Religion and politics — the younger generation isn’t having it
When it comes to voters’ religion, Joe Biden and Donald Trump may be cheering for the opposition.
The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) 2020 census of religion reminds us of a clear trend: white evangelicals, 14 percent of the respondents, are far outnumbered by the religiously unaffiliated or “nones” — 23 percent. In fact, the “nones” now outnumber white mainline protestants (16 percent) and white Catholics (12 percent).
A Pew Research survey on last year’s presidential election (which, in general, corroborates exit polls from news organizations) shows that Trump won more than 80 percent of the white evangelicals, while Biden won nearly two-thirds of the “nones” (and lost the Catholic vote to Trump by 1 point).
There’s an irony.
Biden may be the most religiously conscientious president since Jimmy Carter; he attends mass every week and naturally cites biblical/religious references in speeches. Trump is not a regular church goer and has shown unfamiliarity with the bible.
White evangelicals, who are core supporters of the Republican Party and Trump specifically, have declined significantly over the past decade and a half. A worrisome trend for the GOP.
Mainline Christians have actually stanched their losses and begun to grow again in the past five years, but nothing compares to the dramatic rise in the number of Americans who say they have no religious affiliation — the “nones.”
Looking at the PRRI data, a caveat is that the past couple of years, there’s been a slight downtick in the religiously unaffiliated, a small drop in the “nones.” It may be more people turn to religion in times of crisis.
But my go-to expert on matters religious, Bill Leonard, the former dean of the Wake Forest University Divinity School, is skeptical: “We don’t know yet, but the decline in the religiously affiliated has been consistent throughout the 2000s.”
The increase in church identification last year, Leonard believes, could be attributable to the “ease” of virtual attendance. “There were more people who like sitting at the breakfast table, with their coffee, listening at a sermon.” That’s not the same as attending in person services.
Overall, many churches face financial challenges. There has been a net loss of churches in recent years, some of their own creation. “Churches built football stadiums with a steeple over it,”‘ notes Leonard. “Some have to close, others can’t do ministries because of maintenance.”
A secular relief has been the federal government Paycheck Protection Program, which has doled out billions to churches.
The label “evangelical,” Leonard says, has become deeply polarized in the last few decades, at the core of the Republican base and a turn-off for most Democrats.
The Trump embrace by most white evangelicals caused tension not just with Democrats but within the faith. Prominent dissenters like Russell Moore, a former top official of the Southern Baptist convention, and journalist Michael Gerson have sharply criticized religious leaders’ fealty to a man with such clear character flaws.
In a declining universe, there are exceptions: Some are what Leonard calls the “Christian nationalism” churches, which claim that America always has been a Christian nation — they often are anti-Islam, he said, and most are pro-Trump.
The Washington Post captured one of most robust: Mercy Culture in Fort Worth, Texas. Every Sunday there are three services, with a total of about 4,500 attending. There’s a Saturday service in Spanish. It’s a fundamentalist, pro-Trump message mixed with music and informalities that attract more diverse and some younger worshipers.
Leonard, who’s a Baptist minister and native of Fort Worth, suspects this may be ephemeral. “Fort Worth remains a seedbed of old revival, new charismatic/pentecostal religion,” he said. “Churches catch on, but may well have a shelf life … either because of controversy, loss of original dynamic or pastoral transition. I’d predict similar for Mercy Culture church.”
Another candidate in this category is Paula White, Donald Trump’s personal pastor. She celebrates “prosperity Christianity,” a natural for the former President, whose opponents, she suggested, practice “sorcery and witchcraft.” Not surprisingly she is held in low regard by many evangelical leaders; Russell Moore has called her a “charlatan.”
But the element to pay attention to is age.
According to the PRRI survey, the average age of white evangelicals is 56, while for the “nones” it’s 38… and the “nones” have time on their side — that average is skewed by the youngest demographic.
Younger voters appear to have been especially turned off by the politicization of religion. Three decades ago, only 10 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 called themselves religiously unaffiliated; last year that had more than tripled to 36 percent. That’s also three times or more the number of young Americans who consider themselves a member of any particular religion.
That’s a trend that will transcend Biden and Trump.
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.