Trump and White Evangelicals: Support for President Grows, But Millennials Leave Movement

Updated | A new poll suggests that President Donald Trump’s base of white evangelical support was not hurt at all by his lawyer’s hush money to Stormy Daniels, nor by allegations that the married president had a yearlong affair with a former Playboy bunny shortly after first lady Melania Trump gave birth to their son, Barron. On the contrary, as reports of the president’s infidelities and shady business deals have piled up, white evangelical Protestants—among the nation’s most socially conservative, law-and-order voters—have only come to hold more favorable attitudes about him.

Social conservatives’ support of the man evangelical candidate Ted Cruz once decried as possessing “New York values” looks counterintuitive. And it once was.

During the 2016 primary season, white evangelicals were largely divided in their opinion of candidate Trump, with roughly equal numbers holding favorable and unfavorable views, according to Robert Jones, whose Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) regularly polls Americans about politics and religion.  

But once Republicans nominated him, his favorability among white evangelicals jumped to 61 percent in September 2016. Once elected, Trump packed his Cabinet with members of the political God squad and made items on their agenda—anti-gay and anti-choice—a priority.

White evangelical Protestants have only grown more Trump-drunk since the election. In October 2017, 73 percent of white evangelicals supported Trump.

Now, according to a poll conducted in late March, after the Stormy Daniels story was widely discussed, support has risen to a record 75 percent. The new poll, to be released today by PRRI, also shows Trump has the lowest unfavorable ratings—22 percent—among evangelicals in any survey since PRRI first asked the Trump question in 2015.

Solid support for the president, however, comes as white evangelicals find themselves on the decline.

Large-scale polls conducted over the last 10 years by PRRI indicate that white evangelicals as a percentage of Americans have been on a downward trend for at least a decade, as they steadily decline as a percent of the population. In 2006, they accounted for 23 percent of those surveyed, but as of 2017, they represented just 15.3 percent of the population.  

Evangelicals’ fervent support of Trump is not universally shared by a crucial, and rapidly evaporating, subset of the white evangelicals—their children—who are leaving the faith in droves over its anti-LGBT and anti-science positions.

Only 35 percent of white evangelicals are under the age of 50, compared with 54 percent of the population, according to the PRRI. And they are bleeding youth: Only 8 percent of white evangelicals are under the age of 30, compared with 21 percent of the American population.

“There is a complex set of factors behind the exodus of younger Americans from white evangelical Protestant churches over the last decade,” Jones, author of The End of White Christian America, told Newsweek.

Many white evangelical churches have staked out positions—not just on same-sex marriage and abortion but on climate change, evolution, and other issues—that are at odds with the attitudes of younger Americans, the PRRI polls find. “These hard line stances have set up a culture clash that leaves many young people feeling out of touch with the institution and ultimately walking out the door as a result,” Jones said. “Part of the reason white Evangelicals have been losing numbers over the last decade is not because of their support for the kind of rhetoric they have branded themselves with. It really is around young people and the strong anti-gay stance.”

A growing group of online social movements, started by millennials and calling themselves #Exvangelicals and #ChurchToo, reflect the trend. The online movements, which have clocked tens of thousands of hashtagged Tweets in the last year, have been walloping faith leaders daily over the hypocritical distance between their ultra-conservative teachings, and their support of the legal norm-flouting Trump.  

Historian and writer Christopher Stroop, 37, and an instructor at University of South Florida, was raised in a fundamentalist Christian community. He has spearheaded a number of social media hashtags, including #EmptyThePews and #RaptureAnxiety, to provide an online platform for ex-evangelicals to share experiences on everything from being forced to go on “mission trips” to evangelize indigenous peoples, to having to deal with what they call “rapture anxiety”—the belief, drummed into them from a young age, that God will swoop down at any moment and take all the good people away to heaven, leaving nonbelievers to die in the horrible, Biblically predicted Apocalypse.

“I have seen evangelicals say they left after Trump,” Stroop said. “I see people distancing themselves from the label.”

“The ex-evangelicals support group continues to grow,” he added.

Evangelical churches, with their insistence on a God-given patriarchal system in which women are believed to be created as male helpmeets, are also facing a potential tsunami of online and private allegations about sexual abuse. After the Harvey Weinstein celebrity revelations prompted the #MeToo movement, two ex-evangelical women started a #ChurchToo movement. The women, Emily Joy and Hannah Paasch, both 27, told Newsweek that after they started the hashtag, they were inundated with thousands of public and private messages from women and girls describing abuse from pastors and at fundamentalist Christian schools and colleges, mostly swept under the rug.

The online movement contributed to the recent resignation of Pastor Andy Savage, at a Memphis megachurch called High Point. The church placed him on leave from his role as teaching pastor at Highpoint in the wake of revelations that he sexually assaulted a woman named Jules Woodson in 1998 while he was her youth pastor in suburban Houston, Texas. Savage has said he recalls the incident as a consensual encounter. Woodson was 17 at the time, and has said the Texas church fathers ignored her complaint.

“A handful of high profile Christian leaders have said abuse is a problem,” said Paasch. “But there’s a larger problem with how the church speaks about sexuality. The way the church responds is to keep it in the family. That is an extremely recurring theme.”

Blake Chastain has been hosting a podcast called Exvangelical since the 2016 Republican Convention. A former Evangelical himself, Chastain, 34, said he started it because he knew from personal experience and from those of close friends, that leaving the church was not easy.

“There were and are social consequences to leaving. Losing friends, family, social standing, and the support networks of a local church are all very real, very traumatic consequences of leaving Evangelical society,” Chastain said. “The consequences are much more severe for women, LGBTQ people, and people of color.”

Stroop, who left the faith when he was in college after years of Christian schooling, said he has heard of people “stuck in Christian colleges” who have been joining private online support groups that encourage and help people to leave the churches and schools.

“There are lots of anonymous people already struggling and the internet does help,” Stroop said. “I do think we are seeing a cultural watershed moment.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly said Donald Trump's alleged yearlong affair after the birth of his son with Melania Trump was with an adult film actress; it was with a former Playboy bunny. It also misstated the university affiliation of Christopher Stroop. He is at the University of South Florida.

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