The Christian Right's Clout For Trump Is Waning

Illustration by Alex Fine

Evangelical Christians Helped Elect Donald Trump, but Their Time as a Major Political Force Is Coming to an End

Alex Camire left the church a few months before his pastor announced from the pulpit that the election of Donald Trump was “a miracle of the Lord.”

The 29-year-old Connecticut social worker had been raised in the evangelical tradition; his parents were married in it. But Camire’s faith had started to fail a decade earlier when his church deemed his mother’s alcoholism—and his parents’ subsequent divorce—a sin. Later, a secular college education taught him that “the world”—the community outside the church—wasn’t going to drag him into a cesspool of sex and drugs, as he’d been taught from childhood. His pastor’s outspoken support of Trump convinced him he’d made the right decision.

Californian Jason Desautels similarly began to doubt his faith as a teen. In the week after the Oklahoma City bombing, his church’s minister railed against “sand people” and Muslims. “When it came out that the bomber was a white nationalist, he didn’t apologize or even say anything,” Desautels recalls. “And the adults seemed to be all fine with it. That planted the seed.”

Later, as an Army infantryman in Iraq, Desautels, now 39, moved further from the church. “I was in the land of Father Abraham,” he says. “I had this weird spiritual moment when I realized that these families had lived in this neighborhood for longer than America had been a nation, and here we were telling them what to do.” He cut ties completely with his church after his sister came out as gay and felt she had to apologize to their parents.

Blake Chastain, 35, entered Indiana Wesleyan University the week of 9/11, with hopes of graduating from the seminary. Instead, he began to fall away from the church when he couldn’t reconcile what he was learning in Bible study with his professor’s support for the Iraq War. “Conservative Christianity,” he says, “was at odds with the teachings in the Bible.” He left and started writing and producing his own podcast. Its name: Exvangelical.

All three men are on the front lines of a growing movement among millennials that is reshaping the evangelical church and the nation’s political landscape. Since the 1970s, white evangelicals have formed the backbone of the Republican base. But as younger members reject the vitriolic partisanship of the Trump era and leave the church, that base is getting smaller and older. The numbers are stark: Twenty years ago, just 46 percent of white evangelical Protestants were older than 50; now, 62 percent are above 50. The median age of white evangelicals is 55. Only 10 percent of Americans under 30 identify as white evangelicals. The exodus of youth is so swift that demographers now predict that evangelicals will likely cease being a major political force in presidential elections by 2024.

And the cracks are already showing.

In the 2018 midterms, exit polls showed, white evangelicals backed Republicans by 75 to 22 percent, while the rest of the voting population favored Democrats 66 to 32 percent. But evangelicals were slightly less likely to support House Republicans in 2018 than they were to support Trump in 2016—which may have contributed to the Democrats’ pickup of House seats. Trump’s support actually declined more among white evangelical men than women. The 11-point gender gap between evangelical men and women from 2016 shrank to 6 in the midterms.

To be sure, evangelical Christians have been rewarded for their support of Trump after enduring eight years wandering in Barack Obama’s political desert. They have two new conservative Supreme Court justices, and there have been nine self-professed evangelical Cabinet members, plus a flurry of laws and executive orders clamping down on gender roles, abortion and LGBTQ rights. But experts say this may represent the last bounty for a waning political power. Unlike their parents, the younger generation is not animated by the culture wars; many are pushing for social justice for migrants and LGBTQ people and campaigning against mass incarceration—positions more in line with the Democratic Party.

The result is a shrinking conservative bloc, something that could weaken white Christian political power—and, consequently, a Republican Party that has staked its future on its alliance with the religious right. It’s a conundrum that the father of modern GOP conservatism, Barry Goldwater, predicted in 1994: “Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem.” ...

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