by Mark Hulsether, Ph.D.
“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 in 2008, in a context I will discuss shortly. Because of that experience, I understood immediately when the recent Christianity Today [CT] editorial appeared—the one calling for Trump’s removal that recently moved through the news cycle—how public discourse about it would unfold.
First, better-connected Christian Right leaders would declare CT 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, pundits on the left would declare CT irrelevant on similar grounds. They would call it marginal compared to Graham’s evangelicalism and agree with Reed that valorizing CT is false consciousness since 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,” declaring 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”—but evangelicals are defined by an “authoritarian mindset” that has “no room for dissent.” Perhaps because this last idea about dissent is empirically absurd, RD’s writer backpedals to clarify that evangelicals do disagree, but only “between groups” while “within groups” there is heavy pressure to conform. (This revised approach is not all wrong, but insofar as it is true it seems to lead toward the cracks that are being deemed irrelevant). In general, evangelicalism has a patriarchal and “tribalized[ed]” DNA “incompatible with republican democracy.”
Both these steps happened almost immediately—obviously CT struck a nerve.
Third: the more substantive religious opposition to Trump—a motley coalition that does include the leftward fraction of CT’s readership, but only as the coalition’s smallest and most rightward component—would mainly be bracketed from the discussion. In twitter-sized discourse as conducted by evangelicals and secularists alike, evangelicalism is the religion that matters, so it follows that evangelical dissent is the 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 logic.
Before we go further, let’s be clear—CT offers something far milder and more ambivalent than a full-throated religious left position such as William Barber’s. He calls CT’s critique “an anemic [one] that focuses attention solely on an individual’s moral failings,” and points out how, despite some punchy phrases, it includes a loophole that might allow evangelicals to construe everything was fine provided that Trump is removed, even if Mike Pence continues most of his policies. Indeed when CT’s editor received precious space on MSNBC to restate his case, he largely fretted that evangelical hypocrisy about Trump 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 issues that CT has been debating lately—such as dialing back condemnations of LGBTQ folks or accepting women’s rights as “Biblically” defensible—its liberal Protestant compatriots managed to process decades ago and are bone tired of rehashing. To such people, CT’s moves seem well past due.
Nevertheless, some people may be grappling with the issues for the first time through no fault of their own. (I teach such students—and was like them myself years ago—so I know them well). We may also recall how CT’s earlier shifts toward centrism were often symptomatic signals of shifting dominant opinion—as, for example, when they were one of the last nails in the coffin of Nixon’s Presidency.
Thus, although I feel like Sisyphus taking up these issues yet again, and I can only give CT moderate encouragement instead of enthusiastic cheers, still I defend its intervention. It matters because there are people still pondering the issues, because this slightly widens cracks in evangelical positions, and because it can help us see how evangelical Trumpism is shrinking 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.
Consider this example.
Sarah Posner, who in the past has 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”—does anyone deny that?—and cites some disturbing examples from her often valuable research. But after that she dovetails with the above-noted RD article. Evangelicals are “insular” with “unwavering loyalty” and organized as a “spiritual army” that is nearly impervious to outside evidence because 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 noted the swing vote factor, not without strong pushback from both left and right. Few 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 alarming to insiders and leaking adherents at a growing rate. And the word “white” in “white evangelical” is equally important. Twitter-sized punditry often uses high-end estimates of “evangelical” numbers or power, conflates this with rigidly conservative white evangelicals, and—poof! —makes both evangelicals of color (Asian, Latinx, and black) and liberalizing white evangelicals disappear. If we combine these folks with less rigid— “never-Trump style”—evangelical conservatives, together they are likely a majority of evangelicals. It is true that a hard right-wing remains the biggest fraction, and that some never-Trumpers may break for Pence. Still the situation is far from being so monolithic that differences don’t matter.
More pointedly, the “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, and the higher it goes, the worse for the brand because it is driving people (especially youth) away in large numbers. 80% of a small and reviled group is not a long-term win. In this context, we should understand CT’s editorial as an effort 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 a small 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 a 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 this calving ice is melting into a category of “secular none.” Part of it surely is—and far too much media discourse assumes that most of it is—but in fact it is very important to approach this issue case by case (“drop by drop”?) and measure the results using categories for which religious liberal and leftist discourse is legible. But that’s a longer discussion for another day.
When I mentioned earlier that I could foresee how the CT media drama would unfold before it even started, that 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 candidates for a “faith forum” at his megachurch.
Partly he used it as an opening to lobby Obama from the right about abortion.
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.
But partly (importantly!) he also signaled that sincere evangelicals should make up their own minds; and could legitimately decide to vote for Obama with his 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 (most importantly) if the swing voters in his orbit created tricky trade-offs in holding together a Democratic bloc—nevertheless Warren did signal real waffling. He did so in relation to constituents who were not monolithic and ranged across a hard-right to moderate-liberal spectrum, however scarce 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 breaking with evangelicalism, rendering them illegible as part of the 20% minority of (ongoing) evangelical voters.
I made these points in Religion Dispatches at the time—my opening quotation above was from this piece, and I also later wrote this one among others. The reason I could predict how the current debate would unfold is that I watched it unfold before as a participant. 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.
Still my arguments remain relevant for defeating Mr. Trump. While I do not favor left-liberals deferring to CT-type evangelicals on issues across the board, especially if evangelicals demand veto power over core priorities, I do favor building an electoral coalition that is broad enough to include “non-cool” moderate evangelicals. This includes those who are inconsistent in wokeness or might (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—not to mention for simply understanding what is going on—to posit that evangelicals are so insular and authoritarian as to be impervious to judgment and persuasion.
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 where they need to start down a road of critically assessing what they were taught. So, whenever people begin to contemplate the strengths and weaknesses of standard evangelical arguments, I try to give them the benefit of doubt. I know from both historical study and personal experience that stronger arguments often win out. Of course, that doesn’t always happen, but that is not because evangelicals are immune to argument, neither due to stipulated definitions of their essence nor their empirical temperaments. Although pressure to conform is real, this is a two-edged sword because it can easily transform into pressure to leave.
By saying what I just said, I do not take a backseat to anyone in my frustration with many people in CT’s world. I want to be civil—but, really, how could it take intelligent adults so long to discern that they can say out loud that Trump is unfit for office? And don’t get me started about other places we disagree—especially evangelicals’ tendency to sneer at other kinds of Christian commitment and declare it irrelevant to Christianity as they define it.
It’s just that I remember how my own seven-year-old mind managed, with whatever sincerity that was relevant for me in 1964, to learn something from an evangelical subculture: that Barry Goldwater was cooler than Lyndon Johnson. I easily got over that lesson when I learned more—but how and why I learned was not fully under my control, at age seven or even seventeen. Much of what I learned was “insular” and included God blessing the US military. On the other hand, I also learned 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 to the margins of evangelicalism and then 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. Moving leftward from conservative Christianity is an extremely common pattern in US culture.
“Who speaks for evangelicals?” is not a question that can be resolved with stipulated definitions, thus excluding all data that doesn’t fall under the definition. It is a debate, and people who mainly insult their opponents instead of respecting their process and trying to persuade them are likely to lose this debate.
So, I repeat: non-trivial numbers of evangelicals will likely switch their loyalties to Democrats. The exact numbers that split off—whether toward an anti-Trump evangelical minority or away from evangelicalism toward other options, not all of these secular—will depend partly on whether they perceive that left-liberal critics are treating them with nuance and respect, as opposed to stereotypes and contempt.