Posted on November 21, 2020

The White Elephants in the Room

Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR, November 18, 2020

{snip} If you paid attention to the stories about exit polling, you heard a lot of talk about how Latinx and Black voters showed up in bigger numbers this year than back in 2016. But on this week’s episode, we also focus on a conversation that’s not happening: The one about a group whose support for Donald Trump hasn’t wavered. We’re talking about the white vote, and in particular, white evangelical voters.

Trump’s support is overwhelmingly white, but no one goes harder for him than the white voters who have been the beating heart of the conservative movement for decades. No matter what happened over the last four years — Charlottesville, ‘sh*thole countries,” the disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic — about 80 percent of white evangelicals consistently approved of President Trump’s performance.

While their numbers have dwindled from 21 to 15% of the U.S. population, white evangelicals are a force to be reckoned with in politics, says Robert P. Jones, the author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity and the CEO of the Public Religion Research InstituteThey make up a little over a third of Republicans, Jones says, and have an outsized impact on elections, making up about a quarter of voters. That’s right—15% of Americans account for around 25% of those who turn out to vote.

We talked to Jones about the power of this voting bloc, and what that means for the national discussion around race in this country. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You said that the number of white evangelicals dropped from 21 to 15%. What’s happening there? Is that just attrition, people growing old and dying, or people no longer identifying as evangelical?

It’s a mix of those things. It’s more decline than would be accounted for than just simply generational replacement; there are lower birth rates, and so there are more people dying than are being born. So there is that dynamic. But what’s really turbocharged the drop in the last decade has been younger people leaving the group. So one of the other things we’re seeing is that, as [the group] is shrinking, it’s also becoming older. The median age has been ticking up; the median age now is in the high 50s in this group, and only around one in 10 are under the age of 30.


In some of the recent polling data that you found before the election, eight in 10 white evangelicals said that they would vote for Trump. Given Trump’s very particular biography and demeanor, his appeal among white evangelicals is confusing for a lot of us who are not part of that world. So why have they embraced him so enthusiastically?


Trump’s appeal among this group really was a cultural appeal. It was really the “Make America Great Again” mantra. I think most of the power of that slogan was in the last word: again. It was hearkening back to a kind of 1950s America, where white Christians and particularly white Anglo-Saxon Protestants were more dominant in the society demographically and culturally. {snip}


You found that white evangelicals are the only religious group to think that Islam is at odds with American values. And while most Americans say that police are discriminatory towards Black folks, white evangelicals overwhelmingly do not think that’s the case. But there is a minority of white evangelicals who don’t feel that way, according to your survey data. What do we know about those white evangelicals? And why are they breaking with the wider evangelical world on issues around race?

{snip} And in our survey, what we asked was: Do you think that the recent killing of African-Americans by police is part of a pattern of how police treat African-Americans? Or do you think they were isolated incidents?

And what we find is, overall, 7 in 10 white evangelicals say that these are just isolated incidents. They’re the only religious group with that level of kind of denial of systemic racism in policing. They’re also the only religious group that has not moved over the last five years. That’s worth saying as well: Other white Christian groups, like white Catholics and mainline Protestants for example, have moved 10 percentage points on this question. {snip}