folks, we’re building the wall, believe me, believe me, we’re building the wall.”

    “I love women. Believe me, I love women. I love women. And, you know what else, I have great respect for women, believe me.”

    “So let me say this right up front. In a Trump administration, our Christian heritage will be cherished, protected, defended — like you’ve never seen before. Believe me.”

    WHY do so many evangelicals believe in Donald Trump?

    Because they privilege fear over hope, power over humility, and nostalgia over history.

    John Fea is the author of the new book “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.”

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