It’s now been two years since Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, lifted to that office by white evangelical voters, and the debriefing continues. The recent midterm elections showed Republican support among white evangelicals remains steadfast, and polling proved that a large majority of white evangelicals still support the president. Articles and books purporting to explain the mystery of evangelical Trump support continue to roll off the presses, analyzing the situation from disparate angles. Some offer religious explanations, others political. This fall, a new essay collection, The Evangelical Crackup? The Future of the Evangelical-Republican Coalition, marshals the combined energy of more than two dozen political scientists to try and clarify the matter.
Paul A. Djupe is associate professor of political science at Denison University. He is the current editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics, a new book series from Temple University Press. With Ryan L. Claassen, he is co-editor of The Evangelical Crackup?, the first release in that series. Eric C. Miller spoke with Djupe about the book recently by phone.
R&P: What is the “evangelical crackup,” and why phrase it as a question?
PD: Well, it didn’t start out as a question! The project was inspired by David Kirkpatrick’s article from 2007 in The New York Times that detailed a splintering of the Christian Right—a fading generation of Christian Right elites, new and less polarizing issues on the agenda (e.g., human trafficking and global warming), and shrinking organizations. Of course, in the run up to the 2016 election, we also thought that Trump would provoke some sort of rebellion given his proudly admitted sins, his profound unorthodoxy, and his past support for abortion and gay rights. Needless to say, 2016 forced new punctuation. But that question mark was always going to work better given the diverse ways that we define and inquire about the political behavior of this important religious group. We began to think about a crackup not just in terms of the religious-political coalition, but internal to the religious group in particular.
R&P: The book has eighteen chapters and more than two dozen contributors. How did you select and arrange these?
PD: I began arranging this while I was the editor of the journal Politics & Religion and, as such, had an eagle-eyed view of the field. I invited some of the usual suspects who have been doing this a long time, but was lucky enough to know of younger scholars doing excellent work on a wide range of questions—about Latino evangelicals, the emergent church, Christian conservative legal organizations, and others. The volume is much richer for their inclusion. The organization is “political science” in that it follows the political targets. The first group of chapters addresses political targets, such as vote choices, party activists and party platforms, rights support, and state parties. The second thinks about the politics of religious change, looking at shifts in social networks, views of salient groups, and religious movements. The third section loops in public policy targets, such as the spread of “In God We Trust” mottoes in locales across the country. The final section offers big picture thinking about the Republican-evangelical coalition.
R&P: In a chapter co-authored with Brian R. Calfano, you suggest that evangelical elites were not particularly influential in determining evangelical attitudes toward Trump. Can you explain?
PD: This chapter is key to how I approach religious influence, and it follows a simple premise. In order for elites to have influence, they need to communicate clear, consistent messages. So, we did the radical thing of asking people who attend church whether their clergyperson had spoken out about Trump as well as how supportive of Trump they were. Few clergy of evangelicals had reportedly spoken out (9 percent in September and 23 percent by the week before the election) and perceptions of where they stood on Trump were all over the map. In most cases, people appeared to be guessing. We also asked about their perceptions of evangelical elites—people like Paula White, Rick Warren, Tony Perkins, etc. And here too, many had no idea who these people were and most didn’t know where they stood on Trump. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (their main advocacy arm) was a prominent NeverTrumper, but perceptions of his Trump support were around 50/50, suggesting that people were guessing. Under these conditions, it’s not at all surprising that partisanship is the best explanation for evangelical vote choices in 2016.
R&P: In his chapter, your co-editor Ryan L. Claassen argues that conservative racial attitudes—rather than “moral” commitments—secured the alliance between evangelicals and Trump. How so?
PD: Ryan is riffing off of a 2014 piece by Randall Balmer in Politico that argues that the early Christian Right leadership had their roots in efforts to protect segregated Christian private schools. Those schools sprang up when the federal government mandated integration after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. According to Balmer, the shift to social issues like abortion in 1979 (yes, six years after Roe v. Wade) was a strategic decision that would do the work of the racial politics without having to go on the record about race. Ryan, a specialist in this sort of analysis, wanted to see if he could find supportive evidence in public opinion data. He takes advantage of the shift in partisanship of white Southerners across this time period to assess the extent to which the growing Republicanism is more tightly linked to racial attitudes or abortion attitudes. Not surprisingly, he finds evidence for both driving increasing Republicanism, but in the South more of the change (about double) is due to racial conservatism. Together, these two accounts provide a challenge to the typical origin story of the Christian Right linked to Roe.
R&P: Based on an examination of denominational organizations, J. Tobin Grant and David Searcy write that evangelicalism is far less cohesive than the conventional wisdom would suggest. In their view, different varieties of evangelicals found their way to Trump for different reasons. Does that sound right to you?
PD: Yes. It is typical to assume that religious traditions, especially evangelicals, are unified groups—“81 percent” of them voted for Trump, after all—but just because people arrived at the same location does not mean they are there for the same reasons. They present a new way of organizing denominations that is quite satisfying to academics who tend to place a lot of weight on organization. People do not invest in organization on a whim, so joining decisions send strong signals about commitments. Since there is diversity in how denominations are grouped and organized, there are going to be diverse paths to political behavior. There’s a neat productive tension between this chapter and the one I wrote with Calfano—these sorts of tensions pepper the book, which made it a joy to teach from.
R&P: Robert J. McGauvran and Elizabeth A. Oldmixon examine economic attitudes to account for evangelical fiscal conservatism. If evangelicals have traditionally been famous social conservatives, what drew them to Trump’s economics?
PD: This is the question that famously inspired Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? Why would evangelicals, who tend to have a lower socio-economic status (SES), favor policies tilted toward the wealthy? The answer tracks well before Trump to the early 1990s, at least, when the Christian Right had made major inroads into the GOP. The Christian Coalition cut a deal to back the 1994 GOP manifesto “The Contract with America” if the GOP would pursue the “Contract with the American Family.” Also, the shift in fiscal conservatism resulted from a reframing of these issues away from the rich versus poor to emphasize the value of individual responsibility. Notably, evangelicalism teaches a rugged individualism and self-reliance, with insulates believers from the negative influence of others. At the same time, evangelical SES has improved across time, and the repetition of clear and consistent messages from Republican elites has surely affected white evangelical ideologies.
R&P: In the final section, Robert Wuthnow documents what he calls “ironic continuities of political evangelicalism.” How does he distinguish political from religious evangelicalism, and what does it teach us about support for Trump?
PD: If my own writing is suggesting some of the same lessons as Bob Wuthnow, then I am probably on the right track. As noted above, Brian and I argued that evangelicals were on their own in 2016, while Bob argues here that we should make a further distinction. Political evangelicals were united, while religious evangelicals were not. In other words, evangelicalism is a set of religious practices and beliefs promoted by religious organizations. Those organizations are fragmented, are growing more racially diverse, and did not engage with the campaign at high rates. On the other hand, evangelical elites that Republicans were “conferring power on,” part of a long courtship, were highly connected to the campaign and sought to maintain the tight identity link. Of critical importance to Bob’s recent writing (including this chapter) on the study of religion and politics is that we think carefully about “selecting on the dependent variable.” Just because 81 percent of evangelicals voted for Trump does not mean we can infer that there are religious reasons for doing so.
R&P: What does the future hold for the Evangelical-Republican coalition? Is it cracking up?
PD: I can’t help but trot out a social science truism—it depends. The link of white evangelicals to the Republican Party appears stronger and more impregnable than ever. The combination of elected officials, evangelical elites, social networks, ideological purity, and legal and party organizations conspire to keep this productive relationship going. There is coming a time when several of those actors may realize they can no longer win elections with a base of white conservatives—as Robert Jones has argued—but until the engineer of this train decides to change tracks, it will continue forward.
At the same time, this conception of the coalition deeply challenges our conventional wisdom about religion. We once thought that certain religious and moral values would serve as limits to providing political support. For example, Bill Clinton may be presiding over a booming economy, but his moral failings were too great to support. None of that veneer remains intact; we can foresee almost no circumstances at this point that would intervene in the mutual love affair—the equally yoked relationship—between white evangelicals and Trump. But, that necessarily entails a crackup of evangelicalism. It may mean separating out political and religious evangelicalisms as Wuthnow suggests, but we could stop short of that choice and simply acknowledge that religion is no longer powerful enough to influence political behavior. Religion appears to be failing to exercise independent power on the decisions adherents make.