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What Roy Moore’s loss can tell us about American evangelicals’ future

Moore’s defeat highlighted the changing face of evangelical America along racial and age lines.

Alabama GOP Senate Candidate Roy Moore Holds Election Night Party
Roy Moore lost in Alabama this week.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Alabama — a state that Donald Trump won by almost 28 percentage points — elected a Democratic senator in Tuesday’s special election, rejecting Trump’s preferred candidate, a Christian theocrat who was, in recent weeks, accused of sexual misconduct with numerous teenage girls decades ago. Many news outlets have suggested that that Alabama Christians have had, well, a “come to Jesus moment”; Christianity Today’s headline, for example, read "Roy Moore Was ‘a Bridge Too Far’ for Alabama Evangelicals."

But preliminary exit poll results don’t necessarily bear that out. White Christians who identified as “evangelical” or “born again” (a term common in the evangelical community) made up 44 percent of Alabama voters, and a full 80 percent voted for Moore (overall, 68 percent of white voters chose Moore). This was unsurprising, given that nearly all — 94 percent — of Moore voters reported not believing the allegations against him. For them, Moore’s alleged misdeeds were the product of a biased liberal media smear campaign and nothing more.

Instead, Jones’s victory came down to a number of other factors, one being the high turnout of black voters (they composed about 30 percent of Alabama voters, exceeding turnout in previous elections, according to early data), who voted overwhelmingly — 96 percent — for Jones. The Democrat also won over nearly two-thirds of voters ages 18 to 44, while 51 percent of 45- to 65-year-olds and 59 percent of those 65 and older voted for Moore. In other words, the election was decided more by the demographics of voter turnout than, say, white evangelicals being swayed by accusations of Moore’s alleged sexual misconduct.

Of course, some of Jones’s victory is likely due to the white evangelical voters who stayed home, or to the 23,000 write-in votes for other candidates — a number that exceeded Jones’s margin of victory. But by and large, white evangelicals who voted still voted for Moore.

But does that mean that Moore’s election doesn’t tell us anything new about evangelicals? Far from it. The very demographic breakdown that cost Moore the vote in an intensely conservative, evangelical-heavy state like Alabama is the same breakdown that is fracturing evangelical America as we know it. An evangelical church that is more ethnically diverse than it once was, that is struggling to maintain its connection with younger, often more socially liberal members, is a church that must change or die. Moore’s loss is proof of that.

The Alabama election can tell us something about the changing face of evangelicalism

Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and author of The End of White Christian America, has long argued that “white Christian America,” as a cultural institution, is in decline. Among mainline Protestants — evangelicals’ often more socially liberal counterparts — the decline is most striking: According to PRRI studies, white mainline Protestants made up 24 percent of the population in 1988, whereas by 2012 they made up just 14 percent.

But white evangelicals, too, have found their demographic dominance waning. Half of all new Southern Baptist churches — to name just one prominent evangelical umbrella group — are primarily nonwhite. Likewise, while seven in 10 seniors identify as white Christians, that demographic flips to just three in 10 for young adults. Demographic shifting, in other words, means that while white evangelicals might still vote for candidates like Moore, there will be fewer and fewer of them to vote.

In an interview with Vox on Wednesday, Jones cautioned against seeing Moore’s loss as justification of the idea that there’s been “a pullback among evangelicals.” Rather, voting patterns among white evangelicals "confirms the trajectory white evangelicals were on when they elected Trump.”

The takeaway from Moore’s loss, Jones says, is not that there’s a shift in evangelicals’ attitudes, but that the wider evangelical umbrella — comprising black, Latino, and white evangelicals — is increasingly fragmented. After all, he points out, Alabama is a “unique” state, in which at least 80 percent of Democrats and Republicans alike identify as Christian. “So what mattered really was which Christians came to the polls, not whether they would.”

He is critical of the Moore campaign’s narrative that "here is candidate Moore standing up for God and Christian principles against the other candidate who doesn’t.” Doug Jones is in fact a Methodist — a branch of mainline Protestantism. He was, in other words, propelled to victory by Christians, including many evangelicals. Just not white ones.

“What we have on display is this very vivid picture of how far apart black and white Christians are,” Robert Jones said. And he doesn’t see that changing anytime soon. Before Trump’s election, he says, the evangelical community had been very focused on racial reconciliation, with major evangelical leaders — like the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore — performing outreach across color lines. But, Jones said, "Trump has been a polarizing force between white and black Christians,” just like among white and black Americans in general. He added, “You see it in the data. You see it among leaders. And those divisions promise to get worse.”

He’s likewise less than optimistic about the possibility that younger evangelicals — who are more socially liberal than their older counterparts — will help bridge that gap. Rather, he says, white evangelical churches “are losing their younger members. If their younger members were to stay in the fold, they would play a role in shifting the view of the whole,” but all too often, younger evangelicals choose to leave their churches — if not religion itself — behind. “What we would expect of a normal generational effect [of young people’s influence] has been muted."

White, older evangelical voters may keep voting for Moore — or, at least, those with similar values and ideals. Nothing may change their minds. But the numbers are against them — especially if younger white evangelicals keep emptying the pews.