The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

White evangelicals are hailing the Trump era. Will their alliance with him stunt their influence going forward?

Trump supporters pray before he arrives at a September campaign event in Latrobe, Pa. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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In aligning with President Trump, White evangelicals made a gamble that initially seemed transactional in response to the increasingly liberal direction of America under the Obama administration. The former reality television star never professed to have deep religious convictions and was actually more well-known for a playboy lifestyle that made him a regular subject in New York City media. But very early in his 2016 quest for the White House, he promised to advocate for religious freedom — something that many White evangelicals thought was under threat in a political climate that was becoming more culturally diverse on issues related to gender, the LGBT community and abortion.

While White evangelicals got quite a few wins by aligning with the most powerful leader in the world, the impact on the group’s ability to evangelize and increase their fold could be a challenge considering how negatively Trump is viewed — and the role they are perceived as playing in supporting his highly controversial presidency.

After the electoral college tally verified President-elect Joe Biden’s win, Franklin Graham, perhaps Trump’s most prominent evangelical adviser, said in a lengthy Facebook post that “President Trump will go down in history as one of the great presidents of our nation, bringing peace and prosperity to millions here in the U.S. and around the world.”

Graham, who expressed his disappointment that Trump did not win the election, added:

I have to say honestly, that I am grateful — grateful to God that for the last four years He gave us a president who protected our religious liberties; grateful for a president who defended the lives of the unborn, standing publicly against abortion and the bloody smear it has made on our nation; grateful for a president who nominated conservative judges to the Supreme Court and to our federal courts; grateful for a president who built the strongest economy in 70 years with the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years before the pandemic; grateful for a president who strengthened and supported our military; grateful for a president who stood against “the swamp” and the corruption in Washington; grateful for a president who supported law and order and defended our police.

The statement was met with consternation and even disgust from some more left-leaning Christians, but not with shock. White evangelicals have been among Trump’s strongest supporters since the earliest months of his 2016 campaign. Trump, who has struggled to name his favorite Bible verse and said he had never asked God for forgiveness, was eventually hailed as evangelicals’ “dream president” by Jerry Fallwell Jr., then president of Liberty University.

The Moral Majority, a politically conservative evangelical group founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell Sr., rose to power 40 years ago in part by policing the sexual ethics of a nation that White evangelicals feared had become too liberal following the 1970s. Issues like abortion and same-sex marriage are part of why the bloc has consistently backed GOP presidential candidates for decades. But when given the chance to back well-known conservative Christians in the 2016 primary, White evangelical voters chose the admitted adulterer who appeared on the cover of Playboy months after a campaign launch that was blasted for being xenophobic and racist.

That became an issue many took with White evangelicals in the Trump era — and what Graham’s more recent comments on social media have shown: It was not just the “family values” issues that drew White evangelicals to Trump, but shared views on cultural diversity issues.

Author and historian Jemar Tisby often writes about the blind eye to — and support for — racism from evangelicals that the Trump administration has made more obvious. He specifically spoke to this while noting the response of evangelicals to Trump’s defense of White nationalist efforts to protect monuments honoring those who had enslaved Black people.

“Despite all our efforts, some White pastors still remain silent on Sunday,” he wrote in The Washington Post. “Evangelicals who prostitute the faith for political power remain in the pulpit and are given wide latitude to stir up racial resentment in the guise of ‘race neutral’ language.”

As a result, the perception that White evangelicals have not prioritized a morality that includes combating racism, sexism and xenophobia has potentially diminished their ability to expand their ranks — a priority that the group has focused on.

The percentage of White evangelicals in America has declined over the past decade. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, that decreased from 21 percent in 2010 to 15 percent at the end of the decade. And as Trump heads out of the White House, many Black Christians who have long practiced their faith with White evangelicals are less interested in being in those faith spaces.

“Some Christians say, ‘It’s not about race, it’s about grace. It’s not about skin, it’s about sin,’” former NFL linebacker Emmanuel Acho told The Post in August. “It’s hard for Black people to attend predominantly White churches, specifically when White pastors are silent on the issues that matter to Black people.”

Part of that is due to the changing demographics of America. The country is both less White and younger, and young people tend to be less religious than older generations. But declining interest in being a part of a political tribe that has aligned with Trumpism is viewed by some — even those within the tribe — as negatively affecting the country as a whole, Michael Gerson wrote shortly after the election.

The author and former aide to President George W. Bush wrote in The Post:

U.S. politics would be better off if White evangelicals consistently applied their moral tradition to public life. Not only Christians, of course, can stand for integrity. But consider what would happen if White evangelicals insisted on supporting honest, compassionate, decent, civil, self-controlled men and women for office. The alternative is our current reality, in which evangelicals have often been a malicious and malignant influence in U.S. politics.

Following the inauguration, White evangelicals will no longer have the sway in the White House that they have enjoyed the past four years. They will continue to advocate for the conservative politics that they have championed for decades before Trump’s arrival on the national political stage. And this could very well put the group back in the position that they found themselves in during the Obama administration: feeling attacked and ready to fight in the latest cultural wars.

The group may have won the battles to get more conservative justices on benches and make abortions harder to attain in some states, but the election results, even with Republican wins downballot and Trump’s huge vote total in his loss, reveal reason for them to be worried about losing their share of influence on American politics. The last time they were on the outside looking in, it was galvanizing for them. The question this time will be whether where they aligned themselves to grab power was worth putting their ability to connect with younger generations and people of color in greater jeopardy.