Are Evangelicals Exiting the Republican Party? | Opinion

In the hours following the 2020 presidential contest, even if the outcome wasn't yet clear, the exit polls were providing a snapshot of the electorate. One of the numbers that caught the media's attention was the "white evangelical" vote, which went 76 percent for Trump. That number was down 5 points from 2016.

Reactions were mixed. Most outlets interpreted the numbers as another strong evangelical turnout for Trump, often with implied condemnation of the voting bloc. Others looked at the same numbers and emphasized that evangelical support for Trump had slipped in 2020. Which is it—steady support or an evangelical slump?

Both interpretations have their merits, because the data are ambiguous. On the one hand, over the 16 years that "white evangelical" voters have been tracked, the percentage that cast their ballot for the Republican presidential candidate has not shifted appreciably: through five elections, the range has been between 74 percent (which McCain got in 2008) and 81 percent (which Trump got in 2016). The evidence of presidential exit polling suggests overall that not much changed this time around.

On the other hand, the slight decrease in evangelical support of the Republican nominee this cycle could indicate the beginning of cracks in the foundation. Some of the wavering support was likely related to Trump in particular. Perhaps the majority of evangelical Trump supporters, even those who told pollsters they were "for Trump," held a position that could be better characterized as "anti-anti-Trump." As Andrew Walker explained in February, "Between Never Trump and Always Trump is a third category: Reluctant Trump." Much of the evangelical support for Trump was reluctant, as much an anti-Biden and anti-Democrat vote. Some prominent evangelical groups and leaders vocally opposed Trump, including the editor of Christianity Today who, a year ago, called for Trump's removal.

In addition to the "Reluctant Trump" phenomenon, cracks in evangelical support of the Republican ticket may continue to widen for reasons not directly linked to the outgoing president. Even if it's hard to prove from the 2020 exit polls, we may expect to see a decline in evangelical support of traditionally conservative politics. The reasons for this potential decline are various but likely tied together.

Trump protest
People gather in support of President Donald Trump during a Stop the Steal rally on December 12, 2020 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/Getty

One reason is social and generational. Trump won the 50-and-over crowd, but Biden took those under 50. Evangelicals are not immune to that division. In contrast to older evangelicals, younger evangelicals lean less conservative and tend to identify less with Republicans. Younger evangelicals are also more supportive than their parents and grandparents of progressive causes such as same-sex marriage, liberal immigration policies, bigger government and stricter environmental legislation. Nor are evangelicals immune to the broader increase of "nones" among the young: there simply are fewer evangelicals per capita among millennials. Younger adults attend religious services less frequently than their elders. In other words, there is less commitment among the younger generations to traditional evangelical beliefs and practices. And that was already evident before the pandemic, from which church attendance will certainly not recover fully.

In addition to simple sociology, there are ideological forces at work as well. Some conservative Christian groups with a pacifist history refuse to vote, especially when the candidates and their parties leave so much to be desired. Theologically speaking, these groups follow the Mennonite approach to politics disseminated by John Howard Yoder (1927–1997) and his admirers. For Yoder, the Roman emperor Constantine, who legalized Christianity in the early fourth century, introduced a harmful joining of church and state that compromised the church's witness. So the Christian decision not to vote as a matter of conscience is predicated on a separation of church and state that sees the two communities in competition with one another in a zero-sum game. Allegiance to one allegedly rules out any allegiance to the other. According to this understanding, the pious Christian is to be apolitical and should not seek social change or improvement through civil or political processes. Stanley Hauerwas, the leading proponent of Yoder's general approach, has been enormously influential among evangelical leaders and church members.

Among evangelicals more open to political engagement, there may be an increasing exhaustion with culture wars and an accompanying acknowledgment of the waning influence of Christianity (especially of the evangelical variety) in public life in general. These evangelicals are close to giving up on political solutions. Many of them voted for Trump in hopes of gaining conservatives on the Supreme Court, and were repaid by Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch writing the opinion for Bostock v. Clayton County, a decision sure to curb evangelical religious freedom. If a disrupter like Trump couldn't gain meaningful ground in the culture wars, then it may not be doable. Rod Dreher and others have long argued that evangelicals have lost the culture wars and that the primary battle in the public square should be for the basics—religious liberty and freedom of speech. These Christian conservatives have not given up their conservatism, but only their will to engage battles in the secular political forum.

In sum, these factors may portend a coming decline of evangelical participation in conservative politics, which could spell disaster for the GOP.

It is worth noting, however, that the exit polls obscure an important reality by only tracking the "white evangelical" demographic and assuming its equivalence to "evangelical." The decline in Trump support among evangelicals noted by the exit polls applies only to white evangelicals. In fact, though, a quarter of U.S. evangelicals are non-white. How did these non-white evangelicals vote? Black evangelicals planned to go only 19 percent for Trump, but 58 percent of all other non-white evangelicals stated their support for Trump.

As many have pointed out, this election revealed that Republicans have an opportunity to build a new coalition of support that is more diverse than ever before. Despite the media and popular culture's best efforts, Trump's vote share increased significantly from 2016 to 2020 among each of the minority groups tracked in the polls—Black, Hispanic and Asian. Perhaps it is time for pollsters to start tracking "non-white evangelicals." That constituency could be what keeps the GOP competitive in the near future.

Keith D. Stanglin is Professor of Historical Theology at Austin Graduate School of Theology in Austin, Texas. His most recent book is After Arminius (Oxford University Press, 2020).

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.