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Opinion America cannot give evangelicals what they want

Religious leaders pray with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence after Trump signed a proclamation for a national day of prayer on Sept. 1, 2017. (Evan Vucci/AP)
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A decade or two ago, no one had trouble figuring out what White evangelical Christians wanted from the federal government. Alongside supply-siders and national security hawks, they made up the triumvirate of the GOP base and were willing to embrace their allies’ economic and foreign policy positions to ensure support for abortion restrictions and anti-gay policies. (During the Cold War, they were enthusiastic partners with national security hawks in the battle against godless communism.)

But social policy is no longer at the heart of the agenda of the demographic. Instead, it has become nearly indistinguishable from the MAGA movement.

Conservative commentator and evangelical Christian David A. French acknowledges in a piece for the Dispatch: “We know that opposition to abortion rights motivates white Evangelicals far less than their leaders’ rhetoric would suggest. Eastern Illinois University’s Ryan Burge, one of the nation’s leading statisticians of American religion, has noted, for example, that immigration drove Evangelical support for [Donald] Trump more than abortion.”

As for gay rights, the Public Religion Research Institute’s annual values survey shows a majority of White evangelical Christians still oppose gay marriage, but that “substantial majorities in every major religious group favor nondiscrimination laws that protect LGBTQ people, ranging from 59% among white evangelical Protestants to 92% among religiously unaffiliated Americans.” Moreover, even opposition to gay marriage is declining because of a massive generational divide on the issue between older evangelicals and more tolerant millennials and Generation Xers.

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So what, then, do these voters want? Many essentially see politics as a great battle between White, Christian America and the multiracial, religiously diverse reality of 21st century America. They want someone to help them win that existential fight. Government is there not to produce legislative fixes to real-world problems but to engage their enemies on behalf of White Christianity.

PRRI’s chief executive Robert P. Jones points out: “Among the 42% of Virginia voters who believe that Confederate monuments should be taken down, nearly nine in ten (87%) voted for the Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe.” By contrast, “Among the 51% of Virginia voters who believe that Confederate monuments should be left in place, more than eight in ten (82%) voted for Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin.”

Other statistics bolster the view that racism or defense of white supremacy is at the heart of the GOP. Jones writes:

Among voters who hold an unfavorable view of the Black Lives Matter movement, believe the U.S. criminal justice system treats all people fairly, or believe that racism is a minor problem or not a problem at all, more than eight in ten voted for Donald Trump. At the national level, the divides produced by these attitudes are stronger than the divides over abortion. Among those who believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, 76% voted for Trump.

The fixation with defining the United States as a White Christian nation is on full display nightly on Fox News, where replacement theory — not abortion or gay rights — drives so much more of the conversation. (Disclosure: I am an MSNBC contributor.)

In this context, White evangelical Christians’ attraction to the thrice-married philanderer Trump is understandable, as is their support for the cruelest immigration policies (e.g., child separation) and the anti-Muslim travel ban. It’s all about race and religious identity, not policies founded in Christian values and certainly not about finding a role model for civic virtues. Trump was determined to protect White evangelicals against people of color and the decline in Christian identification; that was all they could hope for in a politician.

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For these voters, government is a means of enforcing (they would say “preserving”) domination of Whites and Christianity as essential to America’s identity. That’s why they support politicians who demonize Black Lives Matter, demand that corporations meekly accept voter suppression, express outrage over a publisher’s decision about Dr. Seuss titles or fixate on saying “Merry Christmas.” It’s also why insurrectionists marauded through the Capitol on Jan. 6 bearing Confederate flags and wearing T-shirts mocking the Holocaust. They keep telling us who they are and what they want, but well-meaning Americans and the media often refuse to accept that their fellow Americans’ motives are so antithetical to American values.

Jones underscores that this MAGA resentment translates into “fears about the rising number of Latino Americans, fears about Islam, and anti-Black attitudes tied to a ‘law and order’ mentality where African Americans are associated with criminal activity and lawlessness in major cities. You won’t need to search far to find each of these interpretations made painfully explicit in former President Trump’s speeches and in the content of the 2016 and 2020 Republican National Conventions.”

The fixation on race and Christian nationalism has serious ramifications for American political life. First, White evangelical Christians are fighting an impossible crusade against demographic inevitability (their minority status is what has fueled the MAGA movement). Because they can never win (at least in a democracy with free and accurate elections), their political venom will not abate.

Second, the aims of White evangelicals run smack into the American ideal that “all men are created equal” and constitutional protections that allow no bias against any particular religion or racial group. In that regard, they have become deeply antidemocratic.

Finally, a Democratic Party committed to social justice and racial tolerance is never going to win over the hardcore White evangelical base of the GOP. There is nothing Democrats can “give” them (e.g., jobs, cheaper health care) to satisfy their need for White Christian ascendency. That puts a premium on Democrats’ ability to organize a broad ideological coalition that is firmly grounded in democratic ideals and racial/religious inclusion.

We face a battle over the meaning of America. All defenders of a diverse democracy must stand shoulder to shoulder for an inclusive system of government.