Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Political Polarization Is Pushing Evangelicals to a Historic Breaking Point

By Waging Nonviolence

Apotentially historic political shift is currently taking place within an unexpected group of Americans: evangelical Christians. In the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency, strains within the evangelical community, especially among people of color, have resulted in significant numbers of people defecting from the right and opening themselves to social justice stances on issues of race, immigration, climate and economic fairness. Should the trend escalate, it could send tremors that extend well beyond the religious community and reverberate throughout U.S. politics.

While the future of evangelical politics remains uncertain, the divisions forming in religious spaces are creating significant opportunities for those interested in promoting progressive change. Moreover, organizing among evangelical dissenters is providing important lessons in how those working on social justice issues might find fertile ground in communities outside their circles of usual suspects — provided they can relate with people who do not identify as belonging on either side of the traditional divide between the political right and left.

Due to the various ways in which the term “evangelical” is defined, it is difficult to put an exact percentage on the number of evangelical Christians in America today. A 2016 survey by Wheaton College, a private religious university, estimated about 90 to 100 million people in the United States are evangelical. Today, it is generally taken for granted that this constituency is one of the most rock-solid pillars of the Republican coalition — and there is good reason to see things this way: In 2016, 80 percent of white evangelicals supported Donald Trump, with two-thirds of self-identified evangelicals saying their faith influences their political beliefs.

Such far-right identification, however, has not been forever locked in place. As recently as the early 1970s, evangelicals were considered a largely apolitical group. To the extent they formed a voting bloc, they were considered divided and persuadable — a constituency that could be won over by Democratic politicians such as Jimmy Carter. Indeed, since Carter was himself a born-again Christian, Newsweek magazine dubbed 1976, the year of his election, the “Year of the Evangelical.”

A concerted campaign by conservative groups such as the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family made certain that future mentions of evangelicals in politics would definitely not refer to Democratic presidential wins. In social movement terms, the decades-long project by the “New Right” to transform the evangelical community from a muddled and sometimes apathetic bloc into one of the most die-hard conservative demographics represents an unprecedented organizing accomplishment.

While conservatives have provided a textbook example of how a constituency can be polarized in order to strengthen allegiances and move indecisive moderates into a political camp, the continuing polarization that occurred under Trump began creating a backlash. On the one hand, Trump was a master at energizing religious conservatives and solidifying their identification with him. Analysis from the Pew Research Center suggests even some non-churchgoing white conservatives are now adopting the “evangelical” label — not to show religious identity, but to express a political orientation and demonstrate support for the party of Trump.

On the other hand, a predictable consequence of polarization is that, even as many supporters grow more passionately partisan, others will start to become alienated. When forcing people to take sides, you may draw many into your fold; however, you risk losing a fraction who are turned off and unwilling to make the leap. Signs of such a backlash can currently be seen among evangelicals — particularly people of color.

No one would argue that the right has lost its command over the evangelicals as a whole, as white evangelicals remain among the most fervent supporters of former President Trump. At the same time, the reaction of evangelical leaders to mass protests around racial injustice, COVID, and #MeToo — along with sexual impropriety and scandals in many churches — have started driving people away in significant numbers. In some cases, those who are leaving are now looking for new expressions of their faith that are aligned with social justice — expressions that sometimes put them squarely at odds with white evangelical Trump supporters.

Even if only a limited fraction of evangelicals are moved to embrace more progressive stances, the impact on the electorate as a whole could be profound. For this reason, understanding the divisions that are forming — and analyzing the opportunities they present — is a pressing task.

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