Faith or politics? Trump supporters swell evangelical pews.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File
With the White House in the background, Trump supporter Kelly Janowiak of Chicago prays with a conservative Christian evangelical group while holding an American flag, on a section of 16th Street renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, on Nov. 2, 2020, the day before the U.S. election.

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After years of stagnancy, the number of white Evangelicals surged from 25% of the adult U.S. population in 2016 to 29% in 2020, according to a Pew Research survey.

But this growth was fueled almost entirely by white supporters of former President Donald Trump, who began to embrace an evangelical identity after he was elected and accounted for the subgroup’s 6-point increase nationwide. Those who dropped the label, including the online movement of “#exvangelicals,” accounted for only a 2-point decrease.

Why We Wrote This

Many white Evangelicals think about their Christian identity as being explicitly tied to ideas of national identity. “Preserving or strengthening a commitment to religion is a way to strengthen an overall identity,” says a professor of modern Protestant theology.

“We can’t impute causality as to why the people who became evangelicals became evangelicals,” Gregory Smith, associate director of research at Pew, told the Deseret News. “But we can say, among Trump opponents, almost no one became evangelicals.”

Some evangelical leaders have decried the enthusiasm with which white Evangelicals have embraced the former president, wondering if the term itself has already come to simply refer to the Republican Party’s largest and most critical voting bloc. But others say the recent surge cannot be ascribed solely to party politics or the popularity of Mr. Trump.

“I think it’s pivotal that, no matter what your political affiliations are, not to approach this blindly, but to ask deep, resounding questions about morality and truth and justice,” says Dr. Corné Bekker, a theologian and pastor.

As a theologian within the richly varied subcultures that make up evangelical Protestantism, Corné Bekker devotes much of his thinking to the theme of Christian renewal.

It’s the primary lens through which he helps train a new generation of evangelical theologians and ministers, says Dr. Bekker, the dean of the School of Divinity at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The school’s doctoral programs employ a methodology that aims to “renew and revitalize” evangelical congregations across the country, while a “renewal theology” provides the primary context in which they study church history and the tenets of orthodox Christian faith.

“In my work with pastors these days, there seems to be a true reawakening happening,” he says. “And within the evangelical movement as a whole, there is this kind of desire for God to break into our world and empower Christians to share the good news, which we believe would facilitate not only personal transformation, but societal transformation towards a more just, compassionate world.”

Why We Wrote This

Many white Evangelicals think about their Christian identity as being explicitly tied to ideas of national identity. “Preserving or strengthening a commitment to religion is a way to strengthen an overall identity,” says a professor of modern Protestant theology.

So he wasn’t necessarily surprised when a much-discussed survey found the number of white evangelical Protestants has once again begun to grow. After years of stagnancy or even, as with most of the country’s religious groups, outright decline, the number of white Evangelicals surged from 25% of the adult U.S. population in 2016 to 29% in 2020, according to a Pew Research survey in September.

But this growth, the survey also found, was fueled almost entirely by white supporters of former President Donald Trump, who began to embrace an evangelical identity after he was elected. They accounted for the subgroup’s 6-point increase nationwide. Those who dropped the label – including the online movement of “#exvangelicals” who said they were troubled by the faith’s approach to politics and cultural issues – accounted for only a 2-point decrease.

“We can’t impute causality as to why the people who became evangelicals became evangelicals,” Gregory Smith, associate director of research at Pew, told the Deseret News. “But we can say, among Trump opponents, almost no one became evangelicals.”

Some evangelical leaders have decried the overwhelming enthusiasm with which white Evangelicals have embraced the former president, wondering, too, if the term itself has already come to simply refer to the Republican Party’s largest and most critical voting bloc.

“[What] seems to be happening at scale isn’t so much the growth of white Evangelicalism as a religious movement, but rather the near-culmination of the decades-long transformation of white Evangelicalism from a mainly religious movement into a Republican political cause,” wrote the evangelical thinker David French in a recent essay titled “Did Donald Trump Make the Church Great Again?”

“What holds us together are our core beliefs”

But Dr. Bekker and others say the recent surge in white Evangelicals cannot be ascribed solely to party politics or the popularity of Mr. Trump. 

At its spiritual core, he says, evangelicalism has long been rooted in four self-defining commitments: devotion to Scripture as God’s word, the centrality of Jesus Christ as the only true path to salvation, the necessity of a conversion experience, and a personal commitment to bear witness to the Gospel and support the most vulnerable people in society.

These traditions of American evangelicalism include a wide array of cultural groups, in fact. Most Black Protestant congregations maintain this conservative self-understanding, and the fastest-growing group of American Evangelicals today are Latinos who converted from Roman Catholicism, according to surveys.

“Many churches that I know ... have set time aside for prayer and fasting and self reflection and indeed asking the question, what does it truly, really mean to be a Christian?” Dr. Bekker says. “And amongst many evangelical churches we’ve seen promotion and adoption of multiethnic worship.”

He worships at New Life Church in Virginia Beach, founded in 1999 by two graduates of the Regent divinity program, a Black pastor and white pastor who together forged an intentionally diverse congregation that “consciously reflects our eternity in heaven,” its website says. “New Life is not a church built on sustaining a certain culture or politics; it is built on sustaining the Kingdom of God.” 

A congregation of 600 two decades ago, it has since grown to 6,000 members who meet on four separate campuses, the most recent established in 2017. Still, with congregations so diverse, there are frequent reminders that Black Protestants vote for Democrats in overwhelming numbers, while white Evangelicals remain the bedrock of the GOP.

“I will tell you, that’s a difficult thing to do at the end of every election cycle,” Dr. Bekker says. “We almost have to have a reconciliation meeting. But what holds us together are our core beliefs and our focus on transformation and renewal.”

At the same time, however, a significant number of Trump supporters who now identify as evangelical rarely if ever attend church services, suggesting different kinds of forces are at play, many observers say.

“White evangelicalism has always been tied to ideas of whiteness and white Christian nationalism,” says Kathryn Reklis, professor of modern Protestant theology at Fordham University in New York. “At different moments the racial nature of white evangelicalism has come into focus or receded.”

“A way to strengthen an overall identity”

But as the country has become increasingly less white and Christianity starts to recede as a dominant cultural force, many have felt embattled. “There are many more white Evangelicals who have been learning to think about their Christian identity as being explicitly tied to ideas of national and racial identity,” says Professor Reklis. “Now, preserving or strengthening a commitment to religion is a way to strengthen an overall identity.”

Evangelicalism’s theological exceptionalism, too, has long dovetailed with specific ideas of American exceptionalism, scholars say. In the 1970s, when white Evangelicals began to reemerge as a political and cultural force, they first organized not around efforts to oppose abortion or sexual revolution, but around efforts to preserve their segregated Christian academies after withdrawing from integrated public schools, historians say. 

“Evangelicals pride themselves on not being conformed to the world but on being transformed through Christ, but so often they appear to conform to the predominant cultural norms around them – Southern Christian support for slavery and opposition to racial integration, for example,” says John Vile, professor of political science at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro.

At the same time, white Evangelicals coalesced around the candidacy of Ronald Reagan, who, channeling their vision of a seamless religious and national exceptionalism with the Puritan image of “a city upon a hill,” began his campaign in the Mississippi county where three civil rights workers were murdered by white supremacists defending the old order. 

“It makes sense that card-carrying Trump supporters might become card-carrying Evangelicals,” says John Schmalzbauer, professor of Protestant studies at Missouri State University in Springfield. “Rather than seeing it as a late-breaking development, it is important to put it in the context of previous efforts to take white Southern evangelicalism’s racial and political message outside of the Bible Belt to the Midwest and even to the outer boroughs of New York City.”

“By demonizing Black Lives Matter and critical race theory from a national bully pulpit, Donald Trump channeled themes once voiced by Dixiecrat George Wallace, long before Southern white Protestants and their Northern allies cared about abortion or the Republican Party,” Professor Schmalzbauer says. “The first effort to take Southern white politics national revolved around race, not abortion. Trump is its heir.”

Though from a much different perspective, Dr. Bekker thinks it makes sense that Trump supporters would become Evangelicals. The former president, perhaps more than any other, gave his constituency of white Evangelicals his full-throated support, especially on matters of religious liberty. 

“But I think it’s pivotal that, no matter what your political affiliations are, not to approach this blindly, but to ask deep, resounding questions about morality and truth and justice,” he says.

Following Scripture, he says all Christians should “pray for those that are in leadership, honor them,” Dr. Bekker says. But the church should also “regain that prophetic role of speaking out and especially to those the most vulnerable in our society – and I would say starting with the unborn and going all the way up to the stranger amongst us.”

“And then, certainly, to do all this with kindness and gentleness and treating all people with dignity,” he says.

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