EJ Dionne: The White Evangelical Mystery Is Not a Mystery
EJ DIONNE & AMBER HERRLE: There is something we know for certain before a single vote is counted in Tuesday’s election: White evangelical Christians will be one of the strongest Republican voting blocs in the country — perhaps the strongest — just as they have been among the most loyal supporters of President Donald Trump.
For many, and particularly for many Christians, the devotion of white evangelicals to Trump has been a mystery. Given his personal behavior and the many ways in which he violates basic norms of decency, how can voters committed to what they proudly call “traditional family values” stay so devoted to him? Trumpism is antithetical, you’d think, to how Christians are supposed to behave and how they are supposed to treat others, especially the least among us.
But enough time has passed that we should now be clear: “How can they be for Trump” is the wrong question. The right question is: “How can they not be for Trump?” It turns out that while white evangelicals might offer a variety of religious rationales for their political orientation, questions of religion may be the least important motivation behind their preferences and their votes.
White evangelicals are not “voting their values” nearly as much as they are voting other aspects of their identity. This group is older than the average American. Its members are disproportionately southern. And, by definition, they are white.
Older white southerners are overwhelmingly Republican and conservative. They have been voting for conservative Republicans since 1980, and their drift toward the GOP began in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson’s embrace of civil rights led so many white southerners to abandon the Democratic Party.
Let’s look first at the demography. The average white evangelical is older than the average American: In a survey by PRRI in cooperation with the Brookings Institution released last week, 45 percent of respondents were over 50 years old, while fully 60 percent of the white evangelicals surveyed were over 50.
Politically, white evangelicals speak with a distinct drawl: Half of the white evangelicals surveyed live in the south, compared to only 28 percent of all other whites.
And it should not surprise us that white evangelicals are somewhat more conservative on issues related to race. Let’s just look at two of many examples from the PRRI survey. Respondents were asked to assess the impact of the rise of non-white groups to majority status in the United States by 2045. Among white evangelicals, 54 percent said the demographic change would be negative, compared with 39 percent of other whites.
Asked if “recent killings of African-American men by police are isolated incidents or are they part of a broader pattern of how police treat African-Americans,” 71 percent of white evangelicals said they were isolated incidents compared with 51 percent of white non-evangelicals.
To be clear, nothing we say here is designed to denigrate the faith of evangelicals or to deny its authenticity. But it is important to recognize what these numbers suggest: In politics these days, religious convictions seem to be taking a back seat to identity, partisanship and ideology. While this is by no means unique to white evangelicals, it is certainly important to understanding their current commitments.
In discussing religion’s relationship to politics many years ago, C. S. Lewis warned about the primacy of party over faith. “Most of us are not really approaching the subject in order to find out what Christianity says,” Lewis said. “We are approaching it in the hope of finding support from Christianity for the views of our own party.”
These words may be even truer now than when Lewis first wrote them.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is university professor in the Foundations of Democracy and Culture at Georgetown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is the author most recently, with Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann, of One Nation After Trump.
Amber Herrle is a research assistant at the Brookings Institution.