Could Trump Drive Young White Evangelicals Away From the GOP?

Daniel A. Cox August 20, 2019


A central message of President Trump’s insurgent candidacy in 2016 boiled down to this: Millions of Americans are losers—economicallyculturally and even demographically. Perhaps no group needed less convincing of this proposition than white evangelical Christians, who have long felt embattled. “Make America Great Again” was the perfect slogan for Americans who had already embraced the notion that the country’s culture and way of life had been deteriorating since the 1950s. Indeed, white evangelical Christians voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton in large numbers, and Trump has maintained their support to an impressive degree.

But there are increasing signs of a generational rift: Younger white evangelicals have not fully bought into Trump’s politics and are less receptive to Trump’s message of cultural decline. The age gap among white evangelicals in some ways just mirrors the age gap among the public overall with regards to Trump, but in conversations with a number of younger white evangelical Christians, many said they are reexamining the way their faith informs their politics and whether the two have become too tightly intertwined.

If you drill to the center of Trump’s political base, a big chunk of those voters are white evangelical Christians. Evangelical leaders are among the first to defend him from criticism and the most ready to forgive his personal behavior. Roughly seven in 10 white evangelical Christians approve of the job Trump is doing as president, and many have been delighted by Trump’s first term.

Younger white evangelical Christians, however, express far less enthusiasm for Trump, even if they haven’t completely abandoned him. According to the 2019 Voter Study Group survey, only six in 10 younger white evangelical Christians (between the ages of 18 and 44) view Trump favorably, whereas 80 percent of those age 45 or older have a favorable opinion of the president. The intensity gap is even more pronounced. Only one-quarter (25 percent) of younger white evangelical Christians report having a “very favorable” opinion of Trump, compared to a majority (55 percent) of older white evangelicals.

No issue exemplifies Trump’s influence among white evangelical Christians—and highlights the emerging generational divide—more than immigration. From the start, Trump has made opposition to immigration a central part of his political identity. And white evangelical Christians rallied around Trump in the 2016 election and were quick to embrace his hard-line immigration agenda. During the campaign, white evangelical Christians expressed support for preventing Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. and temporarily banning Muslims from coming to the country. After the election, they coaleseced in support of building a wall along the southern border and blocking immigration from majority Muslim countries.

Indeed, Trump has managed to push the issue of immigration to the center of the evangelical agenda. Seventy-two percent of white evangelical Christians believe immigration should be a top priority, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.1 Five years ago, in 2014, that number was 49 percent.

But, again, the broad policy support masks a growing generational divide in views on immigrants. Two-thirds (66 percent) of young white evangelical Christians (age 18 to 34) say that immigrants coming to the U.S. strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents, a view shared by only 32 percent of white evangelical seniors (age 65+). A majority (54 percent) of older white evangelical Christians believe that immigrants are a burden on American society.

So why has Trump found younger white evangelicals harder to win over? Age has a lot to do with it. The president is profoundly unpopular among all young adults. A 2019 Harvard Institute of Politics survey finds that 70 percent of young adults (age 18 to 24) disapprove of the job Trump is doing as president.

But immigration in particular points to another reason young white evangelicals have been less receptive to Trump: Their lives have been dramatically different than their parents’.

Most white evangelical Christians say that the U.S. becoming a majority nonwhite country is a negative development. However, the younger white evangelical Christians I spoke to said the immigration debate is complicated. “Immigration is not as black-and-white as abortion,” said Lauren Burns, an evangelical student enrolled at Biola University.

First, the young evangelicals told me that demographic change doesn’t register as a “threat” to them. Like young Americans more generally, racial, ethnic and religious diversity is a normal part of their everyday life. In the U.S., only half of all evangelical Christians under 30 are white according to a 2016 study. On Christian college campuses, which have seen enrollment gains in recent years, young white evangelical Christians are part of an increasingly diverse student body. White students account for 62 percent of the student body on the roughly 140 campuses affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, down from 82 percent in 1999.

And there are other reasons to think younger evangelicals would be less receptive to a message of America in decline. Anecdotally, at least, it seems young white evangelical Christians are less apt to believe their faith is in imminent danger from the broader culture.

In a recent interview with Newsweek, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, argued that the “Make America Great Again” slogan never really resonated with younger white evangelicals. “Young evangelicals do not feel as if they are losing anything in terms of American culture,” he wrote. “They came of age at a time when following Christ seemed countercultural to them anyway. They never expected a nominally Christian culture in which being a church member would be the equivalent of being a good American.”

Indeed, young adults are upending many of the religious conventions and cultural assumptions that defined American public life in the past. Young people don’t feel particularly negatively toward atheists, nor do they view Islam as incompatible with American values. They don’t feel especially confident in religious leaders and they don’t see religious commitment as synonymous with virtue. The 2018 General Social Survey found that the majority of young adults say that people with strong religious beliefs are often intolerant of others. Even back in 2015, the overwhelming majority of young adults said they do not believe America is a Christian nation—one in five said it never was—and being Christian is not an important part of being American. The Christian consensus of previous generations, such as there was, is gone.

But critically, for young white evangelical Christians, this is the way it has always been. Numerically, they are already in the minority. Only 8 percent of adults under 30 are white evangelical Protestants. The segment of that age group that’s unaffiliated with any religion is nearly five times as large. Among Americans age 65 and older, white evangelicals account for more than one quarter of the population. Not surprisingly, young adults today are actually more likely to say they know an atheist than an evangelical. Growing up in Portland, Oregon, Burns’s group of friends in high school included people of color, gay and lesbian people, and atheists. “If I limited myself to only conservative white Christians, it would be pretty lonely,” she said.

Rather than yearning for the past, many young white evangelical Christians I spoke with have learned to navigate between an increasingly secular culture and their own deeply held religious commitments. Perhaps nothing defines the experience of young white evangelical Christians more than the conflict between their peers and their faith. Aaryn Marsters, who at the time of the interview was a 33-year-old evangelical Christian living in Charlotte, North Carolina, described the experience to The New York Times: “As evangelical young people become more liberal, older evangelicals think we’ve been brainwashed by the world. And as we continue to hold onto our faith and some more conservative or traditional values, many non-Christians believe we are still brainwashed from our upbringing.”

For many older white evangelical Christians, Trump’s vigorous public defense of conservative Christians remains the most compelling reason to support his reelection. At the Road to Majority Conference, an evangelical grassroots summit, for example, Faith and Freedom Coalition chairman Ralph Reed affirmed evangelicals’ unwavering commitment to President Trump. “There has never been anyone who has defended us and fought for us, who we have loved more than Donald J. Trump.” Jerry Fallwell Jr., head of Liberty University and a staunch Trump supporter, recently suggested that Christians needed to stop electing “nice guys” in favor of “street fighters” like Trump. Facing what they see as an increasingly hostile cultural climate, many older white evangelical Christians view Trump as their last and only option.

But this sentiment makes many younger evangelical Christians profoundly uncomfortable and strikes them as practically unnecessary. Aryana Petrosky, an evangelical and recent graduate from a nondenominational Christian school in California, worries about Christians aligning themselves with those in power. She also challenges the notion that conservative Christians need politicians to defend their beliefs in the public square. “We shouldn’t be looking to political leaders to defend our faith,” she said. It’s a view that is entirely consistent with the way younger white evangelicals understand politics. A 2017 Voter Study Group survey found that while nearly three-quarters of older white evangelical Christians agree that “politics is ultimately a struggle between good and evil,” younger white evangelicals are far more evenly divided on this issue.

So what about 2020? Few young white evangelical Christians who I’ve spoken with express enthusiasm about the coming election. For most, Trump is not their preferred candidate, but an increasingly secular and liberal Democratic Party does not present an attractive alternative. Given evangelicals’ strong pro-life commitment, the Democrats’ vocal support for abortion access makes the possibility of defection even less likely.

At this stage, a couple of predictions are easy. White evangelical Christians will strongly back Trump’s reelection bid, following a decades-old pattern, while young adults will rally to the Democratic nominee, as they have done in every presidential election since 2004. In a two-way contest, Trump is still likely to make off with the majority of young white evangelical votes. A tepid vote counts just as much as an enthusiastic one. Yet Trump is redefining the relationship young evangelical Christians have with the Republican Party. The long-term implications for our politics and evangelical Christianity could be profound.

Kate Stewart was raised in a very civically minded family and had been excited about the prospect of voting in the 2016 election long before her 18th birthday. But she became dismayed and disillusioned by her options. “Having to choose between these lesser of two evils was really disheartening,” she said. Looking ahead to 2020, Stewart for the first time in her voting life has started to look at candidates outside the Republican Party. “I’m cautiously optimistic that the evangelical vote, or at least my evangelical vote, might find a home outside the party of Donald Trump.”

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