Donald Trump would be nowhere without his evangelical supporters. They voted for him at a record rate, above even the level that born-again George W. Bush enjoyed in 2004. And they remain perhaps his most fervent fans, even in the wake of news about his erratic behavior in office and his affinity for porn actresses outside of it.
To be clear, the evangelical movement is hardly a monolith. There is a long tradition of progressive evangelicalism, but the conservative branch has the bulk of followers. Under its surface, that movement is showing signs of a split precisely because of its close alignment with the president.
Making religion synonymous with politics has its perils.
Some of the erosion is because of Trump’s behavior. In polls, Trump’s support from white evangelical women has dropped 13% from a year ago, although a majority still back him. The findings suggest that a sizeable number of evangelical women find Trump to be something of an embarrassment, as much as they love his policies.
When push comes to shove, those women are still likely to vote for Trump, although without a lot of enthusiasm.
But the movement’s love affair with Trump is having a profound effect on evangelical churches themselves. Some black evangelicals have abandoned majority-white churches where they have been worshipping for years because the full-throated support of Trump has made them feel unwelcome. Everything from the Obama birther conspiracy to the attack on black football players has made some black evangelicals question the commitment of white evangelicals to racial equality.
“It said, to me, that something is profoundly wrong at the heart of the white church,” Chanequa Walker-Barnes, a professor of practical theology at the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University in Atlanta, told The New York Times.
It’s not just black evangelicals. Some well-known white believers with strong political ties, including former Bush administration veterans Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner have warned about the dangers of conflating Trumpism and religion. (The pair’s pleas would have more weight if the Bush administration hadn’t leaned so heavily on the same evangelical leaders behind Trump now.)
But perhaps the biggest threat comes from young evangelicals. Like most religions, the evangelical movement is disproportionately middle-aged and older. The remaining young evangelicals are not of the same mindset as their parents.
That’s why the Princeton Evangelical Fellowship dropped the “Evangelical” from it’s name last year and replaced it with “Christian.”
“I’m old enough to think [evangelical] is a good word, but it’s reached a point where there’s so much baggage attached around it so that it’s no longer a helpful word to identify ourselves,” said Bill Boyce, the group’s executive secretary and associate chaplain.
Polls show that younger evangelicals are much more comfortable than older evangelicals with a diverse society (including with marriage equality) and much more interested in issues like the environment. They also seem wary about the marriage of political convenience that the movement has made.
Of course, when you’re convinced that God is guiding your every step, that doesn’t much matter. As for the movement itself, well, that’s just collateral damage.