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From Trump's evangelicals to witches to Roy Moore: how religion shaped 2017

And what to expect from 2018.

Alabama GOP Senate Candidate Roy Moore Holds Election Night Party
Roy Moore was the subject of some of the biggest religion headlines in 2018.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

When it comes to religious issues in America, 2017 has been remarkable. Donald Trump, one of the most counterintuitively evangelical-backed presidential candidates in history, winning the white evangelical vote 4-1 despite being a twice-divorced, foul-mouthed billionaire New Yorker who’s bragged about his ability to sexually accost women and has been accused of sexual misconduct by several women. He took office in January, faith communities — from Christian evangelicals to Muslims to the spiritual but not religious — have been reckoning with the aftermath ever since.

In my first year at Vox, I’ve covered a range of religion stories — from witches casting spells against Trump to controversial debates over the alt-right at the annual Southern Baptist Convention conference. In that time, I’ve noticed a few distinct, related patterns emerging. Most notably, Christian nationalism is getting stronger — even as that nationalism has both caused divisions within the evangelical community and led to wider politico-religious divisions in America, cleaving white evangelicals, from, well, everybody else.

If we take away any lessons from the narratives of American religion in 2017, they should be these.

1) Religious minorities are experiencing high levels of discrimination

For those whose ethnoreligious identity has placed them outside those deemed acceptable by Christian nationalism, this year has been a difficult one. In the wake of Trump’s “Muslim ban,” Muslim Americans have reported a harsh political climate. According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), anti-Islamic incidents have soared compared even to 2016, which saw a 44 percent uptick in anti-Muslim hate crimes and a 57 percent increase in Islamophobia overall.

Preliminary studies suggested 2017 might be on track to have the most anti-Muslim attacks of any year on record in the US. (CAIR has not yet made final data for all of 2017 available.)

Likewise, this year has seen a striking rise in anti-Semitism, corresponding with the mainstream rise in neo-Nazi imagery and rhetoric among the alt-right and its white nationalist and white supremacist splinter groups.

Anti-Semitic incidents tracked by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), including vandalism, school bullying, and violence, have been steadily on the rise, growing by an astonishing 86 percent in the first quarter of 2017 alone, and a 67 percent increase throughout the year overall. A significant uptick occurred on college campuses and in schools. The ADL also found that more than 800 journalists received a total of 19,000 anti-Semitic messages on Twitter. Anti-Semitic and explicitly Nazi slogans made an appearance in Charlottesville, Virginia, where pro-Confederate white supremacists and neo-Nazis appeared to have engaged in an unholy alliance.

Are these issues of religious hatred or racial hatred? As Jenée Desmond-Harris wrote for Vox earlier this year, that technical distinction is almost irrelevant. Throughout his campaign and the first year of his presidency, Trump has targeted scapegoats he is able to code as “other” in order to consolidate his own power. His Christian nationalism has so thoroughly linked whiteness, (evangelical Protestant) Christianity, and “Americanness” that anyone who falls outside these categories is rendered suspicious. Like Putin in Russia, Trump’s strongman legitimacy rests on his targeting of any social group — be it LGBTQ individuals, people of color, or members of religious minorities — who do not fit within the scope of Christian nationalism.

What to expect in 2018: Both the ADL and CAIR’s data show a significant increase in anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic violence in 2017, which will likely be corroborated next year in the FBI’s annual hate crimes statistics report. This week, CAIR founder Ibrahim Hooper told the UK newspaper the Independent that he believes Islamophobia is worse in the US now than it was after 9/11. “It’s not just American Muslims [who feel anxious],” he said, pointing out that people of color more generally had a reason to worry: “We have seen white supremacists emboldened under Trump.”

Events like Charlottesville and the increased visibility of the alt-right (and their increasing willingness to adopt explicitly, rather than implicitly, neo-Nazi rhetoric and imagery) seem to have unleashed and legitimized violence among nationalists of all religious persuasions.

2) Evangelicals’ unity as a political bloc is shifting

It would be easy to declare 2017 an evangelical political triumph. After all, Trump, who famously garnered 81 percent of the white evangelical vote, made his way into office flanked by an unofficial evangelical advisory board and a group of senior-ranking politicians who regularly host Bible study in the corridors of power.

But that’s only part of the story.

Studies released throughout the year by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) reveal a number of demographic fault lines among evangelicals, largely along age and race. While seven out of 10 seniors identify as white Christian, that is true for just three in 10 young adults. Half of all new Southern Baptist churches — the largest evangelical group — are primarily nonwhite. There are now 6 million Hispanic evangelicals in America (many recent converts from Catholicism), and they represent a significant, powerful voting bloc, especially in states like Florida.

While polling data zeroing in on evangelicals of color is limited, we know that 58 percent of Protestants who did not identify as white evangelical (which would include, for example, black evangelicals and white mainline Protestants) voted for Trump — far less than 81. Overall, 74 percent of all nonwhite voters, regardless of religious identity, selected Hillary Clinton according to CNN exit polls; just 8 percent of black voters voted for Trump in 2016.

Younger evangelicals, furthermore, tend to be more socially liberal on traditional evangelical political hot-button issues like same-sex marriage.

The political story of evangelicals in 2017, therefore, has been a story of internal pressure and fracture.

Many evangelical communities are coming to terms with the fact that the demographics of their community are changing — that their communities are becoming more diverse, and that younger evangelicals have different public-facing priorities than seniors. So, too, are they reckoning with both the Trump presidency and its fallout.

In June, the Southern Baptist Convention, a body that represents nearly 40 percent of evangelical Protestants in America, passed a near-unanimous resolution condemning the alt-right, which reflects a wider effort across the SBC to contend with the difficult racist history of the church. In the past few years, the SBC has also apologized for its historical complicity in supporting slave owners, and condemned the flying of the Confederate flag as a symbolic and racist gesture. Russell Moore, one of the SBC’s most influential leaders and spokespeople, has continued to use his media platform as one of the most outspoken evangelical critics of Trump.

Online movements like #ChurchToo (inspired by the #MeToo movement) have called out what contributors see as sexual hypocrisy within the evangelical community. Campuses like Liberty University, a major Christian school with strong evangelical ties, have become ideological battlegrounds between pro- and anti-Trump camps, with one anti-Trump evangelical pastor and author booted from campus after offering to lead a prayer circle there, as just one example.

Some evangelical organizations and groups have responded by closing ranks, codifying what might be considered “traditional” positions. In August, a group of 150 prominent evangelical leaders signed the “Nashville Statement,” a document affirming marriage as exclusively between one man and one woman, and condemning Christians who did not speak out against it, a move decried by many progressive Christian circles. (Progressive Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, of Denver’s House of all Sinners and Saints, spearheaded an opposing, LGBTQ-affirming “Denver Statement” from her congregation.)

While the theology in the Nashville Statement is hardly new, cynics might see the statement as an effort to present a unified evangelical front on some issues, even as the signatories (who ranged from Moore to the decidedly pro-Trump James Dobson of Focus on the Family) varied widely when it came to their support for Trump.

And, of course, there was Roy Moore. His Alabama special election campaign, late in 2017, seemed to capture the religious zeitgeist, as evangelicals wrestled with the question of whether to support a man who had been accused of molesting teenage girls if it also meant supporting a pro-life, even theocratic candidate. The reasons for white evangelical support of Moore were varied, but the outcome of the election — which showed the growing influence of evangelicals of color — revealed that changing demographics, not changed minds, were responsible for Democrat Doug Jones’s victory.

What to expect in 2018: Throughout my reporting in 2017, one word was on everybody’s lips: schism. While a formal “schism” is impossible — there is no one single evangelical church, and thus no way for it to formally “break apart” — bigger divisions within the wider community seem all but inevitable.

Jonathan Martin, the anti-Trump pastor booted from Liberty University, put it most succinctly in an interview with Vox earlier this year: “I think the split is growing rapidly; I think it’s bordering on being a full-fledged schism.”

In an interview after Roy Moore’s defeat, PRRI CEO (and author of The End of White Christian America) Robert P. Jones said the same thing: "Trump has been a polarizing force between white and black Christians,” just like among white and black Americans in general. “You see it in the data. You see it among leaders. And those divisions promise to get worse.”

What might these divisions mean? For starters, potentially that the way politicians think about “evangelicals” as a voting bloc should adjust. While the rhetoric of white nationalism, and calls for a return to the “good old days,” might be appealing to some core voters, plenty of evangelicals might not be swayed by such arguments. It could also translate to the rise of millennial-backed churches that blend elements of evangelical worship with more socially liberal teachings on some issues.

Increasingly, the media will have to reckon with the fact that “left” and “right” as easy social designators themselves may become meaningless when it comes to the diversity of opinion among evangelicals. One evangelical might support same-sex marriage but is also anti-abortion; another might be anti-Trump or support progressive economic policies but still opposed to same-sex marriage. What issues this changing group of evangelicals will ultimately vote on will remain to be seen.

3) The “spiritual but not religious” are becoming a serious religious demographic

One of the most striking studies on religion this year came from PRRI. Christianity in America, it found, had become more politically polarized than ever, according to an analysis of several polls. More and more Americans say belief in God is not necessary for morality, but that uptick has taken place almost exclusively among Democrats. As traditionally social liberal (and Democratic) religious institutions, especially mainline Protestant churches, continue to decline in terms of numbers, many left-leaning individuals are seeking different kinds of institutions — and different kinds of spirituality.

The “nones” (or religiously unaffiliated) are now the single largest religious demographic among Democrats. Almost 20 percent of Americans overall identify as “spiritual but not religious” (although many of these still are not “religiously unaffiliated,” but rather vaguely identify with a faith tradition, such as mainline Protestantism or Judaism, even if they do not actively practice it).

In practice, this means many people are seeking spiritual fulfillment, or the communal experience offered by faith communities, through alternate avenues. Many of these people, furthermore, tend to skew younger and more socially liberal than their more religiously orthodox counterparts. Many of the “spiritual but not religious” people I interviewed this year, or those who practiced alternative forms of spirituality, cited the need for inclusive, LGBTQ-affirming spaces as something that had alienated them from the religions they had grown up near, and left them in search of something different.

For some, the rise of “witch culture” — a blending of political resistance and occult spirituality — has been an empowering development (as well as a means of hexing President Trump). For others, organizations like the explicitly anti-theistic, politically active Satanic Temple offer the benefits of community without the perceived drawback of dogma. For others, re-appropriating certain faith traditions is becoming more popular — one example being Jewish-influenced shabbat celebrations becoming in vogue among some millennial, secular Jews (and non-Jews), as Mattie Kahn observed for BuzzFeed.

For others still, “wellness,” yoga, meditation, or even CrossFit has come to function in people’s lives like a religion: providing community, regularity, and an avenue for mindfulness.

What to expect in 2018: As the boundaries between “religion,” “community,” “spiritual practice,” and “wellness” continue to shift, particularly for a younger and more socially liberal demographic, we can expect to see a rise in organizations, groups, movements, and communities that we might not typically consider “religious” occupying the social space traditionally granted to faith identity. How we talk about religion, faith, identity, and community may (or at least should) also become more nuanced, as we recognize that race, ethnic identity, political identity, and other cultural factors have just as much bearing on a person’s sense of religious identity as does dogma.

4) Christian nationalism is on the rise

Christian nationalism — a blend of jingoism, Christian rhetoric, and American exceptionalism that emphasizes America as God’s chosen country — is nothing new. And the current shape of Christian nationalism, with (mostly white) evangelical leaders clamoring for a seat at the political table, has been around for decades. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority — a group of evangelical leaders and lobbyists who sought to mobilize evangelical Christian voters and influence the shape of the Republican Party — often did so with the help of a no-less-robust media machine beginning in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), home of popular Christian news program The 700 Club, combines media savvy with Christian outreach, marketing Christianity as a product for self-improvement — something that former 700 Club producer Terry Heaton told Vox turned the Bible into a “sanctified self-help deal.”

But Trump’s presidency has bridged an alliance between the “old guard” of Christian nationalists (he’s won support from Robertson, Focus on the Family’s Dobson, and Falwell’s son and successor Jerry Falwell Jr.) and several younger, prominent evangelical figures associated with the “prosperity gospel” (such as Paula White). Together, they serve on Trump’s unofficial evangelical advisory council.

Many of these newer figures, including White and fellow prosperity preacher and board member Ken Copeland, belong to a loose umbrella group of evangelicals known as the “New Apostolic Reformation.” This group believes they are modern-day prophets, potentially possessed of healing and other spiritual powers. They also believe Christians should take over America, including the “seven mountains” of politics, education, arts, culture, and more, and run it in accordance with biblical law. They’re controversial, though, as many evangelicals from other traditions often see them as charlatans who claim suspicious amounts of spiritual power for personal gain.

Yet they have a whole media infrastructure to prop them up. CBN launched a new Facebook Live show, Faith Nation, which one could say doubles as a Trump administration propaganda mouthpiece, regularly casting Trump as a divinely chosen leader. Evangelical advisory board figures like Robert Jeffress, of First Baptist Dallas, lead pro-Trump rallies at their churches and imply that God has made Trump president.

Meanwhile, Trump continues to champion policies that support the Christian nationalist agenda, including an approach to geopolitics focused on hastening the end of days (and the second coming of Christ). Trump’s controversial decision to move the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, for example, was seen by many as a concession to camps within the evangelical community that see it as a necessary step on the road to Christian apocalypse.

How does this unlikely coterie hang together?

In our interview earlier this year, anti-Trump pastor Jonathan Martin attributed the strength of Trump’s evangelical advisory council to a belief, among evangelicals, that the ends — a stronger Christian presence in the White House — justify the means. “What’s driving it is not a theological conviction but pragmatism,” Martin said, “In that these evangelical leaders have a lot in common with President Trump."

Likewise, Heaton told Vox that he sees a direct line between the media manipulation he engaged in while working on the 700 Club and the shape of Christian nationalism today. “What we gave them was Republican Party politics,” he told me. “We had an explanation for all their fears — the lack of personal responsibility, big government, people trying to take from you what really belongs to you, self-responsibility, self-responsibility, self-responsibility. All those things worked very well with the type of Christianity we were preaching.”

What to expect in 2018: The rhetoric of Christian nationalism will only get stronger — especially if the Trump administration faces direct challenges to his presidency, like fallout from the Russia investigation. In that case, Trump will need to hold on to his core supporters, or convince them to take action on his behalf. By casting his political troubles as a cosmic battle between good and evil, Trump may be able to galvanize his base to do just that.

Trump hasn’t tacitly authorized widespread, wholesale violence against perceived “scapegoats” — yet (well, mostly not). But his muted response to violent instances like the bloody alt-right rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the summer suggest that he’s not averse to bloodshed — as long as his supporters are the ones winning the fight. While Christian nationalism was only one of many forms of nationalism on display in Charlottesville, Christian nationalism is, as ever, a fundamentally white phenomenon, rooted in a mythic privileging of the idealized past of “white,” great America.

As Patheos religion blogger Fred Clark puts it, “Here in America, after all, white supremacy and Christian nationalism have never been wholly distinct and cannot be wholly distinguished from one another. There’s maybe the thinnest old-moon crescent on either side of the Venn diagram of these two things, but for the most part they overlap as two different ways of describing the same ideology.”

There’s little reason to be optimistic in 2018

When it comes to the rise of Christian nationalism and the increase in hate crimes alike, there’s little reason to believe anything will necessarily improve next year. Even if the Trump administration does collapse, there is little reason to be optimistic about how it will affect ethnoreligious minorities in America.

The greatest trick Christian nationalists — or their more explicit cousins to the right, white nationalists — have up their sleeve is to claim they are being persecuted. Central to the narrative of Christian nationalism in the White House, no less than the explicitly white nationalist protests in Charlottesville, is the idea that the “liberal media” and “PC police” have banded together to silence the “true” speakers of truth — a dynamic that, in the rhetoric of Christian nationalism, turns into a full-on war between good and evil (just consider how Roy Moore’s defenders compared him to Jesus during the last days of his campaign).

Trump and his evangelical advisers have been seeding this rhetoric into his presidency since the beginning. And if Trump’s administration does genuinely come under threat, according to the narrative Trump and his administration have established, his supporters are, at least implicitly, divinely bound to rise up and defend it.

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