These Are Not the Evangelicals You Are Looking For
White Evangelicals May Not Be the Story We Think They Are.
Ever since Donald Trump’s surprise win in 2016, I’ve heard that phrase over and overused by journalists, academics, pastors, writers, and others. It has been used to describe who was most responsible for putting Trump in the White House and it’s launched many a career as folk seeks to “understand” this segment that supposedly was so beneficial to Trump.
“White evangelical” has become a shorthand way of usually calling people racist, homophobic, nationalist, sexist, and every other bad attribute. It’s a way of saying that there is something wrong with these people and that they are to blame for what ails our society and are a threat to democracy itself.
But what if the picture is far more complicated? What if white evangelicals are not the dangerous monolith that we fear but are a group that is far more nuanced?
And why does it always seem that evangelicals are always assumed to be only white? Why are evangelicals of color practically erased from the consciousness of Americans?
Back in December, Musa al-Gharbi, a columnist for Interfaith America, wrote about the white evangelical vote and how it isn’t the big story we thought it was. al-Gharbi looked at the historical vote of evangelicals going back to the 1960s. Back then, they tended to vote for the Democrats, especially in 1964, when they voted against Republican Barry Goldwater. In 1968 and 72, they voted for Nixon because of their wariness of the counterculture even though they supported civil rights. In 1976 they moved to Carter, then Reagan in 1980. Evangelicals remained in the Republican column after Reagan though that support cooled. It peaked again with George W. Bush in 2000 and remained strong with the GOP ever since. al-Gharbi says that the real question isn’t the one we’ve been asking since 2016 which is, why are white evangelicals voting for Trump? The question shouldn’t be directed at white evangelicals but should be directed toward the people asking the question.
As historian Sam Haselby emphasized, given that white evangelical voting behavior has been so consistent in recent decades, the real question is not why they voted for Trump in 2016 and beyond (they cast ballots in similar proportions for the GOP in all other midterm and presidential elections since the turn of the century). Instead, the interesting question is, “Why have longstanding white evangelical voting behaviors suddenly became such an intense fixation among journalists and scholars after Trump?”
Many popular assumptions for explaining heightened contemporary levels of white evangelical support of the Republican Party are demonstrably false. For instance, given that the modern pattern began with the 2000 election, this support was clearly not a response to 9/11, the War on Terror, and a desire to carry out a crusade against Islam.
Those same journalists and scholars might believe that white evangelicals became racialized after the election of Barak Obama as the first African American to become President. Nope:
The white evangelical alliance with the GOP was also not a racialized response to Obama. In fact, the GOP did a little worse than average with white evangelicals in 2008, precisely because many decided to cast ballots for the nation’s first Black president (in spite of, or perhaps even because of, “extreme evangelical” Sarah Palin’s presence on the GOP ticket).
al-Ghabri notes that the white vote among Republicans declined in 2016, 2018, and 2020, which means that white evangelicals dropped Trump along with other voters over time.
But many still think that white evangelicals are outliers in comparison to the rest of society on issues of race or sexuality and that is true to a point. Surveys show that white evangelicals are far less racist or homophobic than their counterparts in the early 70s. However, the rest of society, especially highly educated white liberals have zoomed farther ahead on those issues, so it can seem that evangelicals are racists when the reality is far more complex.
But let’s jump to the conclusion here. What is driving the evangelical vote towards Trump and Trump-like candidates isn’t white evangelicals.
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It’s non-white evangelicals.
Are you surprised? Maybe you shouldn’t be. As America becomes browner, it would make sense that people of color would also become more conservative.al-Gharbi adds:
A small part of the reason evangelicalism is declining less rapidly than other Christian faith traditions is that many white Republicans have come to call themselves “evangelical” as an apparent sign of their political identity post-2016. However, the main factor allowing evangelicalism to persist in recent decades (relative to other forms of Christianity) has been shifts among non-whites. Indeed, white evangelicals comprise a significantly smaller share of evangelicals overall than they have in the past.
Critically, non-white evangelicals tend to be broadly aligned ideologically with white evangelical peers, and are even more conservative than whites on many issues. Non-white evangelicals also vote for the GOP at significantly higher level than other non-whites: they are about twice as likely to cast ballots for Republicans. There is reason to believe they will align even more tightly with the Republican Party in future cycles. Indeed, minority voters more broadly have been consistently migrating away from the Democratic Party consistently since 2010.
al-Gharbi repeats it again: the reason that the political right in America is so strong isn’t because of white evangelicals because their vote hasn’t really changed in over 20 years. It is non-white evangelicals that have been the drivers of the MAGA-fied Republican Party.
That leads to the question al-Gharbi has been asking throughout this article, why isn’t pundits and scholars so willing not to avoid talking about this fact?
I think the answer to me is very simple: narratives. We all have certain narratives, and biases really that we place on certain situations. A year ago, I wrote a story on the dustup involving National Public Radio and their Supreme Court Report Nina Totenberg. A story involving justices Neil Gorsuch and Sonia Sotomayor was written in a way as to suggest there was dissension among the respective conservative and liberal justices. But the reality was that there was no animosity between the two and they issued a joint press release to make it very clear they were friends, not enemies. But NPR and Totenberg never backed down on the story. As I wrote back then:
I think Totenburg and others wanted to see the Court as a place where there was partisan bickering going on. I’m not saying that they intentionally made up the story. I am saying that the pull was to write the story according to a certain narrative, in that the Court is a partisan place where conservatives are jerks just like conservatives outside of the Court.
Let’s look at another example: the Covington Catholic controversy. How many of us have seen that image of a Native American playing the drums in the face of a teen with a MAGA hat who seemed to be smirking? There was a lot of self-righteousness about who was right and who was wrong, but in time a more complicated picture emerged that showed all was not what it seemed. But many people had their narratives ready to go and they went to town.
Evangelicals, especially white evangelicals are seen as rather odd by progressive-leaning scholars and pundits. They seem to have weird views on abortion or sexuality. Progressives tend to think people of color are almost always progressive in their political and economic orientation. They are seen usually as victims of oppression by white Americans, and in the mind of some progressives, by those same white evangelicals. It’s weird enough to imagine non-white evangelicals (you rarely hear pundits, journalists, or scholars talk about non-white evangelicals), let alone imagine that they would vote for the guy that said during his campaign kickoff that Mexican immigrants were rapists. It’s easy to hate on white evangelicals because people think they fit the narrative buzzing in their brains. You might not like the one “Uncle Tom” that favors Trump, but when there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of people of color that support Trump, well the brain does not compute.
I should add that I am not sitting here above the fray as if I’ve never thought negatively about white evangelicals and not really paid attention to non-white Trump supporters. I am guilty on both accounts. Nor am I saying that all white evangelicals are innocent. But the wholesale painting of a group of people as basically fascists in our midst wasn’t always the simple story of good versus evil.
But to do this means asking tough questions. One of the surprising notes of the 2020 election was the number of non-whites that voted for Trump. Why did they vote for him in spite of his perceived racism? Why did they not vote for the Democrats and Joe Biden? What do that Democrats need to do to earn that non-white vote?
As the 2024 Presidential race starts to heat up it would behoove journalists and scholars that might have animosity towards white evangelicals and share affinities with non-whites to be willing to be critical and ask those hard questions. As al-Gharbi concludes in his essay, if we want to understand the political right in America today, it’s time to start asking some uncomfortable questions and set aside preconceived narratives.