Surely reports of the Christian right’s death have been greatly exaggerated? To the casual leftist observer, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign would seem to be the zenith, not the “last spastic breath,” of a movement that has long been racist, misogynistic, and homophobic just under the surface (if not in full sight). And yet, like many key events in GOP politics over the last two decades, the rise of Trump as the Republican nominee was portrayed in the popular press as the death knell of the Christian right. However, it is significant to note that this time around, those death pronouncements agree with most social scientists’ assessments and even some Christian right leaders’ view of their own movement
Social science scholarship has been cautiously moving in this direction for the better part of a decade. For example, describing the retirements, deaths, scandals, and defections of the original Christian right leadership in recent years, political scientists Clyde Wilcox and Caren Robinson explain that the movement is “not dead, but neither is it thriving.” Previously, the sociologist Christian Smith described American evangelicalism as simultaneously “embattled,” and “thriving.” Meanwhile, there are other, more definitive accounts—like that of historian Steven P. Miller—which see the era of the Christian right as already concluded and Frank Lambert, who suggests that the forces of leftist evangelicalism are on the rise. However, there are two misunderstandings that often plague both popular and scholarly descriptions of America’s largest religion.
First, the differences between the Christian right and evangelicalism are rarely understood. American evangelicalism is a transdenominational Protestant Christian tradition that is geographically, racially, socioeconomically, and politically diverse, while the Christian right refers to politically conservative (and mostly white) Christians—not all of them evangelical—engaged in activism such as that of the Moral Majority. The number of evangelicals has stayed remarkably stable over the last ten years, despite losses in every other Christian group. Meanwhile, the activism, consensus, and power of the late twentieth century Christian right have markedly declined.
Although radical Christian right activism against LGBTQ and reproductive rights continues—including domestic terrorism against abortion clinics and the anti-gay funeral protests of Westboro Baptist Church—the evangelical mainstream has moderated their tone on these issues and the most powerful pastors are now not necessarily as conservative nor as vocal. Meanwhile, the rolls of active donors and volunteers for Christian right political organizations have slowed to a trickle of their former might. Where the Christian right was once a movement blessed with consensus and homogeneity, they are now in disarray, as political diversity among evangelicals increases.
Second, the Christian right’s decline is usually explained by deaths and retirements—reasons grounded in old assumptions of secularization—with little discussion of young evangelicals. The evangelical movement is not shrinking, but their politics are shifting away from the Christian right.
Survey data indicates a growing generational split among evangelicals, with the younger generation supporting a range of left-leaning policies that their parents and grandparents vehemently opposed. These young evangelicals are interested in environmentalism, alleviating global poverty, fighting the AIDS epidemic, and supporting LGBT rights, while continuing a generally conservative tack on abortion, national defense, and capital punishment. Although, even those core issues are sometimes thrown into question. Furthermore, young evangelicals are more ethnically diverse than previous generations, which also works to shift their politics to the left on most issues.
Historically, this is not a surprising shift, as the story of evangelical America supplies ample precedents for an evangelical leadership that throws their weight behind leftist causes: “the old fashioned gospel” of the Gilded Age; the “social gospel” of the Progressive Era; and the political preaching and religiously-infused activist rhetoric of black evangelical pastors during the civil rights era. Furthermore, since the 1970s, the dominance of the Christian right has always been countered by progressive evangelical denominations and organizations, such as Sojourners and Messiah College. While the forces of the evangelical left will not reach a critical mass in this week’s election, it seems inevitable that they will make their presence known four years from now, if not in earlier congressional and local races.
In complement to these shifts, devotional authors such as Rick Warren, Sarah Young, Rob Bell, and Sarah Bessey have also influenced the tenor of millennial evangelicals’ politics. While Warren’s former anti-LGBT activism is anathema to most millennials, the devotional orientation of these authors and pastors has fueled an evangelical revival the likes of which has not been seen since the formation of the Christian right forty years ago. In contrast to the pastors and devotional writers of the Christian right era, Warren and those following in his footsteps focus is on becoming rather than sin, on eternity rather than apocalypse. 1Tice-Jen, Joanna. “Thine is the Kingdom: The Political Thought of 21st Century Evangelicalism.” PhD dissertation, The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, 2016.
Shifting demographics, political fatigue, and an altered tone in devotional texts have produced a generation of evangelicals who are no longer interested in being identified with the multifaceted bigotries so long associated with the Christian right (and therefore misapplied to evangelicalism). The political discourse on evangelical college campuses is a case in point. Prime examples include a Black Lives Matter activist as keynote speaker at the largest evangelical college student event of 2015 and the dismissal of a political science professor from Wheaton College for saying that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. In both cases, young evangelical women of color have been criticized and punished by the old conservative evangelical establishment and praised by the evangelical left.
How do Trump evangelicals and this leftist cohort coexist in the same religious universe? According to Philip Gorski’s account, “Trumpism is a secular form of religious nationalism,” so those who identify as evangelical and support Trump are doing so for non-religious reasons. This argument agrees with political scientist Geoffrey Layman’s account of Trump evangelicals as cultural evangelicals, who don’t attend church. In Gorski’s terms, Trumpism “strips religious identity of its ethical content and transcendental reference,” and becomes, “mainly a marker of ethnicity.” Through these accounts, the complete political separation between cultural and religious evangelicals begins to make sense. Young leftist evangelical leaders, who were disgusted by Trump from the outset, have begun to define themselves in opposition to the politics of the Christian right, especially in the Trump moment.
Read in this way, Gorski’s secular religious nationalism and Layman’s cultural evangelicalism both suggest an evangelical movement that is splintering into, on one side, those who believe in evangelical theology and, on the other side, those who believe in the cultural code (of white supremacy, prescribed gender roles, and homophobia) that was more-or-less wed to most evangelical churches in the second half of the twentieth century. The existence of evangelical Hillary Clinton (and Bernie Sanders) supporters alongside evangelical Trump supporters spells a very different reality from the height of the Christian right, when the majority of evangelicals were loyal Republicans.
However, it would be a gross misrepresentation to say that all of evangelicalism is on a leftist course. Rather, this essay demonstrates the complexity and diversity of evangelical political positions over time and across a vast movement, while pointing to the most surprising contemporary development of evangelical politics: the leftward moving evangelical youth.
So what will the political agenda of the evangelical movement look like when it is “born again” under the leadership of evangelicals under age forty? Since evangelicals have never agreed on politics, despite their reputation, I see two other possibilities alongside continued leftist movement. First, a quietism and retreat mirroring the evangelical position after the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, and second, what I’m calling a “purpose-driven” neoliberalism (pulling from Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life) that espouses itself as much to the Democratic party as it does to the GOP. But regardless of what comes to pass on November 8 and in the next election cycle, defining evangelicalism in political terms will probably always be a complex task—one that should feature a level of nuance appropriate to such a variegated movement.