Back in September 2016, President Trump appeared on the Christian Broadcasting Network and said, “If we don’t win this election, you’ll never see another Republican and you’ll have a whole different church structure.”
Framing the presidential race as a “last chance” election was a successful strategy, but it’s more of a “death rattle” than a “resurrection” of white Christian America, writes PRRI’s Robert P. Jones in an excerpt of his new afterword of The End of White Christian America, published today in The Atlantic.
Below, Jones discusses the “shotgun wedding” between Trump and white evangelicals, a key part of his base:
The gravitational pull of nostalgia among white evangelicals was evident across a wide range of public opinion polling questions. Just a few weeks before the 2016 election, 66 percent of white evangelical Protestants said the growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens traditional American customs and values. Nearly as many favored building a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico (64 percent) and temporarily banning Muslims from other countries from entering the U.S. (62 percent). And 63 percent believed that today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. White evangelicals also stood out on broad questions about cultural change. While Americans overall were nearly evenly divided on whether American culture and way of life have changed for worse (51 percent) or better (48 percent) since the 1950s, white evangelical Protestants were likelier than any other demographic group to say things have changed for the worse since the 1950s (74 percent).
It is perhaps an open question whether Trump’s candidacy represents a true change in evangelicals’ DNA or whether it simply revealed previously hidden traits, but the shift from values to nostalgia voter has undoubtedly transformed their political ethics. The clearest example of evangelical ethics bending to fit the Trump presidency is white evangelicals’ abandonment of their conviction that personal character matters for elected officials. In 2011 and again just ahead of the 2016 election, PRRI asked Americans whether a political leader who committed an immoral act in his or her private life could nonetheless behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public life. In 2011, consistent with the “values voter” brand and the traditional evangelical emphasis on the importance of personal character, only 30 percent of white evangelical Protestants agreed with this statement. But with Trump at the top of the Republican ticket in 2016, 72 percent of white evangelicals said they believed a candidate could build a kind of moral dyke between his private and public life. In a head-spinning reversal, white evangelicals went from being the least likely to the most likely group to agree that a candidate’s personal immorality has no bearing on his performance in public office.
Fears about the present and a desire for a lost past, bound together with partisan attachments, ultimately overwhelmed values voters’ convictions. Rather than standing on principle and letting the chips fall where they may, white evangelicals fully embraced a consequentialist ethics that works backward from predetermined political ends, bending or even discarding core principles as needed to achieve a predetermined outcome. When it came to the 2016 election, the ends were deemed so necessary they justified the means. As he saw the polls trending for Trump in the last days before the election, in no small part because of the support of white evangelicals, Russell Moore was blunt, lamenting that Trump-supporting evangelicals had simply adopted “a political agenda in search of a gospel useful enough to accommodate it.”