Evangelical Christians Helped Elect Donald Trump, but Their Time as a Major Political Force Is Coming to an End

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Illustration by Alex Fine

Alex Camire left the church a few months before his pastor announced from the pulpit that the election of Donald Trump was "a miracle of the Lord."

The 29-year-old Connecticut social worker had been raised in the evangelical tradition; his parents were married in it. But Camire's faith had started to fail a decade earlier when his church deemed his mother's alcoholism—and his parents' subsequent divorce—a sin. Later, a secular college education taught him that "the world"—the community outside the church—wasn't going to drag him into a cesspool of sex and drugs, as he'd been taught from childhood. His pastor's outspoken support of Trump convinced him he'd made the right decision.

Californian Jason Desautels similarly began to doubt his faith as a teen. In the week after the Oklahoma City bombing, his church's minister railed against "sand people" and Muslims. "When it came out that the bomber was a white nationalist, he didn't apologize or even say anything," Desautels recalls. "And the adults seemed to be all fine with it. That planted the seed."

Later, as an Army infantryman in Iraq, Desautels, now 39, moved further from the church. "I was in the land of Father Abraham," he says. "I had this weird spiritual moment when I realized that these families had lived in this neighborhood for longer than America had been a nation, and here we were telling them what to do." He cut ties completely with his church after his sister came out as gay and felt she had to apologize to their parents.

Blake Chastain, 35, entered Indiana Wesleyan University the week of 9/11, with hopes of graduating from the seminary. Instead, he began to fall away from the church when he couldn't reconcile what he was learning in Bible study with his professor's support for the Iraq War. "Conservative Christianity," he says, "was at odds with the teachings in the Bible." He left and started writing and producing his own podcast. Its name: Exvangelical.

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Photo Illustration Ben Fearnley

All three men are on the front lines of a growing movement among millennials that is reshaping the evangelical church and the nation's political landscape. Since the 1970s, white evangelicals have formed the backbone of the Republican base. But as younger members reject the vitriolic partisanship of the Trump era and leave the church, that base is getting smaller and older. The numbers are stark: Twenty years ago, just 46 percent of white evangelical Protestants were older than 50; now, 62 percent are above 50. The median age of white evangelicals is 55. Only 10 percent of Americans under 30 identify as white evangelicals. The exodus of youth is so swift that demographers now predict that evangelicals will likely cease being a major political force in presidential elections by 2024.

And the cracks are already showing.

In the 2018 midterms, exit polls showed, white evangelicals backed Republicans by 75 to 22 percent, while the rest of the voting population favored Democrats 66 to 32 percent. But evangelicals were slightly less likely to support House Republicans in 2018 than they were to support Trump in 2016—which may have contributed to the Democrats' pickup of House seats. Trump's support actually declined more among white evangelical men than women. The 11-point gender gap between evangelical men and women from 2016 shrank to 6 in the midterms.

To be sure, evangelical Christians have been rewarded for their support of Trump after enduring eight years wandering in Barack Obama's political desert. They have two new conservative Supreme Court justices, and there have been nine self-professed evangelical Cabinet members, plus a flurry of laws and executive orders clamping down on gender roles, abortion and LGBTQ rights. But experts say this may represent the last bounty for a waning political power. Unlike their parents, the younger generation is not animated by the culture wars; many are pushing for social justice for migrants and LGBTQ people and campaigning against mass incarceration—positions more in line with the Democratic Party.

The result is a shrinking conservative bloc, something that could weaken white Christian political power—and, consequently, a Republican Party that has staked its future on its alliance with the religious right. It's a conundrum that the father of modern GOP conservatism, Barry Goldwater, predicted in 1994: "Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the party, and they're sure trying to do so, it's going to be a terrible damn problem."

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Evangelist Billy Graham, top left, delivers a sermon from an improvised platform at the "Singing on the Mountain" event, held at the base of Grandfather Mountain in Linville, North Carolina, on August 5, 1962. Hulton Archive/Getty

The End of the Alliance?

The association of the religious right and the Republican Party has its roots in the 1954 Supreme Court ruling Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, after which white Southerners began to flee public schools following forced desegregation. They opened so-called segregation academies: religious schools that were tax-exempt. When the IRS came after evangelical colleges like Bob Jones University, which officially prohibited interracial dating, the schools were faced with losing their tax-exempt status.

That would have meant financial doom. But a Republican activist named Paul Weyrich—with patronage from Western segregationist beer billionaire Joseph Coors—forged alliances with Southern religious leaders like Jerry Falwell and successfully lobbied to soften IRS enforcement. The Moral Majority was born, and, in 1980, it announced itself as a political force by helping put Ronald Reagan in the White House. Republican strategists used the issues of abortion and gay marriage to cement the union and drive right-leaning Christians into the voting booth.

The relationship remained strong for decades, with evangelicals becoming a reliable bloc of GOP support. Since 2000, they have regularly made up about a quarter of voters—outperforming their much smaller percentage of the population. And, despite prognostications from political scientists about the imminent death of the evangelical-Republican partnership, they've kept casting ballots. In 2016, they were a key group for Trump; the thrice-married, foul-mouthed mogul with a history of sexual assault allegations won more than 80 percent of the evangelical vote—besting even George W. Bush, a born-again Christian who spoke openly about his faith.

But demographic trends are steadily diluting their outsize clout. Researcher Robert Jones, author of The End of White Christian America, has tracked what he calls a "stair-steps downward trajectory of white Christian presence in the electorate." In 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected, 73 percent of the electorate was white and Christian. By 2012, that number was 53 percent. "If current trends hold steady, 2024 will be a watershed year—the first American election in which white Christian voters do not constitute a majority of voters," Jones, who heads the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), tells Newsweek.

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Members of Alabama's First Baptist Church of Luverne follow a Bible verse that was projected on a screen above the pulpit during the Sunday sermon, which was titled "The Ninth Commandment, 'Thou Shalt Not Lie.'" Support for President Donald Trump is rising among white evangelical Christians. Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post/Getty

Until a decade ago, white evangelicals were the exception, their numbers holding steady. But their ranks are now dwindling, driven largely by the youth exodus. According to Jones, white evangelicals constituted 21 percent of the U.S. population when Obama was elected in 2008. Eight years later, in 2016, that number dropped to 17 percent. Today, they make up 15 percent of Americans.

Concerned about the shrinking numbers and the prospect of a lackluster turnout in the midterms, Trump rallied about 100 evangelical supporters in the White House this past summer. If Republicans lose control of Congress, he told them, Democrats "will overturn everything that we've done, and they'll do it quickly and violently." He pushed pastors to use the power of their pulpits to get more people to the polls. "I hate to say it," Trump said, "if you were a stock, you'd be, like, you're very plateaued."

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President Donald Trump speaks before signing an executive order aimed at easing an IRS rule limiting political activity for churches, during a National Day of Prayer event in the White House Rose Garden on May 4, 2017. Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/Getty

White evangelical political organizers got the message. Ralph Reed's Faith & Freedom Coalition pledged to spend $18 million to microtarget 125 million conservative voters before the midterms. Other faith groups engaged in a get-out-the-vote drive across the country. An organization associated with former Arkansas Governor (and Baptist pastor) Mike Huckabee, called My Faith Votes, spent $3.5 million aimed at getting evangelicals to the midterms polls and threw in a Facebook Live session with Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson for good measure. The Colorado-based Dr. James Dobson Family Institute ran a national "Pray. Engage. Vote." initiative in the lead-up to the midterms.

The result: White evangelicals made up 26 percent of voters in the November elections, with three-quarters of them casting ballots for Republican House candidates. But that performance will be increasingly difficult to replicate, Jones says.

For an analogy, he uses Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's landmark "stages of grief" experienced by the dying and their loved ones to describe what's happening to evangelicals and American politics. First comes denial, then anger, followed by bargaining, depression and acceptance.

"We are past denial. People see the writing on the wall in terms of demographic change. And that is also why we see immigration taking over and becoming the flagship issue. That and a wall symbolize the resistance to this demographic change," Jones says. "I think we are somewhere between anger and bargaining. And in many ways, this shotgun marriage between Trump and white evangelicals happened under some duress and is a desperate bargain that you make at the end of life. That is what we're really seeing here."

Disaffected Youth

To understand what's happening among evangelicals, researchers study the results of PRRI's annual, wide-ranging, 80,000-interview American Values Atlas poll. In the most recent survey, from 2017, 40 percent of individuals under 30 claim "no religious affiliation" (sometimes called "the nones"). "White evangelicals are a big part of that decline," Jones says.

Respondents cited not believing in the doctrines and, surprisingly, politics. "They cite partisanship," Jones says. "That's a big turnoff for young Americans. And so is negative treatment of gay and lesbian people."

Polls find that upward of 80 percent of young people now support same-sex marriage. That number includes young Republicans and evangelicals under 30. "Even people like me, a white male with a lot of societal privilege, can see that evangelical leaders are completely happy to join forces with white nationalist politicians and leaders and to give them the benefit of the doubt while they are attacking marginalized communities," says Chastain. "And that's just blatantly hypocritical."

He and other exvangelicals in his social networks are also turned off by the Trump alliance. "The fact is that leaders like [Dallas megachurch leader and Trump supporter] Robert Jeffress and Jerry Falwell Jr. are blatantly power hungry and willing to make these alliances, providing a theology that supports white nationalism."

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Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, delivers a speech during the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016. John Moore/Getty

Some major evangelical leaders and thinkers, not surprisingly, reject this assessment.

Ed Stetzer, a political scientist and pastor based at Wheaton College, knows all about the predictions of researchers like Jones, and he is aware of the views of young people. But he sees evangelical youth attrition as a kind of demographic sowing of wild oats, in which the young are predictably disaffected—but only temporarily. He is sure they will return to the fold when they are a little older. His name for the phenomenon is "generational cohort replacement."

Stetzer says the young who move away from the fold essentially replace themselves in the church as an older, and more likely to vote, category. "The 18- to 29-year-olds are really secular now," he says. "But what we find is that people grow in their religiosity. So the 60-year-olds of today are kind of as religious as the 60-year-olds in the 1970s."

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, has faith in the future of evangelical youth as well. Moore did not vote for Trump: He called the candidate a "Bronze Age warlord" for his attitude toward women. Trump, in turn, tweeted that Moore was "a nasty guy."

Moore understands that American young people generally are more tolerant on sexuality and marriage but says, "In my wing of evangelicalism, there is virtually no difference between young and old" on those matters. He denied that congregations are graying. He sees "really vibrant churches filled with young people exploding all over the country" and says he talks regularly with young people about the challenges of mingling faith with politics and secular life.

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Protesters call for a ruling on the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra case outside of the Supreme Court on June 25. The case involved a California law requiring anti-abortion pregnancy centers to provide information on abortion. Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty

"With Generation X, millennial and Generation Z evangelicals, there is a deep suspicion of any cynical use of religion for worldly purpose," Moore says. "So one has to motivate them differently than one would, say, the kind of television evangelist demographic that many secular people think of when they think of evangelicalism. When I am in a group of older evangelicals, my message is typically 'Seek first the kingdom of God. Political idolatry will kill us. Let's remember what is transcendently important.' But when I talk to younger evangelicals, I am dealing with the opposite problem and saying one cannot simply withdraw from political life in overreaction to some dispiriting actions that have taken place."

Evangelical youth are not susceptible to the "Make America great again" slogan, Moore says, because they've never lived in an America in which their brand of fervent Christianity was ascendant. "Young evangelicals do not feel as if they are losing anything in terms of American culture," he says. "They came of age at a time when following Christ seemed countercultural to them anyway. They never expected a nominally Christian culture in which being a church member would be the equivalent of being a good American."

Christopher Maloney, 32, was raised evangelical, stepped away from his faith and has released a documentary film on the exvangelical movement called In God We Trump. He disagrees with Moore that young evangelicals like him will come back to the fold.

"People around my age and younger were already deconstructing their evangelical faith in large numbers before Trump came along," he says. "What the 2016 election did was accelerate what was already happening. We had begun edging toward the doors, and when evangelicals embraced Trump we bolted outside. To be honest, I don't see a return of younger generations to the church as we know it."

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President Donald Trump attends the National Prayer Breakfast at a Washington, D.C., hotel on February 8. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty

They aren't interested, he says, in going to a central place to worship anymore, particularly when those fellow churchgoers are Trump supporters. "Millennials largely live by Christian ethics without any formal doctrine or dogma," he says. "We just don't need a religious structure to tell us how to be kind to one another."

And then there's the #MeToo movement, which rocked churches much as it has the rest of society, explaining in part why, according to Pew Research Center polling, Trump's support among white evangelical women dropped from 73 percent to 67 percent between 2017 and 2018.

The disaffected ranks include women like Dawne Marx, a 53-year-old Texas mother of five, who walked away from her church community in 2016 after decades of voting with the evangelical fold. "I was a single-issue voter, a pro-life voter," she tells Newsweek. "It was so nice and tidy. I didn't have to think about anything else."

Then she saw the images of family separations at the Mexican border and listened as the president casually dismissed the Saudi killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi:

"All of a sudden there is Trump. And children wrapped up in aluminum blankets in cages and this crass, crude man, on a daily basis, saying things like, 'OK, so a journalist got chopped up.' And he's saying, 'We have a $100 billion contract, and there are a lot of jobs on the line.' It's like: They chopped somebody up!"

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Children take part in a protest against U.S. immigration policies outside of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City on June 21. PEDRO PARDO/AFP/Getty

Marx, who used to be a registered Republican, spent the month before the midterms volunteering on phone banks for Texas Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke, the Democrat who lost to Republican incumbent Ted Cruz, an evangelical pastor's son.

Chastain has encountered hundreds of angry young evangelical women through his social network and podcast. "Women do not need to tolerate the sort of abuse they face when they remain in the evangelical communities," he says.

Moore voiced a similar view. "Many churches assumed sexual assault and sexual abuse were happening in other places but would never happen in the safe spaces of the church, and that simply is not true," he says. "One of the things we have seen over the past year is an amplified voice for evangelical women and girls who have survived sexual abuse and assault, and that has been a welcome development in evangelical church life."

'Stoke the Fear,' Lose the Future

To maintain the evangelical alliance, Republicans must keep evangelicals voting at higher rates than the rest of the population. And the party has a two-pronged strategy, says political scientist Paul Djupe, who, along with Ryan Claassen, just published The Evangelical Crackup? The Future of the Evangelical-Republican Coalition.

"One is to reinforce [evangelicals'] identity as Republicans by emphasizing the threat that traditionally Democratic groups present to them. This serves to insulate them from other sources of information, so they dismiss out of hand what the mainstream media says and what Democrats say, because it is a challenge to their identity. And two, they have to really mobilize that sense of fear and threat because that gets them to the polls."

But running on "fear and threat," while appealing to the older, white base, could have repercussions that might cost them at the polls if they alienate the one demographic with which they might find common ground—Hispanics. Some denominations at the heart of evangelicalism are seeing growth among Latinos while other demographic groups are leaving. The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, began to decline a decade ago after more than 200 years of growth, losing a million members since its peak membership of 16.3 million in 2003—numbers that are countered only by an increase in its Hispanic membership.

"If Republicans decided they needed to grow their base, the obvious choice would be to go to socially conservative Latinos," Djupe says. "That will mean some compromises on other issues, like the size of government and the safety net, that Republicans won't go along with. So, with a shrinking and increasingly fragile coalition, they have to stoke the fear."

Evangelical Christians Helped Elect Donald Trump, but Their Time as a Major Political Force Is Coming to an End