The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Reagan tied Republicans to White Christians and now the party is trapped

Republicans have a passionate base that is out of touch with the rest of America.

President Ronald Reagan speaks in 1984. (AP)
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GOP leaders and the conservative media ecosystem have spent the last few weeks focused on inflaming the culture wars. They’ve railed against the decision to stop publishing six Dr. Seuss books, falsely claiming that the childhood classics have fallen victim to liberal cancel culture, and complained about changes to the Potato Head line of toys.

Simultaneously, Republican state lawmakers have continued waging a war on democracy, passing new laws that would eliminate vote-by-mail and early voting programs that were popular with Democrats in 2020, especially among minority communities. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, Republican lawmakers have introduced more than 165 bills in 33 states to limit ballot access.

On the surface, these topics seem disconnected, but in reality, they share a crucial commonality that shapes today’s Republican Party — one that dates back to the 1984 Republican National Convention held in Dallas. It was there that Republicans cemented an alliance with evangelical White Protestants, in the process creating a demographic and generational time bomb that is now exploding in their face.

White Protestant evangelicals had voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976 — the first “born again” president — helping him narrowly capture the White House. But disillusioned over his handling of abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment and the tax exemptions for White religious schools, they had switched their allegiance to Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Reagan’s first-term record was a mixed bag, as far as cultural conservatives were concerned. Even so, four years into his presidency, Reagan saw an opportunity to use religion to forge a political realignment in the South. Addressing a crowd of 10,000 religious leaders at an “Ecumenical Prayer Breakfast” during the 1984 Republican Convention, the president delivered a rousing speech. Reagan willfully blurred the line between church and state. “Religion needs defenders against those who care only for the interests of the state. The truth is, politics and morality are inseparable — and as morality’s foundation is religion, religion and politics are necessarily related.” He concluded: “If we ever forget that we’re one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under.”

Not surprisingly, the Republican platform that year reflected the agenda of White evangelicals. It called for a constitutional ban on abortion with no exceptions and the appointment of federal judges who opposed abortion. It supported voluntary school prayer, ignored the Equal Rights Amendment (which Republicans had supported in every platform from 1940 to 1976 with only two exceptions: 1964 and 1968) and rejected equal pay for women. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, closed the 1984 Republican convention by triumphantly calling the incumbent ticket “God’s instruments in rebuilding America.”

Politically the alliance made sense, at least in the short run. The previous two decades had witnessed an explosion in the number of self-identified evangelical Christians. The number of Americans who identified as “born again” increased from 24 percent in 1963 to nearly 40 percent in 1978. While mainstream church membership dropped between 1965 and 1980, the number of southern Baptists grew from 10.8 million to 13.6 million.

The rise of Christian fundamentalism represented a backlash against the cultural liberalism of the 1960s. In the minds of many evangelicals, the federal government — and the liberals who staffed it — had engineered America’s alleged moral decline. They felt traumatized by a string of perceived offenses: the Supreme Court’s decisions legalizing abortion and banning school prayer, the gay rights and women’s movements challenging traditional gender roles, and the Internal Revenue Service’s decision to remove the tax-exempt status of private Christian schools.

Outraged, these Americans became a major force in politics, leading campaigns against LGBTQ rights, playing a key role in stopping the ERA’s ratification and fighting for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion, offering an upside for the party that could capture their loyalty.

The GOP stepped to the plate. White evangelicals believed the root of America’s social problems could be traced to the decline of the traditional family. Social changes in the 1960s and 1970s — an increased presence of women in the workforce, the heightened visibility of abortion and divorce and the breakdown of the double standard for male and female behavior — had placed severe strain what they saw as the idealized, God-ordained two-parent family.

Republicans wielded these issues to fracture the vaunted Roosevelt Democratic coalition, which included the solid South and blue-collar White voters, along with large percentages of minority voters. They drew a sharp distinction between the two parties on LGBTQ rights, abortion rights, feminism and single parents. Even Republicans like George H.W. Bush, for whom this sort of politics wasn’t natural, joined the fray.

But the GOP’s gamble has proved shortsighted. In the almost four decades since Reagan cemented the alliance between the GOP and White evangelical Protestants, America as a whole became less White and less religious. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, in 1980 White Americans made up almost 80 percent of the population. Today, that figure has dropped to roughly 60 percent, and it will probably drop even further in the future: Since 2010, racial and ethnic minorities accounted for all of the nation’s population growth, while the White population was either stagnant or saw a small decline. There are also far fewer people who identify as Christians. Over the past decade, the share of Americans who call themselves Christian has fallen by 12 percentage points, while the share of people who claim no religious affiliation grew by nine percentage points. Today, nearly a quarter of Americans are religiously unaffiliated.

This combination makes being a political party dependent on White Christians a poor electoral proposition.

Yet, the courtship of this shrinking voting bloc has trapped the GOP, making it increasingly unattractive to other demographics and less competitive in the Northeast and on the West Coast. As a result, according to Pew data, 64 percent of Republicans identify as White Christians. The correlation is even more dramatic for evangelicals. White evangelicals compose only 16 percent of the population but 35 percent of Republican voters. And they are the party’s base, the voters who show up in primaries, making it difficult for Republicans who do not wholeheartedly endorse their social agenda to win a GOP nomination (Only two Republicans in Congress support abortion rights).

But this has left the party captive to a shrinking base increasingly out of touch with larger social and demographic changes. Maybe the best illustration of this dynamic is the issue of marriage equality. In 2004, the year Republican President George W. Bush endorsed a constitutional amendment declaring that marriage was between a man and a woman, Pew Research Center reported that Americans opposed same sex marriage by a margin of 60 to 31 percent. By 2019, however, those numbers had flipped, with 61 percent supporting it and 31 percent opposed. Yet, a majority of White evangelical Protestants still opposed marriage equality. That makes it hard for the GOP to adapt to appeal beyond their base.

The need to motivate these voters, who feel besieged on all sides, explains why cultural issues like Dr. Seuss occupy so much of the GOP’s focus. White Christians constitute a shrinking percentage of the population (and they are an even smaller percentage of young Americans) and that decline drives GOP voter-suppression campaigns. This two-pronged formula gives Republicans their only chance of winning national elections: by stoking the ire of their dwindling White Protestant base and making it harder for others to vote. But they are sticking their fingers in a proverbial dam, trying to block the tidal wave of young progressive voters from flooding our political system. It is a strategy destined to fail.