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The GOP can’t rely on white evangelicals forever

White evangelicals are still Trump’s base. But they’re in decline.

President Trump And First Lady Host Dinner With Evangelical Leadership
Trump has frequently courted white evangelical voters.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

White evangelicals are still turning out in overwhelming numbers for Republican candidates — but not to the extent that they did for Donald Trump in 2016.

Back then, white evangelicals were integral to Trump’s win, with 81 percent voting for him. But the midterms tell a more complicated story. On the one hand, evangelical turnout is increasingly high, and evangelical support for Republicans remains strong, with the core of Trump’s base more galvanized than ever. On the other hand, a slight decrease in white evangelical support for the Republican Party overall, combined with a small but significant defection among white evangelicals in recent years, suggest that down the line, white evangelicals could become a less reliable force for the GOP — and for Trump in 2020.

According to preliminary exit polling results from CNN, 75 percent of white evangelicals told pollsters they voted for Republican candidates on their respective tickets, a slight downturn from the 2016 presidential numbers.

As writer and scholar of American religion Diana Butler Bass pointed out to Vox, that downturn should be weighed against another factor: the decreasing white evangelical population. For instance, between 2016 and 2018, the percentage of white evangelicals went from 17 percent to 15.3 percent.

“The percentage of white evangelicals is declining,” she told Vox on Tuesday, “so it represents a return to ‘normal’ white evangelical voting levels in a shrinking demographic.” While some of that decline is due to an aging population — 62 percent of white evangelicals are over the age of 50 — some of that, too, is due to younger evangelicals actively leaving the church.

Many younger evangelicals, disillusioned with what they see as the rise of Christian nationalism in America, are leaving their churches. Some are relocating to more progressive mainline Protestant traditions, or leaving religion altogether. A Pew Research Center poll found that nearly one-third of young adults raised in white evangelical households leave their faith behind.

For now, at least, plenty of evangelical leaders are leaning into the conflation of nationalism and Trumpism and Christian identity — and are willing to reinterpret the words of Jesus in the process. Just this week, Liberty University president (and Trump supporter) Jerry Falwell Jr. told the New York Times that he doesn’t “look to the teachings of Jesus for what my political beliefs should be.” This was a stunning about-face for a man who has previously made Christian opposition to LGBTQ identity — something more conservative Christians interpret as condemned by Jesus in the Bible — a mainstay of his public political identity.

For now, though, white evangelical voters are also emphasizing turnout. As Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Initiative (PRRI), pointed out on Twitter on Wednesday, white evangelicals comprised 26 percent of voter turnout in this election, despite only being 15.3 percent of the general US population. They have, Jones says, consistently comprised 26 percent of turnout in every election since 2012, when evangelicals made up 20 percent of the US population.

“White evangelicals continue to be one of the most reliable voting groups in the country. Even as their numbers are shrinking in the general population, their affinity with and enthusiasm for President Trump has so far allowed them to hold their numbers steady at the ballot box,” Jones told Vox in an email.

Still, it’s worth noting that some evangelical voters have reported voting for Democrats this year out of disillusionment with the Trump administration and its policies. Organizations like Vote Common Good, a largely evangelical Christian organization that advocates for progressive candidates, have made some inroads in courting “values voters” outside traditional evangelical Christian identity issues like abortion and same-sex marriage — by prioritizing values like caring for the poor and refugees instead.

Its founder, Doug Pagitt, told Vox in a statement, “Despite what you may have heard about Evangelicals, many of us broke off ... from our reflexive partisan habits — and voted for candidates who pledged to govern for the good of all people.”

Vote Common Good may have had traction. In one of the districts where they campaigned, Oklahoma’s Fifth Congressional District, Democrat Kendra Horn defeated incumbent Republican Rep. Steve Russell in an extremely close race. Russell won the seat by 20 points in 2016.

The future of the 2020 election is murky

It’s unclear what the slight dip in white evangelicals’ support for Republican candidates may mean for Trump in the 2020 presidential election. As of October, a full 71 percent of evangelicals reported supporting the job Trump was doing as president. Overall, white evangelicals remain the only religious demographic to support Trump’s presidency. And plenty may support him no matter what the next two years of his presidency bring; a full 25 percent of white evangelicals told PRRI that nothing could change their support for him.

Overall, the decline in both white evangelical support for the GOP and the number of self-identified white evangelicals in general may not be statistically significant when it comes to the outcome of the 2020 election. The massive fracture within the white evangelical community over Trump that some (including me) expected has not occurred.

But a small splinter group of white evangelicals defecting from the GOP, combined with wider demographic changes in the number of white evangelicals overall, may herald the weakening of the white evangelical-GOP alliance over time. As Jones pointed out, “[T]here will ultimately be a breaking point to just how overrepresented this group can remain as the demographics continue to shift.”

Maybe not in 2020, but potentially in the near future.