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Did Donald Trump Make the Church Great Again?
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Did Donald Trump Make the Church Great Again?

How unchurched Evangelicals are helping create a God-and-country lifestyle brand.

From the very beginning of the white Evangelical embrace of Donald Trump, there have been a series of raging debates about how that embrace would affect the church. Will the about-face on, say, the importance of character in politicians alienate people from the church? Will the policy gains from a Republican president be “worth” the partisan anger?

But here’s a question that wasn’t asked quite enough. Will Evangelical devotion to Trump change the nature of Evangelicalism itself? Studying American religion is a complex exercise, one that requires sorting through vast amounts of data. It can sometimes be difficult to draw hard-and-fast conclusions, but here’s one that seems a bit surprising:

Between 2016 and 2020, white Evangelicalism grew, and it likely grew because of Donald Trump

Before I tell you the rest of the story (and there is a rest of the story), let’s explain the basis for the statement above. On Wednesday, the Pew Research Center released the results of a study indicating that the percentage of white adults identifying as Evangelical or born-again grew between 2016 and 2020, and that growth was concentrated amongst Trump supporters:

Contrary to what some may have expected, a new analysis of Pew Research Center survey data finds that there has been no large-scale departure from evangelicalism among White Americans. In fact, there is solid evidence that White Americans who viewed Trump favorably and did not identify as evangelicals in 2016 were much more likely than White Trump skeptics to begin identifying as born-again or evangelical Protestants by 2020.

And no, the growth in Trump-supporting Evangelicals wasn’t offset by an exodus of Trump opponents:

Additionally, the surveys do not clearly show that White evangelicals who opposed Trump were significantly more likely than Trump supporters to drop the evangelical label. The data also shows that Trump’s electoral performance among White evangelicals was even stronger in 2020 than in 2016, partially due to increased support among White voters who described themselves as evangelicals throughout this period.

The bottom line is that the percentage of white Americans identifying as Evangelical grew from 25 to 29 percent between 2016 and 2020, powered mainly by the fact that 16 percent of Trump supporters who didn’t identify as Evangelical in 2016 started considering themselves Evangelical by 2020. 

(Nonwhite Evangelicals remained heavily opposed to Trump. According to Pew, he won only 30 percent of their vote in 2020.)

Does this mean that the Trump movement actually drew people to Christianity? At the individual level, it does happen. As I’ve argued before, millions of Evangelicals are annoyed and legitimately mystified by the argument that supporting Trump hurts the credibility of the church. The reason is simple—Republicans tend to live around Republicans. Supporting Trump in those circumstances isn’t alienating to your friends and neighbors. It’s a social lubricant. It facilitates the formation of personal relationships, and evangelism often springs forth from friendship.

At the same time, if you vocally oppose Trump in these communities, people will often throw up barriers. You’re an outsider, and they’ll keep you at arms length. Trust me, I know.

But setting aside the instances of individual conversions, what seems to be happening at scale isn’t so much the growth of white Evangelicalism as a religious movement, but rather the near-culmination of the decades-long transformation of white Evangelicalism from a mainly religious movement into a Republican political cause. 

Why do I say the transformation is political and not religious? A key metric here is church attendance. An increasing number of self-described Evangelicals go to church rarely or not at all. The numbers are remarkable. Here is Ryan Burge with the data:

This chart is equally interesting. It indicates that non church-attending Evangelicals are heavily weighted towards Republicans:

There isn’t a meaningful branch of Evangelical orthodoxy that is truly church-optional. Disconnection from the church doesn’t just mean disconnection from Christian community, it also frequently means disconnection from biblical literacy and Christian ethics.

I use these numbers not to say that there is a stark difference politically between church-attending white Evangelicals and those who never darken the doors. There’s not. Church-attending white Evangelicals turned out for Trump in huge numbers in 2020. Instead, it’s important to emphasize that Evangelicalism is now only partially a religious movement, and the religious component may now be smaller than the political. 

At this point, some of my Christian academic friends are throwing their pocket protectors across the room and yelling, “Definitions, David! Define your terms.” They’ll object to me using the term “Evangelical” to describe non church-attending nominal Christians. And they’ve got a point. 

There is more than one way to define an Evangelical, and those different ways directly influence the way we think of Evangelicalism itself. The methods used in the statistics above generally involve asking white Americans if they’re Evangelical or born-again. The person’s self-definition settles the question. If you say you’re Evangelical, then you’re Evangelical. There is no belief-based litmus test.

But there are other ways, including asking people what church they belong to or asking people what they believe and then determining, based on their answers, whether they fit within Evangelical religious traditions. For example, one way to determine whether any person (self-described Evangelical or not) has Evangelical beliefs is to ask if their beliefs and actions conform to the “Bebbington Quadrilateral,” the four common Evangelical beliefs identified by British Historian David Bebbington:

  1. Biblicism: Devotion to the Bible as God’s word;

  2. Crucicentrism: The centrality of the cross of Christ in evangelical teaching and preaching;

  3. Activism: Cooperating in the mission of God through evangelism and charitable works;

  4. Conversionism: The conviction that each person must turn from their sin, believe in the saving work of Christ, and commit themselves to a life of discipleship and service.

The Barna Research Group famously performed its own test in 2006, first asking if respondents identified as Evangelicals. A full 38 percent said yes. It also asked respondents if they agreed with nine distinct theological assertions common to Evangelicalism. Only 8 percent concurred. In 2015, NPR reported that the number was 6 percent. Theological Evangelicals are thus but a small subset of the broader movement.

At the risk of oversimplifying, let’s put Evangelicals in three buckets:

First, there is the universe of self-described Evangelicals of any race or ethnicity. This group is racially diverse and also politically and religiously heterodox. They share a self-definition, but they don’t necessarily share either a political or a theological worldview.

Next, there are self-identified white Evangelicals, who are the core constituency of the Republican Party. This group of Americans is religiously heterodox and ideologically uniform. This is the group of Evangelical Americans who receive the lion’s share of the nation’s attention, precisely because they represent the key to Republican power in the United States. Without white Evangelicals, the GOP would effectively cease to exist.

Finally, there is the much smaller group of Americans who are theologically Evangelical. They’re part of the Bebbington Quadrilateral, or those who satisfy the Barna test. They’re racially diverse, more politically heterodox than white Evangelicals alone, and religiously orthodox. They’re also the smallest of the three groups, by far, and—as a practical matter—don’t exercise decisive political power. They’re a minority of a minority. 

It is vitally important to understand these distinctions, in part because it can explain why Evangelical political action can be so cruel and often so disconnected from biblical ethics. Why? One answer is found in the simple reality that not only are vast numbers of white self-described Evangelicals unmoored from scriptural truth, they don’t know biblical ethics at all

An amusing Twitter anecdote illustrates the point. On Thursday, Beth Moore tweeted this: 

She clarified that she was referring Philippians 2:1-18, which famously begins like this:

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Russell Moore replied to Beth:

I know these are anecdotes, but it is still absolutely, 100 percent the truth that politicians and activists who seek to mobilize white Evangelicals are trying to mobilize millions of people who do not know or believe scripture and are thus not persuaded by appeals to scriptural principles. As political operators, those politicians and activists often feel they have to appeal to Fox News or talk radio talking points because the biblical argument simply will not resonate. It’s speaking to their audience in a foreign tongue. 

For example, I know there is large-scale churchgoing Christian resistance to vaccines, but why is there such profound religious resistance from white Evangelicals specifically when there is not one single significant denomination that theologically resists vaccines? Well, one reason, in addition to partisan politics, is that millions of self-described Evangelicals don’t have much clue about any of the teachings of the church. 

Combine the huge, unchurched “Evangelical” mass with a potent neo-fundamentalist movement that is steeped in angry Christian nationalism, and politics and religion can easily become a God-and-country branding exercise. And in that effort, the actual Bible can be an obstacle, not an asset. 

Why do I so often repeat verses like Micah 6:8 (“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God”)? Or Luke 6:28 (“bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you”)? Because I know there’s a very good chance that someone reading my work is hearing those verses and concepts for the very first time in their lives, even if they identify as Christian. 

The transformation of white Evangelicalism into a primarily political movement is a cause for deep and profound concern. It’s become a force that is helping fracture our nation and sicken its people, and its extreme elements have become instruments of cruelty and even violence.

That’s the despair. Where’s the hope? There is hope that those who identify as Christians and don’t yet connect with a Christian community are at least open to learning what Christianity means, including that it is a faith not rooted in fear. It is not rooted in anger. And no matter what any activist or pastor or politician says, it is not rooted in any American politician or any American political party. 

One last thing…

As I type this last paragraph, I’m sitting next to Jillian Edwards at The Gathering, a convening of Christian philanthropists. She’s a lovely person, and her music is a blessing. Enjoy:

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.