Election 2016 reveals turmoil in white Christian America

PHOENIX – A vitriolic presidential race and a shrinking white Christian demographic in the U.S. have fractured the decades-old voting bloc of the religious right.

In eight years, the percentage of people identifying as white and Christian in the U.S. population went from 54 percent to 43 percent, according to data collected by the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C. Robert P. Jones, chief executive of the institute and author of The Death of White Christian America, said the drop signals a “head-spinning amount of change” for a group that has historically enjoyed significant political clout.

“If you are a conservative white Christian in the country, just over the last two election cycles you have seen your numbers go from majority status to minority status,” Jones said. The shift also correlates with changes in support for issues such as same-sex marriage. In 2008, four in ten Americans supported it, but today that number has increased to six in ten.

At the same time, Jones said, Donald Trump’s Republican bid for president appears to be disrupting voting trends among Christians who have consistently leaned Republican for years.

“Typically we just see white Christians lining up with Republican candidates, and non-white Christians lining up with Democratic candidates, along with Jews and Hindus and the religiously unaffiliated,” Jones said. “There’s still some truth to that, but we’re seeing fractures in this white Christian coalition.”

Jones attributes the cracks to white Catholics, Mormons and mainline Protestants, whom HE SAID are reluctant to support Trump. The latest religion-institute polls show white evangelical voters continue to express support for the Republican candidate in what Jones calls “probably the paradox of this entire election.”

Understanding evangelical support of Trump

“I think the thorniest questions of this election has been, Why do white evangelical Protestants — these self-described ‘values voters’ from 2004 — why do they support Donald Trump?” Jones said. He was surprised to see that support continued even after tapes surfaced of the candidate making lewd comments about women. Trump characterized his remarks as regrettable “locker room talk” and has denied other accusations of sexual assault.

Brian Arnold, an evangelical theologian in Gilbert, brings up the same question. Religious voters who were outspoken about the importance of character during the Bill Clinton presidential scandals more than two decades, now show more leniency towards similar behavior from Trump. Arnold links the behavior to the marriage of evangelicalism and politics that occurred in the 1980s with the Moral Majority, when “evangelical” became synonymous with “Republican.”

“Somehow American evangelicals have got the impression that if Donald Trump doesn’t win, everything in their life is going to crumble,” Arnold said. “They have just not been able to divorce evangelicalism from Americanism — what I consider as ‘American idolatry’.”

Pointing to leaders like Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Arnold said the Trump-induced rifts in the white Christian coalition also extend to evangelicals.

“Many of us are still pro-life, many of us still have particular biblical views of marriage and sexuality, but we see things like immigration very differently,” Arnold said. “We see the Syrian refugee crisis as a way to actually welcome people in.”

Staying engaged during a “difficult” election

But even with Trump on one side espousing immigration policies Arnold calls “very out of line with Christian values,” some white Christian voters are still alienated by key aspects of Hillary Clinton’s Democratic party platform.

Catholic theologian Ryan Hanning, of the University of Mary in Tempe, said Catholic Americans have dealt with the issue for a long time.

“Neither of the parties fully represent the comprehensive vision (we) have of who the human person is and how the human person should be governed,” Hanning said. Bishops throughout the U.S. have consistently said the Democratic party does not support the Catholic anti-abortion ethic, Hanning said, and they have also been vocal that Trump fails to value immigrant and refugee life.

“The Church has been pretty clear that it is a difficult, difficult election for Catholics,” Hanning said. Rather than focusing solely on the presidential race, Hanning proposes high involvement in local elections, which can have a greater potential for positive impact in communities.

“I think what a beautiful message it would send to both parties if there’s a huge turnout but a very, very low vote for either (presidential) candidate,” Hanning said.

Arnold and Hanning emphasized the importance of religious engagement in elections, reflected in historical voter turnout numbers. White Evangelicals in 2012 made up 26 percent of voters while only representing 20 percent of the U.S. population, according to Jones.

But regardless of the outcome on Nov. 8, Arnold said the presidential election has “put a magnifying glass” on the growing divide in white Christian politics.

“What we’re seeing in evangelicals right now is going to be a great fracture,” Arnold said.

“And what maybe started as a small crack is opening wider and wider.”

– Cronkite News reporters Claire Caulfield and Dillion Eddie contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.

Thursday, Oct. 20, Robert P. Jones will join other panelists in a question-and-answer discussion, “Presidential Politics and the Making of American Identity.” The Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University is hosting the event from 4:30 to 6 p.m. in the Old Main Carson Ballroom on the Tempe campus.