According to exit polls, 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. It’s safe to say that most of them are happy with the outcome. But there’s one question they may not have considered: What price did they pay for this victory?
An article by Robert P. Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute, gives us the answer. They won the election, and all it cost them was their convictions:
In 2011 and again just ahead of the 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. Back in 2011, consistent with the “values voter” brand’s insistence on the importance of personal character, only 30% of white evangelical Protestants agreed with this statement. But this year, 72% of white evangelicals now say they believe a candidate can build a kind of moral wall between his private and public life. In a shocking reversal, white evangelicals have gone 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. Today, in fact, they are more likely than Americans who claim no religious affiliation at all to say such a moral bifurcation is possible.
In just five years, white evangelicals have done a complete flip-flop on whether it’s necessary for a political leader to possess good moral character. It’s stunning evidence that their religious beliefs, which you might expect to be foundational to a person’s sense of identity, are actually superficial, and are being driven to and fro by whatever position gives them a partisan advantage:
This about-face is stunning, especially against the backdrop of white evangelicals’ outrage in response to Bill Clinton’s indiscretions in the 1990s. As Jonathan Merritt documented, Pat Robertson called Bill Clinton a “debauched, debased, and defamed” politician. But this year, Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network featured multiple friendly interviews with Trump — the candidate who bragged about sexually assaulting women and appeared on the cover of Playboy.
This is an illustration of something I wrote back in January:
[C]ontradictory though it sounds… evangelicalism isn’t especially concerned with beliefs, nor has it ever has been. Whether it’s Prohibition and communism, dancing and divorce, or abortion and gay marriage, evangelicals’ pet causes have changed radically over the decades. The issues themselves have only ever been important as a boundary marker, a way to delineate Us from Them.
Trump, the foul-mouthed, bullying, gaudily materialistic, multiply divorced tycoon who’s now the standard-bearer of white Christian America, is the most dramatic example of how evangelical goals and priorities have shifted radically over the decades. They want to imagine themselves as enduring and changeless, but in reality they’re leaves blown by the wind. When they had a Democratic president to oppose who had scandals in his personal life, private behavior was of the utmost importance to them. Now that it’s one of their own whose past behavior is deplorable, they couldn’t care less.
You might ask why this matters, given that white evangelicals got the victory they wanted in spite of their hypocrisy. In that respect, I agree – the upcoming Trump administration is going to do grievous harm to America that will persist for a long time. Pointing out the rank inconsistency of his supporters may be a small moral victory, but it does nothing to mitigate that.
But there are longer timescales to consider. American white evangelicals have yoked themselves firmly to Trump, and his record is now their record. Long after he’s out of office, his name will cast a shadow over them. America has been growing more diverse for decades, and will continue to do so. Yet evangelicalism has cemented itself to a name that’s synonymous with white supremacy. How do they think this will affect how other people view them? How do they think it will affect their ability to win converts? Their religion is already out of step with changing moral norms, and this election will supercharge that trend.
Most evangelicals probably don’t realize how radically their core convictions have shifted or what this means for their future. They’re well-practiced at rewriting their memories of the past to be consistent with whatever they believe at any given moment (see also: apocalypse real soon now-ism). But everyone else’s memories won’t fade so obligingly, especially those minority groups who stand to suffer renewed persecution over the next four years. It’s likely they’ll remember it vividly, and that means that in the long term, white evangelicalism has probably locked itself into a demographic downward spiral to extinction.