The Political Implications of White Evangelical Decline
By Sarah Jones
A new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute shows white Evangelicals last year experienced “the most precipitous drop in affiliation” among American religious groups since 2006, shrinking from 23 percent of Americans that year to 14 percent in 2020. Their mainline Protestant peers, however, have enjoyed something of a resurgence, picking up members as Evangelical numbers declined.
There are inescapable political implications to any religious trend, and the fortunes of white Evangelicalism are no different. In particular, they present potential problems for the GOP, which still relies on white Evangelicals as a key portion of its base.
Among Republicans, two-thirds identify as white Christians of some persuasion, according to PRRI, with 29 percent identifying as white Evangelicals specifically, a decline from previous years that reflects the general downward slope of white Evangelical affiliation. People who identify themselves as white Evangelicals remain highly enthusiastic about Donald Trump. A recent Pew Research study found that he actually expanded his share of the Evangelical vote in 2020, rising from 77 percent in 2016 to 84 percent four years later.
While white Evangelicals are shrinking as a share of the population, they’re also getting older. PRRI reports that they “are the oldest religious group in the U.S., with a median age of 56, compared to the median age in the country of 47.” This isn’t exactly a sign that a religious tradition has a robust demographic future; it’s also, again, a problem for the GOP, if not an insurmountable one. One possibility is that Republicans will continue to make inroads with Hispanic voters, expanding its base to stave off irrelevance. Other possibilities are more concerning still. Confronted with a demographic crisis that affects its core constituencies, the party could double down on nationalist rhetoric and on voter suppression as a means of keeping power. Trumpism, in other words, may be the glue that keeps its base intact, even though it alienates a larger share of the population.
The Republican Party’s traditional coalition has far to go before it fades altogether; liberal triumphalism won’t win elections or protect anyone from the conservative movement’s encroaching hostility toward multiracial democracy. Demographics are not destiny after all. Even so, the decline of white Evangelicals sends a deeper message. The marriage of religion and politics — and quite specifically, religion and the nativist, far-right politics of the GOP — might help win an election here and there. In this case, however, temporal victories may come at an ecclesiastical cost. White Evangelicals haven’t lost their grip on political power quite yet, but their moral power is in question. As they shrink, they may lose their ability to fulfill the religious calling at the heart of their identity. If Evangelism is going to work, it requires some moral authority. Perhaps by siding with Trump, white Evangelicals are losing theirs, fast.