Baker Academic

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

On White Evangelicals, the "Nones," and Political Affiliation (guest post)

In a shame(less)ful effort to promote our book, Larry and I have been guest posting to model political dialogue (to see how it might intersection with Jewish-Christian dialogue). There is part two of Larry's reflection on the baptizing of 45:

Anthony Le Donne and I are having one of our friendly Point/Counterpoint moments.
In a post here a few days ago, I broke down the demographics of the vote that elevated Donald Trump to the Presidency. Following research from such luminaries as Robert P. Jones, I pointed out that Trump won the election on the strength of the white Christian vote. Here, I’m not talking merely about the white evangelical vote—it’s already been heavily reported that Trump swept the board with white evangelical voters. What hasn’t received sufficient attention is how well Trump did with all varieties of white Christians, including white Catholics and white mainline Protestants. My rough estimate is that Trump won the overall white Christian vote by roughly a 2:1 margin, while he lost the vote of all other race-religious groups by that same 2:1 margin. Of particular note is how Clinton won an estimated 72% of the American Jewish vote, illustrating a significant Jewish-Christian political

In response, Anthony posted a piece on my blog site making a number of interesting arguments. Anthony pointed out that if we consider world Christianity, then only 2.3% of all Christians voted for Trump. Of course, by the same token, less than 2.3% of Christians worldwide voted against Trump. I’ll concede that global Christianity wasn’t given much of a say in our election. Anthony’s other argument is that close to half of eligible Americans did not vote at all in 2016, meaning that considerably less than 2/3 of American white Christians voted for Trump. Unfortunately, as I already pointed out in my last post, white Christians turned out to vote in relatively high numbers compared to the rest of us; if Anthony wants to avoid election of candidates like Trump in the future, he might urge instead that more white Christians stay home on Election Day.
Anthony returned to his global perspective at the end of his piece, asking me to consider whether Jews worldwide opposed Trump in the same numbers as American Jews. The short answer is, I can’t account for all those Jews. I don’t have any way to gauge how the Jews of France (roughly 450,000 of them), Canada (400,000) or the U.K. (300,000) might have voted if they’d miraculously been granted U.S. citizenship (and, I might have wished, been given ballots to vote in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin). My rough guess is that these Jews don’t like Trump any better than other French people, Canadians or Brits, but these Jewish populations (the third, fourth and fifth largest populations of Jews worldwide) aren’t large enough for anyone to bother to poll. At this point in Jewish history, more than 80% of Jews worldwide live in either the United States or Israel … so when Anthony asks about non-American Jews, he’s really asking me to consider the opinion of Israeli Jews. During the 2016 campaign, Israelis favored Hillary Clinton by about the same 2:1 margin we saw in the U.S. for non-Christians. Since the election, Trump has proven to be relatively popular in Israel—mostly reflecting that Israelis think Trump is good for Israel. I’m not sure what our election says about Israeli Jews, or Bolivian Christians for that matter, just as I don’t know what my favorable opinion of Justin Trudeau and Angela Merkel says about me.
[By the way … Israeli opinion is not the same as Jewish-Israeli opinion. Some 21% of Israeli citizens are Arab, and other 4.5% are non-Jewish non-Arabs. I have no data distinguishing how Israeli Jews and non-Jews view Trump.]
Let’s end our world tour and return to the question I raised in my original post (which as I pointed out, was first raised by Anthony himself): how could so many white American Christians have voted for Trump? Or, as I put it in my post, how could so many white American Christians have voted for a person who seems to contradict every value I might associate with Christianity (humility, honesty, empathy, kindness and generosity)? The easy answer, the one I pointed to in my last post, is status quo: white Christians vote Republican. But there’s evidence that white Christians did not participate in this election in a status quo way.  The voter turnout percentage for non-Hispanic whites in 2016 was the second-highest measured since 1988—this despite the fact that the religiously unaffiliated (who are mostly white) voted in relatively low numbers (the “Nones” made up 15% of the 2016 electorate, compared to 25% of the general population). So if we measure voter interest by voter turnout, then white Christians voted for Trump with near-record enthusiasm. We can see this most clearly in the white evangelical vote—white evangelicals made up 26% of the electorate in 2016, same as 2012, even though the white evangelical percentage of the U.S. population is in decline and is considerably less than 26%.  
Where else should we look for an explanation for strong white Christian support for Trump? In Christian circles, much of the blame falls on Hillary Clinton, who is seen as a historically terrible candidate from a certain white Christian point of view. But much of the white Christian opposition to Clinton seems horribly overblown, and there’s no explanation for why Clinton (a practicing Methodist and former member of her church’s altar guild) should have been regarded as a mortal threat to Christianity. White Christians may have objected to Clinton’s political views, but these views were squarely in the Democratic Party mainstream, and it’s hard to see how these views were all that different from those held by previous Democratic Party nominees for President. I’ll grant that voters increasingly express unhappiness with politics in general and speak as if they vote for the lesser of evils … but this is a trend that predates the nomination of Trump and Clinton. No … the enthusiastic white Christian support of Trump speaks to interest in Trump, every bit as much as antipathy for Clinton.
We might ask whether there is something in Christian belief (for example, a low view of human nature) that leads Christians to support candidates like Trump. But I’m going to reject this idea quickly, because Christians of color did not support Trump. I’m ready to be corrected, but I don’t know of any schism between Black and white American Christian religious belief that might have led one group to vote Clinton and the other Trump. We can then ask whether Trump’s white Christian support was based on his appeal to white people. But again … while we do need to seriously consider Trump’s appeal to white voters, I need to emphasize how Trump’s appeal was limited to white Christians. White Jews (in the U.S., 90% of Jews are considered white) rejected Trump in large numbers. And the largest group of white non-Christians in America, those without religious affiliation (often referred to as “Nones”), mostly rejected Trump as well.
Let’s talk a bit about the Nones. Racially and ethnically, Nones represent a reasonably typical American mix: about 68% of Nones are white, 9% are Black, 5% are Asian, 13% are Latinx and 4% fall into another category. Compared to the general population, Nones skew a bit more white than average, are more male than female, are more likely than the average American to be unmarried, and seem to favor life on the west coast over that in the South.
One fact that distinguishes Nones: they are by far the fastest growing religious group in America. Over the past 25 years, the number of Nones has more than quadrupled, from around 6% to 25%.
Where are all these Nones coming from? Mostly, from the ranks of white Christianity. The vast majority of Nones were raised with some religious affiliation but have given it up. Nearly two-thirds of Nones were raised in either Catholic (38%) or white mainline Protestant (26%) households. More than 1-in-10 were raised white evangelical Protestant (14%) or in some other Christian faith (11%). While we don’t have a racial breakdown of those Catholics who have become Nones, we can surmise that most of them are white, as American Catholicism is rapidly becoming a religion of color: roughly 34% of U.S. Catholics are Hispanic today, compared to 10% in 1987.
The trends identified above come into sharper focus if we examine them generationally. The below chart shows the sharp decline in religious observance as we move from older to younger generations, in every religious group measured other than historically Black Protestants:
And if you’re thinking that Millennials will join the church as they get older, get married and have children … there’s simply no evidence for such a “religious life cycle.” Instead, the number of Nones in each generation is increasing over time, not decreasing. Few (7%) Nones even express an interest in looking for a new religious home. The decline in religious affiliation shows no sign of reversing, or even slowing down.
What do the Nones have to do with our main question, about why white Christians so enthusiastically supported Trump? The explanation begins with the advent of the American Religious Right. For this discussion, I’ll rely heavily on American Grace, the seminal 2010 study by Robert Putnam and David Campbell on religious life in contemporary America. According to Putnam and Campbell, the rise of the American Religious Right can be dated to the mid-1970s, when Americans unhappy with the sexual revolution of the 1960s reacted by embracing religious identity and church attendance—and the church preferred in this “aftershock” was mostly conservative and evangelical Protestant. Astute evangelical leaders like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell drew on this religious fervor to create the Religious Right, aligning conservative Protestantism with conservative, Republican politics.
But the advent of the Religious Right triggered a counter-reaction of its own, beginning in the 1980s and becoming more evident by the 1990s, where the marriage of conservative religion and politics grew increasingly suspect. In 1980, Americans said they’d be more likely to vote for an evangelical candidate for President; by 1988 the majority of those polled said just the opposite. The number of Americans agreeing strongly that religious leaders should not try to exert influence on government decisions nearly doubled between 1991 and 2008. Symbols of the religious right, like Falwell and the Moral Majority, came to be viewed unfavorably by most voters, and “Christian fundamentalists” were increasingly identified with an unwelcome conservative ideological intervention in American politics. And significantly, the group that most strongly embraced this view of the Religious Right was the newly emerging group of Nones.
One might guess that the Nones began their dramatic growth during the upheaval of the 1960s, but in fact the 1960s produced a very small downtick in religious observance. It was not until the 1990s that Nones began their meteoric rise into national prominence. For the authors of American Grace, the timing of this ascent is no coincidence—it coincides both with the trend to view the Religious Right negatively and with a dramatic, more liberal shift in American opinion on such “culture war” issues as marijuana and homosexuality. Significantly, this shift in opinion was and is most pronounced (as was and is the growth of the Nones) among young Americans.
When surveyed, Nones give a myriad of reasons why organized religion no longer speaks to them. 16% of Nones surveyed indicate that an important reason for leaving their childhood religion was that their church or congregation “became too focused on politics.” A full 29% of Nones cite “negative religious teachings about or treatment of gay and lesbian people” as a reason they gave up religious affiliation. Notably, women and ex-Catholics are about twice as likely as other Nones to cite treatment of gays and lesbians as a primary reason they left the church.
More often, Nones say that they’ve left the church because of their “lack of belief.” But in most cases, the belief lacking is not that in G-d; fewer than 1/3 of Nones describe themselves as atheist or agnostic, 30% say they’re absolutely certain they believe in G-d or a universal spirit, and another 38% profess this same belief with less certainty. When asked for explanations for their “lack of belief,” Nones surveyed will mention “culture war” issues such as church teaching on evolution, a preference for “rational thought” and a lack of belief in miracles. What’s evident is that Nones express a conventional confidence in science, in distinction to an evangelical church that denies climate change, promotes “intelligent design”, invests $100 million to illustrate the literal truth of the Noah’s Ark story, and teaches that there were dinosaurs on that Ark.
[OK, I’ll grant that the Noah’s Ark people are probably a bit fringe-y even in white evangelical circles.]
Putnam and Campbell make the point explicitly: white American Christianity is doing a good job retaining its politically conservative congregants. It’s moderates and liberals (particularly young white moderates and liberals) who are fleeing the church to join the ranks of the Nones. And for reasons I cannot explain, Christians who have left conservative Christianity have not opted in significant numbers to join more liberal churches; they’ve instead left organized religion altogether to join the ranks of the Nones. Here, finally, is my explanation for why white Christians supported Trump so enthusiastically: the ranks of white Christianity have been drained of many who might have opposed Trump had they remained Christians. The rise of the Religious Right, and the reaction against the Religious Right represented by the growth in the numbers of Nones, has effectively divided what was once a more politically diverse group of white Christians into what is today one group of mostly conservative Christians and a second group of mostly liberal ex-Christians. If not for this divide, white American Christendom would have been more lukewarm when it came to Trump.
I should take a step back. There are other explanations we can give for the rise of the Nones; clearly, politics is not the only reason for this phenomenon. Moreover, I’ve ignored here how Nones are likely to become more liberal after they’ve left the church, under the influence of their new peers. Finally, I need to emphasize what I said in my first post: I’m talking here about general trends and not iron-clad rules. There are plenty of white Christians who loathe Trump—just not as many of them as I wish there were. There are politically liberal evangelicals. There are liberal churches in America whose congregants are predominantly white, as well as Nones who left liberal churches because they don’t like liberal politics.
Demography is not destiny … but at the same time, we’re witnessing a sea change in the history of American religion. Since World War II, large populations in the developed world have abandoned religion and religious identity. While the United States long bucked this trend, the growth of U.S. Nones shows that we’ll eventually join the ranks of countries where a majority claims to be either atheist or not religious, such as the UK, Japan, Germany, Australia, Spain, Canada, France, Denmark and Israel (yes, Israel; 42% of Israelis characterize themselves as secular and another 25% say they’re “not very religious”). But while religion may be on the decline in places like North America, it is booming in places like Africa. Religiously, the world is turning into what one researcher has described as “the secularizing West and the rapidly growing rest.” And perhaps not coincidentally, predominantly Black churches in the U.S. are holding on to their numbers, and there appears to be no crisis of unbelief among America’s Hispanic Catholics.
Maybe this is as it should be. Maybe we should express no surprise that global Christianity is losing its hold on the portion of the world which is relatively privileged and affluent, and seems to have the most to say to peoples struggling for a fair share of the planet’s resources and a fair say in the planet’s future. If Christianity today speaks most clearly to those with the least … as a non-Christian admirer of Christianity, I think there’s something in this that Jesus would approve.

From this perspective, white Christian American Trump supporters no longer seem so important to me … which might be why Anthony asked me to think globally in the first place.  


  1. Larry, I guess that one point has got me concerned. You quip (perhaps tongue-in-cheek?) that ". . . .white Christians turned out to vote in relatively high numbers compared to the rest of us; if Anthony wants to avoid election of candidates like Trump in the future, he might urge instead that more white Christians stay home on Election Day."

    This rubs against the grain of my post. I am firmly committed to the idea that more votes equals better results. And, for what it's worth, every study in the last decade (that I've seen) suggests that higher voter turn out is generally good news for democratic candidates.

    Moreover, the suggestion that we ought to encourage certain religious demographics to stay home.... well that's just not cricket, dude.


  2. I think this analysis misunderestimates the rejection of Clinton by many Christians. When the primaries were over, I concluded that we had two horrible candidates, making it so that whatever happened it woukd end in tears. I coukdn’t vote for either one, but many of my friends told me that not voting would essentially be a vote for Hillary. I think the large turnout reflects the feeling that Hillary was unacceptable. That she professes to be a Christian only makes it worse!

    1. Fernando, I addressed the anti-Hillary factor in my post. I also argued that Hillary is a thoroughly typical Democrat. I see no logical or principled basis for your saying that Hillary was any worse than any other Democrat who might have won the nomination. I'll add, I saw how the same people who vilified Hillary in 2016 also treated Obama the same way for the 8 years preceding.

      Also, if you're going to talk about those who rejected Clinton, you have to get used to talking about race at the same time you talk about religion. Clinton was not rejected by "many Christians." She was rejected by many white Christians. Christians of color voted overwhelmingly in her favor, both during the primaries and the general election. As I accept the Christianity of people of color as the genuine article, I can't accept the notion that there was something universally Christian in the white Christian rejection of Hillary.

      Finally ... I am not a Christian. But if I were, I think I'd object to your characterization of Hillary's Christianity as something "professed," as if it isn't real or sincere. I know a good number of Christians who are real and sincere, and voted for Hillary. But I don't think it's up to me to enforce the Christian border.

  3. Point taken. I might have wished instead that non-white Christians and white non-Christians had turned out to vote in greater numbers. Of course, if I HAD expressed myself in this way, I would have contributed to another unfortunate narrative that blames Trump’s election on a drop in Black voter turnout as compared to 2008 and 2012. Sometimes, it’s hard to engage in this kind of analysis of vote-by-group without stepping on one’s own tongue.

    We see relatively low voter turnout among young people, people of color, people without college degrees, and to a certain extent, men. More significant to our conversation, Christians voter turnout is higher on a percentage basis than turnout for the “Nones.” When voter turnout is high, we might see a narrowed difference between the voter participation rates of these various groups. Greater voter participation by people of color and non-Christians should help Democrats. But when more men and non-college graduates vote, that should help Republicans. The picture is complicated.

    If we limit our look to white Christian voter turnout, it’s hard to identify any large group of white Christians who favored Clinton over Trump. It’s true that Clinton won the youth vote, and the women’s vote, but she lost to Trump among white women and young white voters. Clinton did better with voters with college degrees, but she lost to Trump by 4% among white people with college degrees. You need to combine factors to identify a group of white people that supported Clinton—for example, white women with college degrees supported Clinton by a 6% margin.

    If 100% of white Christians had turned out to vote, that would have helped Trump, according to the available evidence. If 100% of everyone had turned out to vote, that would have helped Clinton. If people other than white Christians had turned out to vote in the same numbers as white Christians, I think Clinton would have won, too.