Election 2016

Threatened to the Core by Fading Power and Demographics, White Christian America is Going All in on Trump

He needs them to win. They need him to survive.

Photo Credit: Image by Shutterstock, Copyright (c) Lev Radin

White Christian America sees Donald Trump as their modern Moses.

If he is elected president, his victory will owe a great deal to white Christians who have been drawn to him for months in a desperate bid to save their slice of America from shrinking demographics, vanishing values and fading political and cultural power.

It doesn’t matter that he’s no saint. What matters is Trump understands their big picture. Christian America feels threatened to the core as their numbers, morality, fealty to authority, and privilege is ebbing and being replaced by a majority that’s more pluralistic, multicultural, tolerant and demographically ascendant.

That’s the takeaway of pollsters who specialize in tracking religion and American life and were initially startled as Trump beat a handful of preachers or their sons in the early primaries, namely Scott Walker and Ted Cruz. It’s what’s behind new polls finding that Trump is now doing better than Mitt Romney was at this point in 2012 among white Christians, who are almost exclusively Republican. And it also explains why Trump's authoritarian, father-knows-best pronouncements deeply resonate with white Christians, who comprise roughly one in five Americans nationwide but are concentrated in higher numbers in several swing states that will determine who wins the presidency in 2016.

“One way to read this [election] is as a referendum on the death of white Christian America and its implications,” said Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, a national polling firm, and author of a new book, The End of White Christian America. “We may have a real test case on our hands, to see if that strategy of piling up supermajorities of white Christian voters to compensate for a growing electorate that looks very different from that is a winning strategy or not.”

Jones is an demographer and pollster who traces political and ecclesiastical trends. As he explained in a recent podcast for the Atlantic Monthly, where he is a contributor, Americans who self-identify as white Christians have seen their role and impact in American life shrink in recent decades, after more than two centuries of being at the center of political and cultural power. A mere eight years ago, if you added up all the white evangelicals, white mainline Protestants, orthodox Catholics, and white Christians together, they comprised 54 percent of the nation’s population. “That number today is 45 percent,” he said. “So in just the last two election cycles, we have moved… from a majority white Christian nation to a minority white Christian nation.”

That shrinking place of the nation’s population is the tip of a much larger cultural shift. White Christians are losing young people, those age 18-to-29 are less than half likely to identify that way as seniors aged 65 and older. They see institutions, like universities founded as Christian schools become unmoored as they embrace diversity. They see their definition of marriage being rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court and LGBT rights upheld. And they see the Americans in virtually every other faith and those who see themselves as secular more than religious gravitating to the Democratic Party.   

As Jones said on the Atlantic’s podcast this week:

“I think the thing that the Trump campaign and Trump saw early on is the deep anxieties that many white conservative Christian voters are feeling—not just economic anxiety. They are feeling that very much. Eight in 10 say that they think the country is still in a recession, for example. Not just that, but when they see their own numbers dwindling, and they’re having a difficult time hanging onto the next generation of the younger Christians in the country, and this real sense that the culture has moved way from their set of issues and values…

"I think Trump really caught that early on and he said things like when I’m president, I am going to restore power to the Christian churches; you can count on me; you’ll have a friend in the White House; I’m the only guy you’ll need. And when he said, Let’s make American great again, that 'again' piece was really referencing restoring power to the Christian churches. And for many white Christians who feel their power is waning and their numbers are dwindling, that’s a pretty powerful appeal. To not just say that we are going to carve out a respectable retreat strategy, which in many ways is how people read Ted Cruz’s campaign, but we’re going to actually turn back the clock. I think that’s really where Trump’s appeal has been. And Trump has really converted [Christian] values voters into nostalgia voters, looking right back to the 1950s.”

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This analysis is not unique. As the noted linguist-turned-political analyst George Lakoff told AlterNet earlier this week, almost everything that was heard at the Republican Convention in Cleveland, from the uncompromising positions uttered from the podium to the audience’s feral reactions, fit into a worldview that has long been part of the conservative white Christian identity, led by strong authoritarian father figures.  

Lakoff said, “If you look at the details of what that worldview is, it has a moral hierarchy of God above man, man above nature, the rich above the poor, employers above employees, adults above children, western culture above non-western culture, us above everybody else, men above women, whites above non-whites, Christians above non-Christians, etc. That’s part of their moral hierarchy and it follows from one principle: their authority is what’s important, and authority is based on what’s right, and authority must maintain authority, it cannot allow any dissent, period. It’s like a strict father family… It applies to every aspect of life, every issue, and it has to do with the main thing that they want, which is to have their worldview win. It’s win, win, win.”

What Jones said that’s most striking, and underscores that it is not hyperbole to say that white Christian America sees Trump as their last best hope to salvage their endangered identity as the necessary dominant culture in American life, concerns their voting record. Simply put, while the nation’s population and demographics have become diverse, low voter turnout—as seen in many 2016 presidential primaries—has enabled conservative Christians to play outsized roles, meaning their impact on who wins or loses is greater than their overall percentage in the general population.  

“You see the same [increasingly diverse demographic] trends [among voters], but it’s delayed,” Jones said. “And the main reason it’s delayed is because white Christian voters tend to be older. They tend to be fairly highly educated. And they tend to show up. And so it is that turnout effect that then keeps the electorate looking about like the population did a several years back. Right? In some ways we get a little bit of a time machine [going backward] in the electorate every time we go to the polls.”

That was exactly what was seen in the Republican primaries when most of the South voted on Super Tuesday and choose Trump over Ted Cruz, who touted his religious credentials as far more pure and moral. Jones said white Christian America chose Trump because they sensed he knew how their identity was endangered and he exhibited many values that they share.

“They weren’t really looking for a candidate that was going to fight out this issue and this issue, I think they were looking for a candidate that understood the bigger picture and that was about cultural decline, their central place in American culture,” he said. “I think many evangelicals are feeling this deep sense of loss, and crisis in the country, with same-sex marriage becoming the law of the land—that was a battle that they were all in on resisting; losing that not only in the courts but in the court of public opinion. I think with Cruz, they were looking to win the bathroom fight, but [with Trump] they were looking to win the barroom fight, and that was bigger for them.”

Turning to November’s general election, the white Christian vote is a big part of the Republican base in a number of 2016 so-called swing states, where the outcome will tip the balance toward the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win. According to a 2015 study by the University of Virginia Institute of Politics, white evangelical electorates comprise 30.0 to 49.9 percent of registered Republicans in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida—all 2016 swing states. They also comprise 50 to 69.9 percent of the GOP electorate in North Carolina, another presidential swing state.

Clearly, Trump’s choice of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, not just a founding member of the Tea Party as a member of Congress but an extreme religious conservative (evidenced by his support for a religious liberty bill that would legalize anti-LGBT discrimination and support for fetal rights at the cutting edge of the anti-choice movement) cements his bonafides among white religious conservatives who didn’t like the fact he’s been thrice married, previously pro-choice and owns and operates gambling casinos.

Whether Trump’s hard turn to the right and defense of white Christian America will be enough for him to win the presidency is an open question. But he can’t win the White House without white Christian America. And white Christian America sees the Trump-Pence ticket as their last best hope, a modern Moses who pledges to deliver them from a cursed land.   

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Steven Rosenfeld is a senior writing fellow of the Independent Media Institute, where he covers national political issues. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).