In Today’s Political Arena, White Evangelicals Aren’t the Big Story
December 20, 2022
I’m not an evangelical. I’m not even a Christian. Nonetheless, I have some deep concerns about the ways scholars and journalists have taken to discussing evangelicals – white evangelicals in particular – and their role in political life.
To help illustrate where I think the discourse often goes awry, let me flag some core principles of social science.
First, one cannot explain change by appeal to a constant. In elections, for instance, most voters have similar electoral behavior from one cycle to another. They consistently vote or regularly abstain. And if they vote, they tend to cast ballots for the same party over and over and down the line (this is just as true for voters who self-identify as “Independent” as it is of voters who explicitly align with a party). To explain why electoral cycles have different outcomes – to understand why a party will win big in one election and see significant losses the next – we need to bracket away those voters whose behavior didn’t change and focus tightly on those who did make different voting decisions from one year to the next.
Second, one gains more analytic leverage over broad social changes by focusing on populations that are growing and/or comprise majorities rather than focusing on populations that are smaller, less influential, or even declining. For instance, despite the fact that women have long voted at significantly higher rates and comprised a larger share of the total electorate – and are therefore objectively more significant in driving electoral outcomes as compared to men – most of the time when people try to understand political outcomes, especially political outcomes they dislike, they focus on how men voted. This holds even when shifts in the female vote were clearly more decisive (see: the 2016 U.S. presidential election). This is not an ideal way to understand political outcomes.
“If someone wants to understand whose voting behaviors generated a particular electoral result … focus on populations who comprise the largest or most rapidly growing shares of the electorate.”
In short, if someone wants to understand whose voting behaviors generated a particular electoral result, they should focus on populations who comprise the largest or most rapidly growing shares of the electorate and/or people whose votes shifted the most from one cycle to the next. Unfortunately, this is not what we commonly see in contemporary analyses of the role of religion in politics. Instead, there has been an intense and growing focus on evangelicals, and white evangelicals in particular, even though they are diminishing in number and have exercised remarkably static political behavior over the past two decades.
A Flat Line
It may seem hard to conceptualize today, but prior to the culture wars, white evangelical voters were broadly aligned with the Democratic Party. They shifted even more towards the Democrats in 1964, repudiating the racialized candidacy of Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 (who received just 38% of the evangelical vote). However, during the late ‘60s, evangelicals grew increasingly alienated from the Democratic Party. It was both the party of the Vietnam War (which they hated) and the party of counter-cultural student radicals (whose social vision they also rejected, even though many were supportive of civil rights, antipoverty and related campaigns).
In 1968 evangelicals cast their lots with Richard Nixon over Hubert Humphrey or George Wallace. In 1972, they doubled down on their support of Nixon to support his crusade against the hippies and academic counterculture. Nixon remains the high-water mark for the evangelical vote to this day.
After Nixon, however, evangelicals shifted towards the Democrats again to support Jimmy Carter, one of their own. In fact, it was Carter who really helped galvanize evangelicals as a political bloc and mobilize them as a political force. High turnout among evangelicals, and their rallying behind the Democratic candidate, were key to Carter’s electoral success in 1976. However, progressive and conservative evangelicals alike ultimately found themselves disappointed with President Carter. Many shifted towards Reagan in 1980. Still more followed suit in 1984.
After Reagan, evangelical enthusiasm for the GOP cooled significantly. Nonetheless, they still tended to vote Republican roughly 2:1. The candidacy of George W. Bush helped re-consolidate evangelicals within the Republican Party. White evangelicals supported Bush in the 2000 election at levels that exceeded Reagan and approached Nixon. And they’ve been casting ballots for Republicans roughly 4:1 ever since, in general elections and midterms alike.
Data: NYTimes Exit Polling 2004-2016, 2020.
Over the last two decades there has been very little movement with respect to the white evangelical vote. In fact, white evangelicals have emerged as electoral outliers precisely in terms of how static their voting behavior has been from one cycle to the next.
In virtue of the fact that their partisan vote allocation has been basically a flat line, looking to evangelical voters will have limited value for explaining why the GOP won in 2000-2004, yet lost from 2008-2012, then won in 2016 and lost in 2020 – let alone explaining Democrats’ extreme midterm losses in 2010 and 2014, significant GOP losses in 2018, and Democrats’ positive midterm showing in 2022.
Consistent Behaviors, Evolving Narratives
As historian Sam Haselby emphasized, given that white evangelical voting behavior has been so consistent in recent decades, the real question is not why they voted for Trump in 2016 and beyond (they cast ballots in similar proportions for the GOP in all other midterm and presidential elections since the turn of the century). Instead, the interesting question is, “Why have longstanding white evangelical voting behaviors suddenly became such an intense fixation among journalists and scholars after Trump?”
Many popular assumptions for explaining heightened contemporary levels of white evangelical support of the Republican Party are demonstrably false. For instance, given that the modern pattern began with the 2000 election, this support was clearly not a response to 9/11, the War on Terror, and a desire to carry out a crusade against Islam.
“Why have longstanding white evangelical voting behaviors suddenly became such an intense fixation among journalists and scholars after Trump?”
The white evangelical alliance with the GOP was also not a racialized response to Obama. In fact, the GOP did a little worse than average with white evangelicals in 2008, precisely because many decided to cast ballots for the nation’s first Black president (in spite of, or perhaps even because of, “extreme evangelical” Sarah Palin’s presence on the GOP ticket).
More broadly, the 4:1 alignment of white evangelicals with the Republican Party predated Obama by roughly a decade and continued after him largely unchanged.
Contrary to popular narratives, white evangelicals did not show extraordinary allegiance with Trump or his rhetoric. In fact, the GOP saw consistent declines with white voters in 2016, 2018 and 2020. As the chart above shows, white evangelicals were not an exception to this trend – they, too, began to abandon Trump over the course of his tenure.
Some have attempted to justify the intense focus on evangelicals by highlighting how their views on many issues are outliers compared to the rest of the population. However, this is not a new phenomenon: Differences between white evangelicals and white non-evangelical Christians and non-Christians became statistically pronounced in 1984 and has been a persistent reality ever since. In short, white evangelicals have been outliers in polling for nearly 40 years.
It is also critical to contextualize the reason white evangelicals are outliers. Overall, evangelicals today are clearly more progressive on issues like race, gender, sexuality than they were in Nixon’s time or even in Reagan’s (reflected, for instance, in the share of white evangelicals who express support for gay marriage or interracial unions or women in leadership roles). The reason white evangelicals seem like outliers is that the rest of the public shifted earlier and more dramatically on many of these issues than white evangelicals did. Hence, even though white evangelicals and the rest of society are trending in the same general direction, the gap between them has continued to grow.
Put another way, evangelicals have not become more racist or sexist. If they seem more racist or sexist to contemporary social observers it’s likely because said social observers (especially highly-educated white liberals) have become significantly more progressive on social issues in recent years while white evangelicals have remained much more consistent.
Likewise, in terms of their share of the electorate in recent cycles, commentators have marveled at how, as a result of their relative turnout advantage, white evangelicals have apparently managed to comprise nearly the same exact vote share over the past decade despite evangelicals themselves comprising a smaller share of the U.S. population.
But again, there is a sense in which these stories bury the lede: If white evangelicals comprise the same share of the electorate over the last decade and allocated their votes in roughly the same way across all cycles, then it is really difficult to explain any political changes in recent years by appealing to the white evangelical vote.
Across the board, white evangelicals stand out more for their consistency than change.
What We’re Not Talking About
Overall, evangelical Christianity is on the decline. However, evangelicalism is declining less rapidly than other strains of Christianity. Consequently, evangelical Christianity is having a growing influence on U.S. Christianity writ large than in previous eras, even if Christianity itself, and evangelicalism in particular, are losing influence and adherents overall.
A small part of the reason evangelicalism is declining less rapidly than other Christian faith traditions is that many white Republicans have come to call themselves “evangelical” as an apparent sign of their political identity post-2016. However, the main factor allowing evangelicalism to persist in recent decades (relative to other forms of Christianity) has been shifts among non-whites. Indeed, white evangelicals comprise a significantly smaller share of evangelicals overall than they have in the past.
Critically, non-white evangelicals tend to be broadly aligned ideologically with white evangelical peers, and are even more conservative than whites on many issues. Non-white evangelicals also vote for the GOP at significantly higher level than other non-whites: they are about twice as likely to cast ballots for Republicans. There is reason to believe they will align even more tightly with the Republican Party in future cycles. Indeed, minority voters more broadly have been consistently migrating away from the Democratic Party consistently since 2010.
Consequently, if we want to understand why the political right remains a viable or even growing electoral force – if we want to understand why evangelicalism continues to thrive as a political and ideological influence – it isn’t white voters who have been driving these trends. The static nature of their voting patterns paired with their diminishing numbers means that white evangelicals can’t serve as an explanation for recent electoral outcomes and trends that many liberals want to attribute to them.
We are therefore left with the question of why so many Democrat-aligned pundits and scholars have become so intensely focused on white evangelicals in recent years. I suspect part of the answer lies in what these narratives allow us to avoid discussing.
“If we want to understand why evangelicalism continues to thrive as a political and ideological influence – it isn’t white voters who have been driving these trends.”
Many social observers recognize that Democrats have a religion problem. However, most of us are loathe to recognize anything we view as a “problem” as being driven by people of color. In our preferred social narratives, problems are something that privileged groups (whites, men, cisgender heterosexuals, the wealthiest “1%” et al.) create, and further empowering people from less privileged groups is the natural solution to these problems. Consequently, insofar as we view the continued strength and contemporary resurgence of the religious right to be “bad” (as most of us do), we face enormous cognitive pressure to find a way to blame whites for this phenomenon. These dynamics are clearly on display in contemporary conversations about white evangelicalism.
Precisely what journalists and scholars are not talking about when they’re scapegoating white evangelicals for what we find “wrong” with America is the extent to which perceived unfortunate outcomes and adverse social trends might be increasingly driven by populations that people like us are loathe to critique (and whom we often view ourselves as allies or representatives of).
It’s much easier to villainize a group we don’t have affinity towards, and who are on the decline besides, than to turn the critical lens to those we personally sympathize or identify with. But if we want to understand the contemporary vitality of the religious right, we need to widen the lens beyond white evangelicals – unsettling as it might be for many of our preferred narratives about the world.
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Musa al-Gharbi is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia University and a Daniel Bell Research Fellow at Heterodox Academy. His work explores how people talk about, think about, and produce a shared understanding of various social phenomena. His first book, “We Have Never Been Woke: Social Justice Discourse, Inequality, and the Rise of a New Elite,” is forthcoming with Princeton University Press. Al-Gharbi is also committed to public engagement. He is a columnist with The Guardian, and his research and writing has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, The Atlantic, New Republic, The Nation and many other outlets. Readers can connect to his research, social media, and public writing via his website: musaalgharbi.com.