By Sean Mungur

Republicans tried to make America a Christian nation. It backfired.

When we talk about the base of the Republican Party, we often focus on white evangelicals, because in recent decades they’ve held a lot of sway in the GOP. White evangelicals consistently supported Donald Trump throughout his presidency, and roughly 76% of them voted for him in the 2020 election. Around 72% of these voters believe they will lose influence under President Biden. 

Conversely, polls show Americans are swiftly losing their religion. The steep decline in self-proclaimed Christians could mean the Christian Right is losing influence in US politics, and there’s evidence their years of proselytizing is actually one of the reasons so many Americans are abandoning religion. 

White evangelicals started really embracing the Republican Party in the 1970s for multiple reasons. Evangelical leaders who hadn’t previously been very political started entering the public square due to fights over desegregation, the legalization of abortion, LGBTQ rights issues and opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment — which remains unratified in part because Phyllis Schlafly, a Catholic, deftly took her fight against the ERA to evangelical churches.  

David Campbell, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, tells The News Station it was really a “perfect storm.” The Moral Majority, as it was called, was founded in 1979 by Jerry Falwell Sr. to harness the political power of the Christian Right. 

There is considerable evidence… demonstrating that the rise of the ‘nones,’ as they’re often called—people who have no religious affiliation—is at least partly because of the Christian Right. It’s an allergic reaction to the Christian Right.

David Campbell

Since this relationship between white evangelicals and the Republican Party formed in the 1970s, it’s only grown stronger. Many were confused about how this group could support a man like Donald Trump in 2016, but Campbell says white evangelicals generally vote for whoever they think will help them achieve their political goals. 

“As evangelicalism as a movement became more associated with the Republican Party and just became more active in politics, many evangelical leaders also became known as political leaders,” Campbell says. “Evangelicals became, even in their own eyes, a political constituency. That leads to Donald Trump being able to treat this group in a very transactional way.”

Thomas Kidd, a distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, echoes this sentiment.

“Many white evangelicals definitely believe that they have had access to political power in the GOP and that it would be foolish to give that up, especially in light of Supreme Court nominees and issues about religious liberty and abortion,” Kidd tells The News Station. “Many evangelical voters were not fans of Donald Trump personally, but they voted for him in a transactional way, believing (correctly) that he would make more evangelical-friendly court appointments than would Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden.”

White evangelicals have long felt they’re “under attack, besieged, discriminated against,” Campbell says.

Donald Trump appealed to them by promising to make sure Christianity was privileged above other religions. His message was the message of white Christian supremacy. 

Americans becoming less religious — PEW reveals a more than 10% decline in religious identification in the past decade alone — only feeds this voting bloc’s fears. Ironically, one of the reasons Americans are becoming less religious is because they associate being religious with being a conservative.

“There is considerable evidence… demonstrating that the rise of the ‘nones,’ as they’re often called—people who have no religious affiliation—is at least partly because of the Christian Right,” Campbell says. “It’s an allergic reaction to the Christian Right. For many Americans, they associate religion with conservative politics, and if they’re not conservative, they’re not Republican, they don’t want to be thought of as religious and don’t think of themselves as religious.”

This change in how Americans identify can’t solely be tied to younger people being less religious than older people, either. Campbell says the numbers show a big part of this change is coming from previously religious people walking away from organized religion.

For the future, the most interesting dynamic is not among white evangelicals, but Hispanic evangelicals, who are by far the fastest-growing segment of American evangelicalism, and their voting allegiances are far less clear than they are for white evangelicals.

Thomas Kidd

If America is becoming less religious, one would imagine the Republican Party’s commitment to a religious message is eventually going to harm them electorally. Kidd says that may partially depend on if the GOP can find a way to court Hispanic evangelicals. 

“For the future, the most interesting dynamic is not among white evangelicals, but Hispanic evangelicals, who are by far the fastest-growing segment of American evangelicalism, and their voting allegiances are far less clear than they are for white evangelicals,” Kidd tells The News Station. “If either party can attract a strong majority of Hispanic evangelical voters, it would be a major boon for their future prospects among religious voters.”

Campbell believes the GOP will eventually have to find a way to compete in a more secular country. He’s been following the numbers, and it doesn’t look like the decline in the number of Americans who say they’re religious is stopping.

Things will likely level out at some point, but that hasn’t happened yet. 

Thor Benson is an independent journalist who has contributed to The News Station, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone and many other publications. Find him on Twitter at @thor_benson.

Thor Benson is an independent journalist who has contributed to The News Station, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone and many other publications. Find him on Twitter at @thor_benson.

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