I still remember those college dorm arguments about religion and politics–the debates over where to draw the line between purportedly religious beliefs, on the one hand, and devotion to political ideology, on the other. Back in those days, the focus was usually on Soviet Communism–was it a political identity? Or was commie “true belief” actually akin to religious devotion?
That debate has morphed over the years, especially for the growing number of Americans who tend to be skeptical of organized religion. If we didn’t have so many other, more pressing issues to argue about, I suspect that a recent report from Pew would trigger a new and acrimonious round.
Pew was investigating whether there had been an exodus from far-right Evangelical Protestant churches due to the support for Trump displayed by those denominations. They found no exodus–instead, the research uncovered “solid evidence” that White American “Trumpers” who weren’t Evangelical before 2016 “were much more likely than White Trump skeptics to begin identifying as born-again or evangelical Protestants by 2020.”
The data also shows that Trump’s electoral performance among White evangelicals was even stronger in 2020 than in 2016, partially due to increased support among White voters who described themselves as evangelicals throughout this period.
The study confirms what many of us have suspected: Americans are sorting ourselves into tribes, and one such tribe is composed of the “Christian” White Supremicists who identify with Trumpian Republicanism. These are the people who tell pollsters that only (White) Christians can be considered “real Americans.”
According to Christianity Today, they are increasingly likely to call themselves “political Evangelicals.”
The Survey Center on American Life –a project of the conservative American Enterprise Institute-reports that White Evangelical Republicans are far more inclined to believe in claims about the Deep State, to believe in QAnon, and to believe that antifa was responsible for the January 6th violence at the US Capitol. They also are more likely than other Republicans to accept Trump’s Big Lie:
Given how widely accepted the belief in voter fraud is among white evangelical Republicans, it is not surprising that they express far greater skepticism about the fairness of the 2020 election than their co-partisans. Only 27 percent of white evangelical Republicans say that Joe Biden’s election win was legitimate, compared to more than half (56 percent) of nonevangelical Republicans. Three-quarters (75 percent) of white evangelical Christian Republicans say Biden was not legitimately elected.
As an essay from the New York Times just after the 2020 election put it, White Evangelicals have now
blended so seamlessly into the broader Republican base that adherents and observers say that the label has become more a political than religious one. Electing Republicans has become, for many evangelicals, an end in itself.
Those of us on the outside of this Evangelical/GOP cult have marveled at the contortions required for “family values Christians”–a movement based on Christian principles and presumably devoted to concerns about character– to support someone like Donald Trump. The Times essay quoted a Pew researcher who cited data showing that” White Evangelical Protestants are not only Republican; they have been and continue to grow more Republican over time.” In 2018 and 2019, 78 percent of White Evangelical Protestants identified with the Republican Party; in 2000, that number was 56 percent.
Michele Margolis is a political scientist who studies how political affiliation influences religious beliefs and practices, “a cause-and-effect that reverses traditional assumptions.” People may like to believe their faith informs their vote, but her research shows it is often the other way around.
Charles Blow recently quoted another academic, Anthea Butler, for the observation that evangelicals may wrap themselves in religious rhetoric, but that what the movement has really been since the 1970s is “a political arm of the Republican Party.” Evangelicals now “use moral issues as a wedge to get political power.”
Butler concluded, “We need to quit coddling evangelicals and allowing them to use these moral issues to hide behind, because it’s very clear that that’s not what the issue is. The issue is that they believe in anti-vaxxing, they believe in racism, they believe in anti-immigration, they believe that only Republicans should run the country and they believe in white supremacy.”
Whether we consider these Evangelical denominations genuinely “religious” or see them as pseudo-religious political cults frantic to protect America’s longstanding White Christian dominance depends upon just how capacious our understanding of “politics” is, and how we define the difference between religious and secular commitments.
We might also think about the difference a label makes when these folks go to court to protect what they insist is their “religious liberty.”