Books

The End of White Christian America and Trump's Desperate Promises to Save It

As Robert P. Jones shows in his illuminating new book, white Christians in America are in decline in numbers and influence, and many are both desperate and nostalgic for the past.

Photo Credit: a katz / Shutterstock.com

Robert P. Jones (or Robby, as most of his friends and colleagues call him) is the founding CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). Jones has earned a reputation as a sterling pollster of religious trends in America and how they affect politics, elections and the social fabric. His work is quoted by dozens of journalists and media. His new book, The End of White Christian America, has been called “quite possibly the most illuminating text for this election year.” The book offers some fascinating insights into the fears of white Christians in this election, as their presence and influence wanes, and why so many have flocked to Donald Trump.

AlterNet met up with Robby Jones in a Manhattan hotel lobby several weeks ago to explore his findings and discuss what they tell us about the election. (Read an excerpt from the book.)

Don Hazen: The best question I have to start with is what does your book mean for understanding Trump? What is the fundamental appeal? People are angry and aggrieved, and how does that translate? 

Robbie Jones: Ironically, Trump does not appear in the book. The Trump thing took off very fast. I was pretty skeptical that Trump was actually going to be able to appeal to the kind of white, evangelical crowd that he needed in order to win the GOP primaries. Cruz won Iowa. He was much more organized on the ground than Trump was. Then we had South Carolina, and Trump won South Carolina—a state where seven in 10 GOP primary voters are white evangelical Protestants and it's a Southern state. That was an eye-opener. 

DH: Say more.

RJ: It dawned on me that something had happened. Especially as the field got winnowed out. We had Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister himself. We had Santorum, who was the darling of the Christian right world. And when there was an "anybody but Romney" moment among evangelical leaders in 2012. Santorum was the guy who got the nod from them in the last election cycle.

DH: But not this time? 

RJ: Right, it was Trump who was resonating. I went back and looked at remarks Trump made at that evangelical college in Iowa in January. There it became really clear to me that he really wasn't making the case that he was an evangelical. Instead he was making the case that he saw their power slipping from the scene and that he was going to be the guy who would do something about it. He very explicitly said in that message in January in Iowa, "When I'm president, I'm going to restore power to the Christian churches. We're not going to be saying ‘Happy Holidays,’ we're going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas.’" 

DH: You have used the phrase "I'm going to turn the clock back." What are the grievances that he's able to tap into?

RJ: When I think and write about white Christian America in the book, I use the term to refer to this big cultural and political edifice that white Protestants built in this country. This world allowed white Protestants to operate with a whole set of unquestioned assumptions. It really is the era of June Cleaver and Leave It to Beaver and Andy Griffith. This sense of nostalgia is very powerful for white Christians, particularly conservative white Christians, who could see themselves in that mythical depiction of 1950s America, but who are having a more difficult time seeing their place in a rapidly changing country.

DH: Is that why you shifted the terminology from values to nostalgia?

RJ: Yeah, right. After Trump won over white evangelical Protestants in Iowa, I realized that one key to understanding Trump’s success is that he had successfully converted self-described “value voters” into what I described as “nostalgia voters.” I think that is really the key to understanding Trump’s support. What has become most important to the eight in ten white evangelical voters who are now saying they're voting for Trump over Clinton is that in Trump they see someone who is going to restore their vision of America. It is a vision which really does look like 1950s America. It's pre-civil rights, it's pre-women's rights, and it’s before immigration policy was opened up in the mid-1960s. And most of all, it’s a time when white Protestants were demographically in the majority. But just over the last two election cycles, we’ve gone from a majority white Christian country to a minority white Christian country, from 54 percent white Christian in 2008 to 45 percent white Christian today. So this nostalgic vision of the country harkens back to a mythical golden age when white Protestants really did hold sway in the country, both in terms of numbers and in terms of cultural power.

DH: In the eulogy section of your book you talk about the stages of grief. Is Trump interrupting the stage of grief for the evangelicals?

RJ: I think he actually recognizes the fact that they are grieving.

DH: He does that better than Cruz.

RJ: Trump did that much better than Cruz. Many evangelicals saw Cruz as conceding too much ground. That's a remarkable thing to say when you think about the positions he's staked out. But many evangelicals saw him charting out a respectable retreat strategy and that's not what they wanted. They saw Trump as someone storming the gates. For example, Cruz was a champion of broad religious exemptions to LGBT non-discrimination laws and opposed specific policies such as allowing transgender Americans access to bathrooms of their choice. But when you think about the logic of religious exemptions or these very specific issues, the whole idea around that strategy is, “Well, we lost the broader war on gay rights. Now we're going to fight these skirmishes to at least protect some territory as we retreat.” But the difference was, while Cruz was promising white evangelicals a bathroom fight, Trump was promising them a bar room fight. 

DH: Do you have a sense of how Trump evolved to capture the emotions of these people? How does he understand the messages that appeal to them? 

RJ: One thing Trump decided was that in order to shake things up is that he would not be tethered to policy. He's just decided, "I'm going to go for the rhetoric," and when you try to pin him down on policy you can't do it. 

His claim that "I'm going to restore power to the Christian churches when I'm president" is in the same category as "I'm going to build a wall and I'm going to make Mexico pay for it." It's the same kind of claim in a different arena.

The one policy proposal Trump has thrown out to white evangelical Protestants is a promise to repeal the Johnson amendment, which currently prohibits churches from endorsing political candidates. But this policy has never been that central to rank and file evangelicals. Trump’s real appeal to white evangelicals—how they hear “Make American Great Again”—is his promise to turn back the clock and restore their power.

DH: You mentioned narrow casting, which means being able to push a message to a very specific constituency. This enables shared fear to be easily spread among like-minded people. What are people most fearful of? And are the churches helping spread that fear?

Secondly, in terms of the numbers and the swing states, how threatening to the Democrats is Trump?

RJ: My best read is that what's happening at the level on the ground is a combined economic and cultural anxiety, particularly among white conservative evangelical Christians. In addition to the cultural fears, about eight in ten white evangelical Protestants say they still think we're in a recession today. They still feel economically distressed. I think that plays a role in this as well. It's the combined sense that evangelical Christian values have lost their power in the center of American culture and that working-class jobs that make ends meet are hard to come by. This is what you get when you look at contested states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, which have been hit hard economically and have been slow to recover from the recession. These heartland states have also been experiencing massive cultural change over the last decade. In Pennsylvania, for example, the proportion of white Christians has dropped from 66 percent to 57 percent between 2007 and today. It is this combination of economic and cultural anxiety that is the foundation of Trump’s appeal. 

In 2012, Barack Obama addressed the economic anxieties with the auto bailout, a concrete policy that bolstered his support among white working-class Americans particularly in the Midwest. It’s unclear to me that Hillary Clinton has something that immediate and concrete in her arsenal, and the cultural anxieties are stronger now than they were four years ago because of the continued acceleration of demographic and religious changes.

DH: Can you talk a little bit about how the reverse discrimination issue became so powerful and what exactly the data is? 

RJ: Two-thirds of white evangelicals say that they think discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks. Not just “a problem,” but “as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and minorities.” We see this phenomenon in polling questions, such as: "Who is government helping?" Many white working-class Americans and white evangelicals have this sense that the government's got everybody's back but theirs. It helps out wealthy corporations at the top and it helps out minorities at the bottom. It helps out gay and lesbian people. But here’s what they feel: "Who's got my back? Nobody." That's the general sense that we have.

DH: I recently saw a chart which shows the different programs people don't think are funded by the government which included Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security. In some cases in high numbers. Is that a psychological denial?

RJ: I think there's some disconnect and some lack of knowledge for sure. One thing that we've been seeing in our data is that there are more and more Americans today that don't identify themselves as middle class. Today, nearly half of Americans self-identify as either working class or lower class, compared to about four in 10 who identify as middle class. 

DH: It used to be everybody thought they were middle class.

RJ: I think that even for Democrats when there's a lot of rhetoric pitched at the middle class, there's a lot of white working-class Americans that think that just goes right over their heads and doesn't address their needs. This is all part of the big picture understanding that they are not middle class anymore—is the sense that their own power and influence—whether you're talking cultural influence, demographic influence—is really passing from the scene. They are also realizing that they're losing a big part of the next generation as a lot of their children have left town and left the church. Knowing that they're not hanging on to a significant number of the younger generation has heightened this sense of decline.

DH: Let's talk about the millennial tidal wave. Is it going to be enough for the Democrats? I don't want to make you a prognosticator, that is Silver’s job. But the millennial generation is huge. They're much more liberal, but clearly older people vote at higher levels.

RJ: That's right. That's the real challenge for Democrats. If this race weren't among only registered voters but among the general population, it would be a hands down landslide for Hillary Clinton. Against the backdrop of the demographic changes we are experiencing, the ballot box functions as a kind of time machine that, every election cycle, takes the demographics back to where they were a decade ago. In other words, there is a temporal lag between changes in the general population and when they show up at the ballot box, mainly because of higher voter registration and turnout rates among older white Christians.

DH: How long is the lag?

RJ: If you do the white Christians as a kind of metric, there are 45 percent white Christians in the country, and if the trend continues this year white Christians will make up 55 percent of the electorate.

DH: Maybe more so in Pennsylvania and Ohio?

RJ: Interestingly the declines we see among white Christians at the national level have been pretty consistent even if you look at Pennsylvania and Ohio, or at states such as North Carolina that have more recently become battleground states. The elements that are driving the decline are fairly consistent across states. On the one hand, young whites are disaffiliating from Christian churches. On the other hand, it's demographic changes such as Latino immigration and lower birth rates among whites. 

Using the proportion of the country that identifies as white and Christian is a good metric of demographic and cultural change. Today, there is a 10 percentage point difference between the proportion of white Christians in the general population, 45 percent, and what we project to be the composition of the electorate in 2016, 55 percent. If the trends continue, it'll be 2024—two election cycles from now—before the electorate looks like the general population today.

DH: Wow, 2024.

RJ: Even with this temporal lag, I argue in my book that Mitt Romney's campaign was the last one that could depend on a white Christian strategy—piling up super majorities of white Christian voters to offset the growing demographics.

DH: It didn't work.

RJ: No. It didn't work for Romney. He basically hit all his marks. He got as many evangelical votes as George W. Bush did. Turn out rate wasn't suppressed and he still lost. Trump looks like he's doubling down on that failed strategy so we'll have a real test case of the viability of that strategy on our hands.

DH: What about Bernie, did he get in any evangelical votes?

RJ: I've heard anecdotal evidence, but you don't really see it in the numbers. And for the most part, white evangelicals were a force only in the GOP primaries. White evangelicals since the ’80s, since Reagan, have become such an overwhelmingly Republican constitute that partisan identity is baked in. The idea that white evangelicals might move over to the Democratic Party any significant numbers is far-fetched. Evangelical identity is so linked to being Republican, that's really a hard move for people to make. That's going to be a really hard move particularly in this election because of the associations with Bill Clinton. It's that “great white switch” to Republicanism in the ’80s—to borrow a term from political scientists Merle and Earl Black—that has set the mold for most white evangelicals. For at least the last four presidential elections, white evangelicals have voted eight out of ten for Republican presidential candidates. 

DH: To wrap it up, let’s talk a little bit about polarization. Are we coming up to a moment where things are going to clash and fall apart? How bad could it get? How would it be acted out? What are any possible bridges? I know people asked you should the progressives be nicer to people who feel left out. Progressives aren't really that powerful either.

RJ: I think there's actually some policy bridges here. Bernie was on to some things I think. Even though his appeal as a candidate wasn't that great to evangelicals, I do think one of the things Trump has tapped that Bernie also tapped was on trade for example, particularly the sense that jobs are being shipped overseas. That this was a real problem for American workers, and the collapse of good working-class jobs is part of their sense of anxiety and nostalgia. The other word that I think is accurate is vulnerability. The sense that our jobs are vulnerable, our culture is vulnerable. Trump has, paradoxically, stepped in as the great protector to the vulnerable.

DH: He's invigorating anger though.

RJ That's right. The difference is, but the link here is ...

DH: A lot of these things can make you depressed. Some people get depressed, they start taking drugs. The number of white working-class men dying of alcoholism, drug addiction, heart attacks, all that. He must be tapping into the anger part of it.

RJ: Yes, I think that's right. The point I was trying to make though is I think there's a sense of wanting the government to have their back. Are they going to protect your job from being shipped overseas? The other places that I think are potentials for broad appeals are raising minimum wage, and paid family medical leave. All of our polls show huge bipartisan support for these kitchen table policies. Paid family leave, paid medical leave, raising minimal wage to $15 an hour, and some kind of more protection policies on trade deals. These are all places where you can get bipartisan support. These have the promise of forming the basis of an economic agenda aimed at working families.

DH: What about race in terms of polarization?

RJ: Race is tough.

DH: Why hasn't there been a better melding of the evangelical world since the churches are so, so segregated? The black churches seem to be as religious as the white churches are, but where's the connection?

RJ: There's not a lot of connection. As Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. noted, 11am on Sunday is the most segregated hour in America; this is still largely true. Ninety percent of churches today are still essentially mono-racial churches.

But I also show in my book that Americans are also still pretty segregated in their friendship circles. At PRRI, we asked respondents in a recent survey to name up to seven people with whom they've had conversations with about important matters in the last six months, and then we asked characteristics of those seven people. What's their race, their religion, who'd they vote for? Those kinds of questions. When we looked at race, the average white American’s close friendship network is 93 percent white and only 1 percent black. Three-quarters of whites reported that their close friendship circle is 100 percent white.

Our public schools have lost their ability to serve as broad centers of racial integration. That is the big hope, right? Our public school system would be the place where people mix. There were some gains after Brown v. Board of Education, but reports I've seen show that we have largely lost those gains in the last 10 or 15 years. I think it's pretty tough. 

So one pressing problem we have is a lack of institutional space where Americans from different racial and ethnic backgrounds can mix in a meaningful way—not just rub shoulders but mix in a meaningful way.

DH: It seems like only the workplace and you have to really work to make your workplace diverse.

RJ: Yes, it's a real challenge. I think it's one of the real issues that we face. You can see the inability for the whites to even see the realities that African Americans experience is a real problem.

DH: Back to reverse discrimination.

RJ: One notable leader within the white evangelical world is Russell Moore, the head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission at the Southern Baptist Convention. On the one hand, he is very much what you'd expect from a Southern Baptist leader on gay and lesbian issues. Hasn't really moved very much on those issues. But on the issue of race, he's been moving people quite far. He was in the mix when the Southern Baptist convention got around in the 1990s to apologize for slavery. More recently he was instrumental in the Southern Baptist convention condemning the use of the confederate flag in any of their churches or events. He wrote a remarkable article when South Carolina was having controversy about the confederate flag on the capital grounds. He wrote bluntly that is was time to face this issue squarely, particularly by listening to what black Christians were saying about the flag. He closed his column with a remarkable line that said, "The cross and the confederate flag cannot coexist without one setting fire to the other. It's time to take down that flag." From a sitting Southern Baptist leader based in Tennessee, that was a big deal.

He's been organizing some efforts to provide some cross-racial conversations that are pretty new. After Black Lives Matter and after Ferguson, he called out some conservative religious leaders like Franklin Graham for dismissing black leaders’ concerns. Moore essentially said, "If our black brothers and sisters are saying this is a problem, we should give ourselves some pause before we go jumping out saying that it's not a problem. We really need to listen to hear what they're saying."

DH: I usually ask this at the end: Is there any question that no one has asked that you want to answer?

RJ: I'm actually glad we talked about the race stuff. I haven't been asked a lot about the racial divides I highlight in the book. It's mostly been about politics or about Trump. I think in the end, whoever wins the election, the racial divide will still be with us.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.

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