What's Behind White Evangelical Anxiety? | Sojourners

What's Behind White Evangelical Anxiety?

laura.h / Shutterstock.com

Much ink has been spilled this election cycle on the future of evangelicalism given the “God gulf” between some white evangelical Donald Trump supporters and those evangelicals who have either long denounced Trump’s candidacy or who more recently have decided that some of Trump’s rhetoric and policy proposals have gone too far. But the root of this divide may be found in this fact, released this week by the Public Religion Research Institute: “No group has a dimmer view of American cultural change than white evangelical Protestants.”

Nearly three quarters of white evangelicals say American culture has changed for the worse since the 1950s. Contrast that with 60 percent of black Protestants and 66 percent of Hispanic Catholics who believe the opposite is true. White evangelicals also overwhelmingly favor Donald Trump at a level (around 70 percent) that remains relatively unchanged in the past month, even as top Republican leaders have denounced him in the wake of the Access Hollywood video.

According to PRRI CEO Robert P. Jones, Trump supporters are nostalgic for “an era when white Christians in particular had more political and cultural power in the country, while Hillary Clinton supporters are leaning into—and even celebrating—the big cultural transformations the country has experienced over the last few decades.”

Those cultural transformations include the fact that we are nearing a tipping point in the United States — by 2060, America will become a plurality of racial and ethnic groups. While some have been looking toward that change with idealistic notions that it will usher in a new era of tolerance and cooperation, others perceive a threat to a certain way of life. For example, 73 percent of Republicans believe that the growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens traditional American customs and values.

Enter Donald Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again” — an appropriate mantle for those who see 1950s America as the golden age of American prosperity and morality. While evangelical support for Trump has been parsed by many — from those that posit that it’s all about abortion, to others who broadly condemn all of his supporters as racists — the sentiment highlighted by the study isn’t all that surprising when you note that white Christian representation in this country has plummeted just within the past two election cycles, from 54 percent in 2008 to 45 percent in 2015. Jones, whose recent book on the topic The End of White Christian America, explained the trend at Tuesday’s survey release.

“I’d like to think of polling done well as an exercise in empathy,” Jones said, adding that the speed with which culture has changed is unprecedented.

Indeed, when Barack Obama was elected president only 4 in 10 Americans approved of same-sex marriage, an issue many conservative evangelicals would still say is in conflict with their values. Today, that number is 53 percent, a 13-point change in only eight years.

“White evangelical Protestants who define themselves politically by their culture can easily look back and say ‘50 years ago most Americans shared our viewpoints — our viewpoints on sex roles, our viewpoints on marriage, our viewpoints on the role of religion,’” said Henry Olsen, Senior Fellow at Ethics & Public Policy Center, at the survey release. “’We were at the center of America, and today we’ve fallen out of the center of America but we wonder whether or not we’re going to have any safe spaces left.’”

Notwithstanding the terminology — the idea of “safe spaces,” particularly on college campuses, has been roundly criticized by the right for reeking of “political correctness” — the point holds, and is evidenced by anxiety over the latest battles of religious liberty versus nondiscrimination.

According to Pew Research data released last month, 77 percent of white evangelicals believe wedding-industry businesses should be able to refuse service to same-sex couples, 69 percent believe transgender people should be required to use public restrooms of their birth gender, and 53 percent believe employers should be able to refuse birth control coverage if they have a religious objection.

Evangelicals’ search for “safe spaces” led to last years’ spate of state Religious Freedom Restoration Act-type measures and so-called “bathroom bills.” Indiana repealed its RFRA after intense pressure from companies threatening to do business elsewhere. And North Carolina continues to suffer the economic consequences of its anti-LGBTQ legislation; recent calculations estimate the move could cost the state $5 billion per year in federal funding, court costs, and lost tourism revenue.

White evangelicals have historically held both the cultural and political power in this country, and as many have said: When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality can feel like oppression. But most evangelicals would likely not identify with the characterization of a win-at-all-costs voting bloc desperate to hold onto power. These aren't (all) the backroom politicos who launched the religious right; rather, many are trying to live out religious convictions in a space where those convictions are being questioned for the first time.

Perhaps we should take that oft-invoked saying and put it into an evangelical Christian context: When you’re accustomed to religious exceptionalism, pluralism can feel like persecution.