Why Most Evangelicals Say They Face “A Lot” of Discrimination
September 7, 2023
Is Christianity under attack in the United States? For a growing number of white evangelical Christians, the answer is yes, but that’s not the only major change in how they understand discrimination in America today.
In 2009, the year America swore in the country’s first Black president, most white evangelical Christians rejected the notion that they were experiencing widespread discrimination. Only about four in ten (42 percent) white evangelicals said that “evangelical Christians” in the U.S. faced a lot of discrimination. Over the next decade, views shifted rapidly. By the time of Trump’s election in 2016, most white evangelicals said they were experiencing a lot of discrimination, and by 2023 it became generally accepted—60 percent now believe evangelical Christians are regularly discriminated against.
Over the same period, evangelicals’ perceptions of discrimination faced by gay and lesbian people decreased. Today, only 39 percent of white evangelicals say gay and lesbian people face a lot of discrimination in the U.S., far less than Americans overall and far less than they used to. In 2009, nearly six in ten (59 percent) white evangelicals said that there was a lot of discrimination against gay and lesbian people. In the last fourteen years, there has been a profound reversal in who white evangelicals believe faces discrimination in American society.
We might dismiss this trend as nothing more than evidence of a persecution complex among white evangelicals, but that does not help explain the timing of these trends or how they are related.
The Growing Influence of Gay and Lesbian People
There has been an undeniable shift in American attitudes toward gay and lesbian people over the past couple of decades. It coincides with a much more visible presence of LGBT people in entertainment media, novels, children’s books, television, and movies. Organizations that track LGBTQ representation in entertainment media have found a massive increase in recent years. The most recent report from GLAAD found that 12 percent of prime-time television characters were LGBTQ, representing a fourfold increase since they began tracking in 2005.
This increased visibility has fundamentally changed perceptions among white evangelicals about who wields cultural power in American society. White evangelical Christians have long felt embattled, fighting for relevance in a rapidly secularizing culture, but the growing acceptance of gay and lesbian people, and the prominence of gay characters, themes, and stories in popular media, have altered perceptions of who is being marginalized in American society. Displays of LGBT cultural influence, in the form of drag shows, pride parades, and pride flags flying in public places, engender the most intense reactions from evangelical Christians, in part, because of what they represent—a sign of their waning influence.
It’s not just the prominence of pride flags either. White evangelicals believe the same forces promoting a more permissive sexual ethic are responsible for religion’s retreat from the public square. Religious participation has been falling steadily for years, and white evangelicals are acutely aware of the diminished role of religion in public life. In 2020, a Pew poll found that two-thirds of white evangelicals believe Christianity’s influence in the U.S. has been decreasing in recent years. Perhaps even more interesting is why they believe it has. Seventy-two percent of white evangelicals say the decline of Christianity is the result of more permissive attitudes about sexual behavior and sexuality in popular culture.
Of course, none of this is evidence of actual discrimination against evangelical Christians. Greater acceptance of gay and lesbian people has transformed American politics, but it hasn’t made LGBT issues a public priority or given LGBT advocates unrivaled influence. Greater representation in popular culture does not erase the abuse or reduce the violence that LGBT people still experience.
There’s another reason white evangelicals have come to believe that they, rather than gay and lesbian people, experience discrimination—they are being told they are. Fears that conservative Christians are facing an increasingly hostile cultural climate are being fanned by political elites. Stoking the specter of persecution can pay large dividends. It keeps people tuned in and paying attention, providing a strong incentive to donate, vote, and volunteer. If an elected official can convince you that they are the only thing standing between you and oblivion, they do not have to do anything else to win your vote. Character flaws, sexual misbehavior, or financial misdeeds are easily overlooked. Trump doesn’t have to be a good guy, so long as he’s “our” guy. In 2016, evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress made this point explicitly: “I don’t want some meek and mild leader or somebody who’s going to turn the other cheek. I’ve said I want the meanest, toughest SOB I can find to protect this nation.”
Encouraging white evangelicals to believe their political foes are bent on their complete destruction leads to a most simplistic approach to political conflict—every issue is divided into winners and losers. A 2020 poll found that most white evangelicals embrace this zero-sum understanding of politics. It also raises the stakes of political conflict and makes compromise nearly impossible. Any accommodation is one step closer to the precipice or to the point of no return. Finally, adopting a worldview in which powerful and nefarious forces are arrayed against you, your children, and your way of life makes all types of conspiracies seem more plausible. And here again, we see white evangelical Christians are far more prone to believe in political conspiracies than others. In a previous post, I wrote about the propensity of evangelical Christians to embrace conspiracies, such as the deep state, 2020 voter fraud, and Antifa infiltrating the January 6th attack on the capital.
I expect people will have varied opinions about the trend above. For some, it is likely exasperating or bewildering. Others may find it to be a completely predictable outcome of the cultural changes that have swept through American society over the past few decades. Wherever you come down, I think it’s important to remember that at least part of what is happening is a reaction to how fast these changes have occurred. Until very recently, white evangelical views on homosexuality were mainstream, and expressing those opinions would not result in criticism or cancellation. The Pew 2007 US Religious Landscape poll found a public that was mostly divided over whether “homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted by society” or discouraged. This was not that long ago.
White evangelical understandings of discrimination—both their personal experiences and the experiences of gay and lesbian people—are wildly misaligned with reality. But it’s a mistake to dismiss it. For some evangelicals, it’s an attempt to make sense of a dramatically transformed cultural landscape. For others, it results from placing trust in people who weaponize their feelings of insecurity and dislocation. I don’t believe these views are necessarily borne out of animosity towards LGBT people, although they do reveal a profound lack of curiosity and empathy. It’s probably not a coincidence that the people who are least likely to believe gay and lesbian people experience discrimination have the fewest friends and family members who are gay or lesbian. And this part is critical.
As Alan Noble, managing editor of Christ and Pop Culture, wrote in The Atlantic: “Tensions between Christians and non-Christians are likely to grow in the coming years as cultural mores shift, and out of this tension will come negotiations, dialogue, lawsuits, ignorance, and conflict.” The only way to correct these misperceptions is for white evangelicals to engage in conversation with real people and not with the malevolent ghosts haunting their imagination.