The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why are White evangelicals embracing an anti-democratic movement? Because they’re panicking.

Attendees pray together before President Donald Trump addresses the crowd at the King Jesus International Ministry during an “Evangelicals for Trump” rally in Miami on Jan. 3, 2020. (Scott McIntyre/For The Washington Post)

White Christians have been holding their numbers in terms of their share of the U.S. population, but not for the reasons one might expect. As the Public Religion Research Institute reported in its annual survey released last week: “The slight increase in white Christians between 2018 and 2020 was driven primarily by an uptick in the proportion of white mainline (non-evangelical) Protestants and a stabilization in the proportion of white Catholics.” Most striking, and most significant for our politics, "[s]ince 2006, white evangelical Protestants have experienced the most precipitous drop in affiliation, shrinking from 23% of Americans in 2006 to 14% in 2020. That proportion has generally held steady since 2017 (15% in 2017, 2018, and 2019).”

I asked Robert P. Jones, chief executive of PRRI and author of “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity,” if the decline in evangelical affiliation was related to the increasingly political nature of churches belonging to the denomination. “In a word, yes,” he said. “It’s clear that White evangelical Protestants have been losing ground among young people. As they have shrunk over the last decade, their median age has risen from 53 to 56, compared to a median age of 47 in the country overall.”

It is not hard to figure out why they are losing young people and shrinking as a result. “The positions that White evangelical churches have become known for as they have become more politicized — opposition to same-sex marriage, opposition to abortion, a denial of climate change, anti-immigrant sentiment, anti-Muslim sentiment — are all strongly out of step with the values of younger Americans,” Jones observed. “And White evangelicals’ unequivocal embrace of [former president Donald] Trump also has them at odds with younger Americans. While White evangelical Protestants voted 84 percent for Trump in 2020, only 35 percent of Americans under the age of 30 did the same, according to Pew’s validated voter study.”

In short, as White evangelical churches turn into MAGA political clubs, many who otherwise may have found a spiritual home with them have fled because they are alienated — if not horrified — by the politicization of their faith and the abandonment of values such as inclusion and empathy. The price of politicizing religion is therefore bad not only for our politics (by heightening polarization and converting policy disputes into existential crises) but also for religious communities that chase away potential adherents.

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The disgraced former president’s defeat did not sever the ties between the MAGA political movement and churches. To the contrary, Jones said, “the rise of QAnon is a troubling example of how a Trump-supporting movement can continue even when Trump has been removed from center stage to the wings.” He added, “PRRI recently found that about one-quarter of White evangelical Protestants and nearly three 3 in 10 Republicans believe in the core tenets of QAnon, including the belief that ‘true American patriots may have to resort to violence to save our country.’”

The decline in White evangelicals’ numbers has sown desperation and increasingly anti-democratic political sentiments. “Notably, the declining population shares are most acute among the Republican Party’s most stalwart supporters, White evangelical Protestants, who have declined steadily from 23 percent of the population in 2006 to 14.5 in 2020,” Jones explained. “With 84 percent of them voting for Trump, there are few new voters to be gained.” Instead of trying to reach out to new voters, Republicans choose to “drive down the votes of the growing number of Americans who are not White and Christian.” Hence, their “big lie” that the election is stolen and their ensuing crusade to suppress voting.

The sense of panic among White evangelical Christians also fuels the long-standing animosity toward racial justice that is prevalent in their communities. Jones is frank about the history of White evangelical churches, which defended slavery, fanned the myth of the Lost Cause and resisted the civil rights movement:

White evangelical Protestants have, from their inception, been strongly invested in a version of American history that is literally whitewashed. Even when this history has clearly involved atrocities and betrayals of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of millions of Africans, white Christians have defended a story of their own purity and innocence, where they are always heroes bravely answering the call to ‘settle’ America as their own God-given promised land.

Just as they erected thousands of Confederate statutes after Reconstruction to reassert White dominance, they once more seek to distort history in service of white supremacy. Their current mission to rid schools of critical race theory (CRT), which is not actually taught in public schools, echoes a similar effort to mis-educate children about slavery. Jones noted, “Well into the 20th century, they donated history books with Confederate sympathies by the hundreds to schools and libraries, sponsored essay contests based on these slanted sources, and even developed a ‘[United Daughters of the Confederacy] Catechism,’ designed for children to memorize questions and answers reflecting the Confederate version of the causes of the Civil War.”

It should therefore not be surprising to see them attempt to distort U.S. history so as to remove the taint of racism they themselves have often advanced. In their anti-CRT hysteria, the explicit aim is often to avoid making Whites feel uncomfortable or to shield children from any negative aspects of history. “Claims to [White] innocence are at root an attempt to protect power — that is, white supremacy — by preventing an honest reading of our history,” Jones told me. “As White Christians are declining, this myth of a White Christian America is tottering, like so many monuments in the last year. The battles around CRT are really fights to prop up what has always been a biased and inaccurate version of the country’s history — a lie really.”

Our politics have fallen victim to the primal scream of once-dominant White evangelicals. Having failed to capture the hearts, minds and souls of a majority of Americans, these communities are turning against democracy. They prefer an authoritarian theocracy to a multiracial society in which they are a distinct minority. And that, candidly, is a threat to our democracy and to the notion of equal justice under the law.