Ed Stetzer is grappling with a moral crisis. Stetzer, the director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, is preaching the Gospel to his fellow Christians. And they’re not listening. “White evangelicals are highly motivated to support President Donald Trump around the issue of immigration,” Stetzer, a Trump critic, wrote in Vox on the morning of the midterms. The next day, after reading exit polls, Stetzer lamented that the president’s scare talk about migrants had proved once again to be a winner with white evangelicals. “I’d hoped it wouldn’t be,” Stetzer told NPR. “But it was.”
Stetzer and other evangelical leaders are in the business of saving souls. But today, the souls in peril are in their own flock. Nationalism, tribalism, and a corrupt, ruthless Republican president are reviving old demons and summoning new ones. The “family values” concerns of 10, 20, or 30 years ago—homosexuality, premarital sex, women in the military—have been overtaken by a different set of moral issues, often derided by the right as “social justice.” On these emerging issues, white evangelical Protestants—for simplicity’s sake, I’ll call them WEPs—are, more than any other religious constituency, standing on the wrong side. The problem isn’t that they’re imposing their morality on others. The problem is that what they’re imposing isn’t morality. It’s wickedness.
This isn’t true of all white evangelicals, much less all Christians. It would be false and reckless to condemn all WEPs, just as it’s false and reckless to condemn all Muslims or Jews. The people doing the best work against perversions of Islam are Muslims, and the people doing the best work against perversions of evangelical Christianity are evangelicals like Stetzer. I’ve met some of them through the Faith Angle Forum, a project of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. At a conference last week, I sat with them as we studied surveys of religious voters. Stetzer is right to worry. The numbers are bad.
WEPs are one of Trump’s most loyal constituencies. Eighty-one percent of them voted for him in 2016. That’s 20 percentage points higher than Trump’s vote share among any other religious group. It’s higher than the percentage of WEPs who voted for George W. Bush, John McCain, or Mitt Romney. The wide gap between WEPs and other faith communities in support for Trump persists to this day. Every other group, on balance, views Trump unfavorably. WEPs, by a ratio of 2 to 1, view him favorably.
Many Americans reject Trump because of his meanness, his misogyny, his ethnic demagoguery, and his squalid and abusive personal behavior. But most WEPs don’t. In a September poll for the Public Religion Research Institute, two-thirds of white Catholics and white mainline Protestants agreed that Trump had “damaged the dignity of the presidency.” Most WEPs said he hadn’t. In an ABC News/Washington Post survey taken in August, most whites agreed that Trump was guilty of a crime if it was true that he had directed his then-lawyer Michael Cohen to “influence the 2016 election by arranging to pay off two women who said they had affairs with Trump.” Trump’s core constituency, white men without a college degree, also agreed. But most WEPs didn’t.
To accommodate Trump, white evangelicals have retreated from moral judgment of him.
In 2011, a PRRI survey asked whether “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” At that point, two years into Barack Obama’s presidency, only 30 percent of WEPs said yes. But in October 2016, after the release of Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood tape, 72 percent of WEPs said yes. The reversal among WEPs was twice as big as similar shifts among Catholics and white mainline Protestants. In a May poll commissioned by the Billy Graham Center, nearly half of black evangelicals said personal character had influenced their voting decisions in the 2016 presidential election. Fewer than 30 percent of white evangelicals said the same.
Many WEPs haven’t just surrendered moral judgment. They’ve abdicated social responsibility. Compared with other whites, they’re more resistant to federal spending on poor people. The charitable explanation for this gap is that white evangelicals are skeptical about federal spending, not about helping the poor. But even when survey questions focus on help, not on spending, they’re unmoved. The BGC poll asked respondents to choose, from a list of 12 issues and traits, which was most important in determining how they voted in 2016. Among black and Hispanic evangelicals, a candidate’s “ability to help those in need” was the second or third most commonly named factor. Among white evangelicals, it ranked almost dead last.
WEPs are also reluctant to acknowledge racism. The September PRRI poll asked whether recent police shootings of black men were “isolated incidents” or “part of a broader pattern of how police treat African Americans.” Seventy-one percent of WEPs said such killings were isolated incidents, compared with 63 percent of white Catholics and 59 percent of white mainline Protestants. In the BGC survey, 59 percent of non-evangelical whites agreed with the statement, “I am disturbed by comments President Trump has made about minorities.” But a plurality of white evangelicals disagreed with it.
Trump’s connection with WEPs on racial issues goes deeper than indifference. It’s based on shared identity. In the words of Christian essayist Michael Gerson, evangelicals have degenerated into an “anxious minority,” defining themselves as “an interest group in need of protection and preferences.” Stetzer, based on his analysis of survey data, finds that race and ethnicity, not faith, are driving much of this process. Many white evangelicals see their religion not as a universal calling but as a heritage that sets them apart. They fear people of other creeds, colors, and languages.
The conventional explanation for Trump’s support among WEPs is that they like what he gives them on social policy: conservative judges, opposition to abortion, and a bulwark against transgender rights. But that doesn’t explain why they’ve supported Trump more than they supported Bush, McCain, or Romney. If anything, you’d expect them to support Trump less, given his history of accepting gays and abortion rights.
The mystery dissolves when you look more closely at their priorities. In the BGC survey, when white evangelicals were asked to name all the factors that influenced their votes in 2016, fewer than half mentioned abortion or the Supreme Court. Their top issues were the economy, health care, national security, and immigration. The biggest gap between pro-Trump evangelicals and other evangelicals, when they were pressed to name the most important voting issue, was on immigration. That issue was more important to Trump supporters in the BGC survey, and it’s a big winner for Trump among WEPs in other polls. “White evangelicals overwhelmingly back more hardline positions on immigration, with three-fourths wanting a reduction in legal immigration,” Stetzer reports.
The enthusiasm for Trump’s hard line on immigration isn’t just about terrorism or enforcing laws. It’s about fear of immigrants per se. In the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, non-evangelical Republicans and Republican leaners said, by a margin of 35 percentage points, that “a growing population of immigrants” was “a change for the worse,” not for the better. Among Republicans who identified themselves as evangelical or born-again, the margin rose to 48 points. In a survey taken after the 2016 election, 50 percent of white evangelicals, compared with 33 percent of white non-evangelicals, agreed that “immigrants hurt the economy.” The 2018 PRRI survey asked whether “the growing number of newcomers from other countries … strengthens American society” or “threatens traditional American customs and values.” Only one religious group said the newcomers were a threat. You guessed it: WEPs.
Muslims, in particular, are a target of white evangelical suspicion. In a February 2017 Pew survey, WEPs were more likely than white Catholics or white mainline Protestants to worry about Islamic violence in the United States. Most WEPs, unlike members of other religious groups, said they believed that among U.S. Muslims, there was a great deal or a fair amount of support for extremism. Fifty percent of white Catholics and white mainline Protestants endorsed Trump’s executive order to “prevent people from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S.” Among WEPs, 76 percent endorsed it. The 2018 PRRI poll found a similar discrepancy.
Initially, when Stetzer diagnosed race and ethnicity as sources of the white evangelical backlash against immigration, he was talking about gaps between white and nonwhite evangelicals on poll questions that were open to interpretation. But PRRI, in its 2018 survey, proved that race and ethnicity were factors. The survey informed respondents that “by 2045, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and other mixed racial and ethnic groups will together be a majority of the population.” Then came the query: “Do you think the likely impact of this coming demographic change will be mostly positive or mostly negative?” After listening to this question, most white Catholics and most white mainline Protestants said the change would be positive. Most WEPs said it would be negative. A PRRI/Atlantic poll taken in June found the same result.
In his warning on Election Day, Stetzer faced the bitter truth: “It is hard not to conclude that far too many white evangelicals are motivated by racial anxiety and xenophobia.”
Trump has signaled, through references to Norway, Haiti, and Africa, that he wants to let more whites and fewer nonwhites into the United States. He has advocated political violence and war crimes, and he has tried to consolidate power by firing or attempting to fire officials who investigate him. As he works to corrupt the country, there’s reason to worry that WEPs will stick with him. The BGC survey offered respondents this statement: “When a political leader is making important decisions I support, I should also support the leader when they say or do things I disagree with.” Non-evangelical whites overwhelmingly rejected the statement, but a plurality of white evangelicals endorsed it. In the September PRRI survey, 19 percent of white Catholics and 22 percent of white mainline Protestants said there was nothing Trump could do to lose their support. Among WEPs, the number was 25 percent.
Trump has already proved, by breaking up immigrant families explicitly to frighten other families, that more than a third of WEPs will stand with him, and others will stay neutral, as he attacks basic values. In a PRRI poll taken in June, 74 percent of Catholics and 60 percent of white mainline Protestants said they opposed “an immigration border policy that separates children from their parents and charges parents as criminals when they enter the country without permission.” Only 51 percent of WEPs said they opposed that policy; 36 percent supported it.
Some analysts are skeptical that Trump has a particular hold on WEPs. At the Faith Angle Forum, Alan Cooperman, the director of religion research at the Pew Research Center, argued that what attracts white evangelicals to Trump is their Republican partisanship, not their faith. That’s a good point, and a lot of data support it. But in some ways, it’s a restatement of the problem. Christianity says you should love the stranger, respect families, honor your wife, and treat all people as children of God. WEPs, more than any other constituency, are choosing to ignore those values at the ballot box.
I take two lessons from these studies of white evangelicals. One is that the “Christian right,” as represented by Trump apologists, has betrayed Christianity. Trump presents a new, or in some cases newly revived, set of moral issues. Theft, open bigotry, race-baiting, explicit discrimination, boastful misogyny, sexual abuse of minors, the promotion of political violence, and the deliberate killing of innocent people are now on the table. Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, Franklin Graham, and others who stand with Trump in these fights should no longer be taken seriously as spokesmen for a faith. They’re purveyors of evil.
The other lesson is not to condemn all evangelicals. Like other faith communities, they have moral sickness in their ranks, and they’re working to heal it. For every Falwell, there’s a Stetzer, a Gerson, a Michael Cromartie. Evangelicals specialize in reflection, reform, and revival. There’s nothing wrong with evangelicalism that can’t be cured by what’s right with it.
The first step is to puncture the racial bubble around WEPs. That’s what Stetzer learned in his research: Perspectives that white evangelicals need to hear can be found in evangelicals of other colors. “White evangelicals would do well to turn off cable news and listen to their sisters and brothers in the increasingly diverse pews of evangelical churches,” Stetzer wrote in his Election Day message. By connecting with others who look different but share a common faith, white evangelicals will learn to reject Trump’s message “that our love for others is conditioned by country, race, or ethnicity.” They will come to “see this culture of fear of others for what it is: un-Christian.”
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary, and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.