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This election could transform the future for evangelical Americans

This election could transform the future for evangelical Americans
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With this election marked by bitter divisions, the coronavirus pandemic, and after a summer of civil unrest, 54 percent of Americans believe the best days for the country are yet to come, as Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama both famously said. But behind these numbers is a peculiarity.

While religious Americans are more optimistic about the future than the average Americans, white evangelicals, who are the most loyal base of support for Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBiden to hold virtual bilateral meeting with Mexican president More than 300 charged in connection to Capitol riot Trump Jr.: There are 'plenty' of GOP incumbents who should be challenged MORE, are the only religious group in the country to believe by a majority the best days are behind us, according to a recent survey by the American Enterprise Institute of more than 4,000 adults.

Further, about 66 percent of Hispanic Catholics and 58 percent of Black Protestants think the best days are ahead. However, only 46 percent of white evangelicals think the same. The darkness is starker among white evangelical women than men as 28 percent of white evangelical women think the American dream is out of reach. By way of contrast, it is worth noting that 80 percent of religious Gen Zers believe the best days are in the future, while just 60 percent of Gen Zers who are not religious do.

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The rhetoric of Trump could galvanize the support of people who want a fighter on their side, but it has evidently done little to foster optimism. In a survey last year of 3,600 adults, a third of white evangelicals think people who grew up middle class are likely to move up the ladder, compared with 58 percent of Hispanic Catholics and 43 percent of Black Protestants. In a survey this year of over 3,500 adults, 61 percent of white evangelicals said economic policies benefit some at the cost of others, while 49 percent of Hispanic Catholics and 39 percent of Black Protestants think the same.

The bleak outlook of white evangelicals is partly a reaction to the sense of unsteadiness that social change creates. A plurality of white evangelicals and Black Protestants think that their denominations have to preserve the traditional beliefs and practices instead of shift to current circumstances or use modern practices. They are the only religious groups to do so.

But the gap is much wider among white evangelicals, as 73 percent favor preserving traditional beliefs while 22 percent favor making adjustments. With Black Protestants, the split is 48 percent to 37 percent. With all other religious groups, a plurality favors adjustments. White evangelicals are the only religious group in which less than half think the country is successful due to its ability to change rather than due to its reliance on traditions. An average of 62 percent for all other religious groups believe the same.

White evangelicals are more likely to think liberals exert more influence in culture than conservatives. About 46 percent of white evangelicals have this view, while 19 percent of Hispanic Catholics and 16 percent of Black Protestants think liberals exert more influence on it. The majority of most religious Americans believe liberals and conservatives influence culture the same, however, only 39 percent of white evangelicals think this.

It worth noting that one thing that attenuates the bleak outlook of white evangelicals somewhat is the level for religious adherence. For instance, white evangelicals who do not attend church often are twice as likely as the more devout to think the American dream is out of reach. But overall, despite their general locked in votes for Trump, white evangelicals show less confidence than other groups in us keeping the country great.

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As anyone like myself who grew up within this religion understands, white evangelicals have viewed the future with a kind of wariness due to the mix of “end of times” theology and an awareness of cultural forces opposed to them. That could certainly be at play here. But more evident in the data is a sense of darkness consistent with the fires that Trump has stoked.

White evangelicals are more likely than other religious groups to think immigration is bad for the economy, discrimination against whites is a problem, and confederate monuments are symbols for southern pride. Fueled by Trump, white evangelicals have become the stark outliers to other religious groups on some of the most divisive national issues.

If Trump loses the election, many white evangelicals will continue to view the world through a lens he has shaped for them, but it would also create an opening for new evangelical leaders to offer a vision of the future that is more consistent with positive engagement that marked their past.

Ryan Streeter is the director of domestic policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Follow him on Twitter @StreeterRyan.