As recently as 2004, white evangelical Christians felt like they were winning in America. George W. Bush was president, speaking the language of witness. White evangelicals were one of the nation's largest demographic groups, and the new megachurches seemed to be consuming less dynamic mainline denominations. On the culture war issue of the moment, gay marriage, they seemed to be holding the line, and Republicans put anti-gay marriage amendments to the vote in a bunch of states to drive up conservative turnout. They extended their vision of a Christian America into the past, asserting that the leaders of the American Revolution were strong Christians and the nation, from its founding, a Christian state. They also imagined their power growing in the future, hoping that the growing network of Christian academies and the spread of home schooling would create a generation of Evangelical leaders.
Things have changed a lot in 17 years. Now, American Christians feel besieged, gay marriage is the law, and conservative Christians looking for a champion had to turn to a hell-bound sinner who pays hush money to porn stars.
Michelle Goldberg has a column in the Times today responding to the latest polling about American religion. New data from PRRI shows that percentage of Americans identifying as white evangelicals has dropped from 23% in 2006 to 14.5% last year. Other data also shows a decline, although the magnitude is all over the place. That's normal for a landscape in flux; as the meaning of "evangelical" shifts, the way people respond to the question becomes very sensitive to the details of how it is asked. PRRI's data showed a small increase in the mainline Protestant denominations, and their CEO thinks that is because some evangelicals have moved to stodgier denominations. White evangelicals are also the oldest denomination in America, with a median age (among adults) of 56.
(Incidentally this data shows that the percentage of "nones" has dropped a little since 2018, from 25.5% to 23%, but pollsters have found a range of numbers so this may not represent a real decline.)
To Goldberg, this decline explains a lot. She discussed the question with pollster Robert P. Jones, author of several books about the religious right:
White evangelicals once saw themselves “as the owners of mainstream American culture and morality and values,” said Jones. Now they are just another subculture.
From this fact derives much of our country’s cultural conflict. It helps explain not just the rise of Donald Trump, but also the growth of QAnon and even the escalating conflagration over critical race theory. “It’s hard to overstate the strength of this feeling, among white evangelicals in particular, of America being a white Christian country,” said Jones. “This sense of ownership of America just runs so deep in white evangelical circles.” The feeling that it’s slipping away has created an atmosphere of rage, resentment and paranoia.
QAnon is essentially a millenarian movement, with Trump taking the place of Jesus. Adherents dream of the coming of what they call the storm, when the enemies of the MAGA movement will be rounded up and executed, and Trump restored to his rightful place of leadership.
“It’s not unlike a belief in the second coming of Christ,” said Jones. “That at some point God will reorder society and set things right. I think that when a community feels itself in crisis, it does become more susceptible to conspiracy theories and other things that tell them that what they’re experiencing is not ultimately what’s going to happen.”
The notion that a nation of 300 million could belong to anyone in particular is so bizarre to me that it took me years of effort to wrap my mind around it, but I believe white Christians really used to think of the US as their nation. The presence of others had to be tolerated sometimes, but only if they recognized their place. The loss of that sense of ownership, of a sense that this is a place where they were truly at home, that was theirs, has saddened and angered millions of people.
If you want to put a positive spin on contemporary cultural and political struggles, try this: we are witnessing the collapse of the notion that the US belongs to any particular group of people and the rise of a vision of rigid inclusivity that regards ignoring, excluding or slighting anyone as the greatest sin. The weird excesses of wokeness are mostly about battering down the notion that any group has a greater claim than any other to power and belonging.
Meanwhile the battle conservative white Christians raged to keep ownership of the nation has moved from real world politics to fantasyland, and instead of the Moral Majority we have chat rooms where people share the latest apocalyptic gossip. The assault on the Capitol freaked out a lot of people, but it was 5,000 angry losers taking advantage of a crack in the edifice. It accomplished nothing.
Young Americans are more diverse and less religious than any previous generation. It remains to be seen if wokeness can evolve into a positive, widespread coalition wielding real power. But the notion that white Christians by themselves could rule the nation is dead, and the future of conservatism rests as much with Hispanic Catholics and libertarian immigrants as with evangelical churches and grouchy old white folks.