“Many evangelicals are likely to switch their loyalties to the Democrats [in the coming election]—and the exact numbers will depend partly on whether they perceive that mainstream liberals are treating them with nuance and respect, as opposed to stereotypes and contempt.”
I wrote that back in 2008, in a context I will discuss shortly. It remains true today. Then, as now, there is tangible and realistic hope that Democrats can capture enough moderate evangelicals to swing the election—especially when combined with ex-evangelicals who are shrinking the raw numbers of evangelical bloc—although the high percentage of Republicans in what remains of this bloc won’t budge.
But when the recent Christianity Today [CT] editorial appeared—the one calling for Trump’s removal that recently moved through the news cycle—I could easily predict how public discourse about it would unfold. This is like a bus that comes down the street with distressing regularity, and I am tired of us botching the analysis.
Four Stages of a Dysfunctional Discourse
Here’s the pattern: First, top Christian Right leaders would declare that centrist evangelicals are irrelevant. Ralph Reed and Franklin Graham did so, right on cue, and the New York Times duly reported that “Evangelical Leaders Close Ranks With Trump.”
Second, left pundits would also declare CT irrelevant, echoing similar arguments. They would call it marginal compared to Graham and agree with Reed that valorizing CT is false consciousness, since supposedly it puts liberal lipstick on what is either (for the left) an authoritarian pig or (for Reed) a lovely defender of morality. On cue, the always-first-to-the-punch Religion Dispatches (RD) published “Christianity Today Article Doesn’t Mean What You Think it Means,” RD declared that CT’s move is “not going to change much” because it “does not” and “can’t” represent “a broad evangelical constituency.” That would be “impossible” since CT “defer[s] to the authority of empirical fact,” while evangelicals are defined by an “authoritarian mindset” that has “no room for dissent.”
Perhaps because this last assertion about a lack of dissent is absurd—empirically—RD’s writer backpedaled: OK, evangelicals disagree, but only “between groups” while “within groups” there is heavy pressure to conform. (This revised approach is not all wrong—but, unfortunately for RD, it leads precisely toward the sorts of internal cracks within evangelicalism that RD is trying to deny). Thus, the backpedalling version continues, even if evangelicals do debate it holds true that they have a patriarchal and “tribaliz[ed]” DNA “incompatible with republican democracy.”
Both these steps happened almost immediately.
Third: the more substantive religious opposition to Trump—a motley coalition that barely includes the leftward fraction of CT’s readers as the overall coalition’s smallest and most rightward component—would mainly be bracketed from the public discussion. That is: the wider left-liberal religious coalition (including Catholics, liberal Protestants, and a few liberal evangelicals) is quite large but the CT swing group we are talking about is quite small. Sadly, in twitter-sized discourse as conducted by evangelicals and secularists alike, since evangelicalism is the only religion that matters, it follows that evangelical dissent is the only religious dissent that matters.
Fourth: the conversation would quickly grind down into repetition and discursive chaos.
All four of these steps had already happened before I finished drafting my earlier MBE post. Yet the process still sticks in my craw. So here I am, trying to push back against the underlying logic that causes this pattern over and over.
Keeping It In Perspective: Why Cheers for Christianity Today Should Be Lukewarm
Before we go further, let’s be crystal clear—CT offers something far milder and more ambivalent than a full-throated religious left position such as William Barber’s. Barber rightly calls CT’s critique “anemic” and complains that it focuses primarily “on an individual’s moral failings.” He points out how, despite some punchy phrases, CT included a loophole that might allow evangelicals to construe everything as fine, provided that Trump is removed, even if Mike Pence continues most of his policies. Indeed when CT’s editor received space on MSNBC to restate his case, he largely fretted that evangelical hypocrisy was undermining its “credible” leverage for “the pro-life cause.”
Moreover, CT has a long track record of being slow to accept emerging positions during past sea changes in US public opinion. (See this book and this one for the excruciating detail, or contrast CT with this leftward competitor.) Many of the arguments that CT has been debating lately—like dialing back condemnations of LGBTQ folks or accepting women’s rights as “Biblically” defensible—are things that their liberal Protestant compatriots processed decades ago and are bone tired of rehashing. CT’s moves are far past due.
Nevertheless there are some people in CT’s world who are grappling with these issues for the first time through no fault of their own. (I often teach such students, so I know them well). I also know from my scholarly study that some of CT’s past shifts toward centrism have been key signals of shifting dominant opinion. For example, when CT turned on Richard Nixon, this represented one of the last nails in the coffin of his presidency. When they supported LGBTQ marriage rights, this was a strong signal that the tide had turned. They were far from heroic in either case, yet their change was not trivial.
Thus, although I feel like Sisyphus taking up these issues again, and I can only give CT moderate encouragement instead of enthusiastic cheers, I do defend its intervention. It matters because sincere people are still pondering these issues, because CT’s stance slightly widens cracks in evangelical debates, and because (if we pay attention) this can help us grasp how evangelical Trumpism is shrinking (not strengthening) the Republican base.
As a trio these considerations are by no means trivial. If critics claim that they add up to nothing or merely traffic in self-delusion since debates about evangelical values are “impossible,” this is simply wrong. And it is wrong in a notably unhelpful way.
The New York Times and the Dysfunction Du Jour
Sarah Posner, who has often been RD’s top muckraker of Christian Right dirt, scored a prominent New York Times editorial entitled “That Christianity Today Editorial Won’t Change Anything.” She draws on the same evidence that led me to “safely project ongoing Republican supermajorities” in white evangelicalism—does anyone deny that?—and she showcases disturbing examples from her frequently impressive field research. Unfortunately, after this she dovetails with the above-noted RD article, dialing up her hostility to 11 when she could have toned it down for a minute: Evangelicals are “insular” with “unwavering loyalty” and organized as a “spiritual army” that is nearly impervious to outside evidence because it considers Trump a “divinely anointed leader.”
I responded to Posner on a NYT readers’ thread as follows:
CT probably has a readership that is 25% never-Trumper and 50% Democratic—so it’s a minority in the evangelical world—although it represents quite a few ministers who preach to Trump voters. I suppose some readers would turn around and support Cruz or Pence instead, and some will probably vote for Trump if he runs again.
This minority also represents a non-trivial swing group electorally and shows that the idea of a solid 80% white evangelicals for the GOP is either slipping a little (agreed, not a lot) OR more importantly reflects a shrinking baseline “pool of 100%” because mainstream evangelical politics functions very effectively as machine to produce EX-evangelicals.
A slip from 80% to 70% in white evangelical support, especially with a shrinking “pool of 100%,” would swing many elections. This is a non-trivial example of Trump’s base being a house of cards in some respects—although this is hard to judge behind all the bluffing on FOX. Posner is pointing to real problems, but she is not helping to solve them by overplaying the strength of the house of cards or the idea that evangelicals are a monolith.
Most of these ideas washed away in the flood of punditry raging around us. The longstanding nature of these evangelical divisions, the fluidity of evangelical debates, and the place of left evangelicals in wider social formations stayed largely out of focus. True, some people in the liberal media did note the swing vote factor, although not without pushback from both left and right. Hardly any highlighted what I find most important—long-term shrinkage in the evangelical base and the question of where the defectors move.
Let’s belabor this for a minute. If you hear that 80% of self-declared white evangelical voters were solid for Trump—well, yes, polls do show this. But it is crucial to understand how this is 80% of a 100% that is a moving target—a baseline that is aging in ways that are alarming to leaders on the right and leaking adherents at a growing rate.
The word “white” with “evangelical” is equally important. Twitter-sized punditry often uses high-end estimates of “evangelical” power, conflates this with rigidly conservative white evangelicals, and—poof!—makes both evangelicals of color (Asian, Latinx, and black) and liberalizing white evangelicals disappear. Meanwhile, if we started from these latter groups, then added the less rigid (“never-Trump”) types of evangelical conservatives, together this cohort includes the majority of evangelicals. Yes, everyone knows that gradations the hard right remains the single biggest fraction, and also that some of the never-Trumpers would break for Pence. Still the situation is very far from being so monolithic that such variations don’t matter.
The Melting Glacier of White Evangelicals (Yes, Still Very Cold!)
More pointedly, the well-known “80% for Trump” datum that Posner uses to argue that nothing can change is a public relations disaster for the future of evangelicalism as a brand. The longer this number holds steady, the worse for the brand because it drives people (especially youth) away. 80% of a small and reviled group is not a long-term win. In this context, we can see CT’s editorial as an try at damage control.
No one should imagine CT’s move as a small new crack that will be easy to repair. Think of it as further evidence of widening in one of several longstanding cracks—some of which are already calving off chunks of a shrinking glacier. Who cares if the ice in the water doesn’t show up when we measure the 20% fraction of the remaining glacier? The key issue is how and why the glacier is melting.
Importantly, such glacier imagery does not imply that all the calving ice is melting into a category of “secular nones.” Part of it surely is—and much media discourse assumes that most of it is—but in fact it is crucial to approach this issue “drop by drop” and measure the results using a system in which the categories of religious liberal or religious left are legible alongside “none.” But that’s a longer discussion for another day.
Deja Vu: Can We Learn from the Past?
When I knew how stages of the CT media drama would unfold before they even started, this was because I’ve been around this block before. During the Obama/McCain election of 2008, Pastor Rick Warren, one of the top evangelicals in the country at the time, hosted the two candidates for a “faith forum” at his megachurch.
- Partly he used it to promote the impression (half-true at best) that he and his constituents wanted to be neutral referees in the election.
- Partly he used it to lobby Obama from the right about abortion.
- But partly (importantly!) he also signaled that sincere evangelicals should make up their own minds, and could legitimately decide to vote for Obama with Warren’s and/or Jesus’s blessing.
For those of us observing from the left, the first two of these parts were annoying and the third was not a discovery we found illuminating or heroic whatsoever. But here’s the point. Even if Warren should have been mortified that he had not figured out long ago that Christians can support Democrats, and even if he was a biased referee on abortion—even if Democratic appeals to swing voters in Warren’s orbit created tricky trade-offs for holding together the Democratic bloc (a serious concern and the likely crux issue for RD)—nevertheless Warren did signal real waffling. He waffled in relation to constituents who were not monolithic but rather ranged widely across a hard-right to moderate-liberal spectrum. (although with scarce numbers at the “fully woke” end of the spectrum.)
This really mattered for swing votes in the election—even if not in huge percentages, and even if some of these folks were midway in a process of becoming ex-evangelicalism, such that they might not be legible as part of a 20% minority of evangelical voters.
I made these points in Religion Dispatches at the time—the quotation at the beginning was from this piece, and I also later wrote this piece among others. The reason I could predict how the current debate is unfolding is that I’ve watched it unfold before. Gradually I learned that I am off-message from RD’s editorial line, and in some part that is why you are reading me here now.
Still my arguments remain relevant for defeating Mr. Trump.
I agree with RD that we should not encourage left-liberals to defer to CT-type evangelicals across the board—especially when evangelicals demand veto power over core priorities. I want to underline this, because it is important and slippery from issue to issue.
The point is that I favor an electoral coalition that is broad enough to include “non-cool” moderate evangelicals. In my mind, the point is not at all a tilt toward Joe Biden over Bernie Sanders. it is about building winning coalitions for either one.
To do this we need include people who are inconsistent in wokeness or may (within limits) even have troubling connections with some right-wing friends—provided that they will vote against Trump and support the fight against voter suppression. It does not help for building such a coalition—nor does it help us simply to understand what is going on—if we posit that evangelicals are so insular and authoritarian as to be impervious to judgment and persuasion.
Wokeness: Can Anyone Get There From Non-Wokeness?
I know for a fact that many of my “super-woke” friends went through stages of life when they were not super-woke. When people are raised in conservative networks, that is the place where they need to start down a road of critically assessing what they were taught.
Thus, if conservative people start to think more carefully about the strengths and weaknesses of standard evangelical arguments, I try to give them the benefit of doubt. I know both from my historical study and from personal experience that stronger arguments often win out.
Of course this doesn’t always happen. But this is not because evangelicals are immune to argument, even if we “know” they are based on stipulated definitions of their essence. Yes, pressure to conform is real with evangelicalism. But this is a two-edged sword because it can also transmute into pressure to leave.
By saying what I just said, I do not take a backseat to anyone in my frustration with people in CT’s world. I want to be civil—but, really, how long should it take intelligent adults to discern that they can say out loud that Trump is unfit for office? And don’t get me started about other places I disagree with centrist evangelicals—especially their tendency to sneer at other kinds of Christian commitment and declare it irrelevant to Christianity as they define it.
It’s just that I can remember how my own seven-year-old mind managed, with whatever sincerity that was relevant for me in 1964, to learn from the evangelical subculture that Barry Goldwater was cooler than Lyndon Johnson. I soon got over that lesson by learning more—but how and why I learned was not fully under my control, either at age seven or even seventeen.
Much of what I learned was “insular,” just as RD says, with many other strands such as God blessing US imperialism. But on the other hand, I also learned a a lot of my dissent from evangelical discourse. This was a language I was taught to speak.
Being raised to take my place as a white Republican evangelical did not stop me from rethinking it. Rather evangelicalism, at least as I encountered it, pressed me further and further—first toward the margins of evangelicalism and soon out of it. The more I learned the faster I moved. For a brief moment some of the smarter intellectuals in CT’s orbit kept me in their fold. Soon I moved on to ideas I found more persuasive.
This really should not be hard to understand. In real life, lived religion is like speaking a complex language in which one can debate about values. Being fluent in a language does not lock you into one argument or set of priorities, even if there are dominant patterns from place to place, as well as pressure to conform. Anyone who wants to move away from a given pattern, or toward a different vernacular, likely needs to start by critiquing or translating what they inherited.
Conclusion: a Shrinking Glacier Matters Even If It Is Still Very Cold
Moving leftward from conservative Christianity is an extremely common pattern in US culture.
“Who speaks for evangelicals?” is not a question that we can resolve using stipulated definitions, ones that exclude all the data that doesn’t fit under our definition. This is a debate, and people with a tin ear who mainly insult their opponents, as opposed to respecting their opponent’s process and trying to persuade them, are likely to lose the debate. Counting fractions of self-identified evangelicals does not resolve this question, because the stakes of the debate are how many people will come to renounce the evangelical label, as part of our glacier with chunks calving off.
So I repeat: a non-trivial minority of evangelicals—enough to be a significant swing group—will likely switch their loyalties to the Democrats. The exact numbers that split off—whether toward the minority of anti-Trump evangelicals or away from evangelicalism toward other religious and/or secular stances—will depend in some large part on whether they perceive that left-liberal critics are treating them with nuance and respect, as opposed to stereotypes and contempt.
MBE standard notice: The time I spend on this blog is not in addition to a Twitter and FaceBook presence, but an alternative to it. If you think anything here merits wider circulation, this will probably only happen if you circulate it.
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