Looking back at the last eight years of the relationship between Donald Trump and evangelical Christians, it seems that both everything and nothing has changed. The Christian right has replaced the worn-out moniker of the Moral Majority with MAGA. But, as powerful as Trumpism is today, my argument from 2016 holds up: this group is hurtling towards its demise. And now, that prediction is born out in the data: among Americans sixty-five and older, 18% are white evangelicals, compared with just 9% of Americans ages eighteen to twenty-nine. Trump brought about a resurgence of the Christian right precisely because they are on the decline. In twenty-first century America, whiteness is in decline, Christianity is in decline, and traditional norms of gender and sexuality are in decline.

There are, however, three elements from my original essay that can be updated. First, right-wing Christian activism under Trump has enjoyed a startlingly successful resurgence, despite its aging base. Second, the leftward turn of young evangelicals, while still likely, may be less of a turn and more of a dead end, as the numbers of young evangelicals continue to hemorrhage. Third, whereas in 2016 I could reasonably state that “radical Christian right activism against LGBTQ and reproductive rights ha[d] moderated their tone,” with Trump at the head of the movement, many of the “racist, misogynistic, and homophobic” hallmarks of Christian right activism have been resuscitated.

Today, we see this resurgence in the linkages between white evangelicals, white nationalism, and white supremacy. In the early years of Trump-as-candidate and then president, racially motivated hate crimes shot up in response to the tone he set for his campaign and administration. Later, the Supreme Court’s 2022 Dobbs decision ensured that the MAGA movement would have a legacy in the curtailment of women’s reproductive rights. As Trump’s third electoral bid grows closer, the ACLU reports that there are currently 469 anti-LGBTQ bills passing through state houses, following a record-setting year in 2023, which nearly tripled the number of bills drafted in 2022.

These MAGA successes are rooted in a basic compatibility between Trump’s target audience and evangelicals: these are largely populations without a college degree, which makes them more susceptible to misinformation. A long tradition of scholarship on American religion explains that evangelicals are religiously and culturally primed to accept the type of conspiracy theories and skepticism of science that characterizes the MAGA movement today. This priming has led to  higher-than-average Republican levels of Trump-associated ideas among evangelicals, such as engagement with QAnon, belief that the 2020 election was stolen through voter fraud, belief that the antifascist group Antifa bears most of the responsibility for the Capitol riot, and skepticism of scientific and medical facts about the COVID pandemic and COVID vaccines.

In the original essay, I predicted that evangelicalism would be “born again” under the leadership of evangelicals under age forty. I still believe that evangelicalism in the next chapter of American history will have to make a leftward turn, for its survival and because that is what we see in the data, but perhaps I should have been more precise in the timeline for this prediction. As the conservative white evangelical population ages over the next twenty years, it will bring the angry, aggravated death throes of the Christian right. The next generation will also find its place in a world that is predicted to be more secular, more diverse, and more queer. What happens in this November’s election cannot stop the inevitable demographic and cultural changes that will shape the future of all Americans, including evangelicals.

The essay below was originally published on The Immanent Frame on November 7, 2016.

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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 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.