FDR famously declared that ” the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” It was 1933, and the country was still reeling from the Great Depression.
Almost 100 years later, the U.S. is dealing with a pandemic, but otherwise most of us are in far better shape than people were in 1933. (For that matter, there’s an argument to be made that if it wasn’t for the people holding an “unreasoning, unjustified” fear of vaccines, the pandemic would be largely behind us.) Our sour national mood is almost entirely attributable to a political environment characterized by fear–a fear that has led to Congressional gridlock and refusal to deal with reality.
A friend recently sent me the results of a poll conducted by Axios–results that puzzled her. The poll showed heightened levels of fear across the political spectrum, but far higher among those identifying as Republicans. She had a reasonable reaction: yes, rational Americans have reason to be fearful of Republicans’ persistent attacks on democratic institutions–but what do the Republicans fear? And why is fear so much higher among them?
Whatever they told the pollsters, I’m pretty sure that what most of today’s Republicans really fear is demographic change and the loss of White Christian privilege. It’s that fear that is motivating their frenzied attacks on democracy and “one person, one vote.”
There’s an enormous amount of research corroborating that conclusion. Over the past decade, as popular culture and media outlets have paid more attention to their demographic decline, Americans who equate “real Americanism” with being White and Christian have seen headlines describing the waning of their share of the population; in 2017, numerous outlets headlined the fact that the country’s White Christian population had dipped below 50% for the first time.
Or, as one 2019 headline put it, “White Christian America ended in the 2010s.”
The author of the article, Robert P. Jones, heads up the Public Religion Research Institute. He wrote
Of all the changes to identity and belonging, the century’s second decade has been particularly marked by a religious sea change. After more than two centuries of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant dominance, the United States has moved from being a majority-white Christian nation to one with no single racial and religious majority.
When I first identified this shift mid-decade in my 2016 book “The End of White Christian America,” I noted that the percentage of white Christians in the general population had dropped from 53 percent to 47 percent between 2010 and 2014 alone. Now, at the end of the decade, only 42 percent of Americans identify as white and Christian, representing a drop of 11 percentage points.
Jones recited the statistics: since 2010, the number of White evangelical Protestants has dropped from 21 percent of the population to 15 percent. Today they are roughly the same size as their white mainline Protestant cousins (15 percent vs. 16 percent, respectively).
In 2017, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that, for the first time, there was an absolute decline in the country’s white, non-Hispanic population. In other words, whites not only lost ground as a proportion of the population, but in actual numbers; there were more deaths than births. The U.S. Census Bureau now predicts that the U.S. will no longer be majority-white by 2045, and among children at every age below 10, whites are already a minority.
Research tells us that White Christians have become deeply anxious about the future and unrealistically nostalgic for the past. That anxiety and nostalgia “has fueled support for Trump’s “Make America Great Again” agenda, and not just among white evangelicals.”
Solid majorities of each white Christian subgroup voted for Trump in 2016 and, in the Public Religion Research Institute’s most recent American Values Survey, nearly 9 in 10 (88 percent) white evangelicals and approximately two-thirds of both white mainline Protestants (68 percent) and white Catholics (65 percent) oppose impeaching and removing him from office.
White Christian America’s attraction to Trump has little to do with his personality or character — a slim majority (52 percent) of white evangelicals, for example, say they wish his speech and behavior were more like previous presidents — and everything to do with something more important: their belief that “making America great again” necessarily entails restoring white Christian demographic and political dominance.
These are the fears that motivate today’s GOP base–its opposition to immigration and hysteria over “Critical Race Theory,” among other things, and its determination to retain social dominance and privilege no matter how unconstitutional or unChristian the means and no matter how damaging to the nation.
Fear is a potent motivator but a very bad navigator.