The religious sect poses a unique danger to the future of American democracy.
In the post-mortem on one of the most contentious and high-stakes elections in American history, two truths are apparent. Black Americans vote for Democrats and White Evangelical Protestants (WEPs) vote for Republicans. The first of these observations is an innocuous truism. Black electoral support for Democrats is not only long-established, and well-chronicled, it is mostly harmless. However heavily Black voters skew toward Democrats, they lack the numbers to skew elections outside America’s handful of large urban centers. A Democrat who wants to win a national election will still need a significant number of white votes. The second observation, though, is more troubling. Hyper-partisan White Evangelical Republicans are not only more populous and more widely dispersed than Black Democrats. They are decidedly more dangerous.
The WEP explanation for their partisanship is a simple one: They believe that life begins at conception and that legal abortion is mass murder. They believe they are charged by God to defend the sanctity of unborn life, at any cost. The last part is the key. And it is what makes the current WEP movement in America so damaging. Where Black political partisanship is logically and transparently tied to real and perceived differences in the parties’ approach to race, the partisanship of WEPs is more insidious. What the group markets as straightforward Christian religious conviction is actually something more cunning. On close inspection, what sets WEPs apart from other groups as a voting bloc is neither their Christianity specifically nor their religiosity broadly defined. In survey after survey, what sets WEPs apart from other American political actors… is Whiteness.
Let’s be clear that this is not Christian.
If you have never read the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it is worth familiarizing yourself. Particularly in this time when it is so shamelessly invoked in defense of anti-Gospel, anti-Christian things, it is both perplexing and reassuring to be reminded that the Great Commission of Christianity is neither to root out abortion, nor to elect and defend Republican politicians. Read it for yourself. From the first word of Matthew to the last word of John, you will find no trace of the amoral, ethnocentric, single-issue pragmatism that animates White Evangelical Protestant politics. As a Christian, this is validating. As someone who understands the mobilizing power of religious devotion, it is terrifying.
For if all of that hyper-partisan religious fervor is not actually directed at Christian ends, to what end is it being directed? The revocation of safe, legal abortion in America is the most obvious answer. But this is a mirage of specificity. WEPs in the U.S. pursue their political agenda with such single-minded concentration that any political party willing to acquiesce to its will on abortion can expect to receive tens of millions of its members’ votes no matter what other rights, issues, or principles are at stake. This means that White Evangelical Protestants, unmoored from any mediating theological commitments to things like charity, decency, humility, concern for the poor, empathy for prisoners, etc., can effectively be mobilized in support of anything.
How has this come to be?
As a political project, the end of legal abortion in America could theoretically be accomplished in the next ten years. Or… One can imagine a world where robust sex education and access to affordable birth control reduce the demand for abortion to near zero levels. In theory, this would leave WEPs free to pursue aspects of their agenda with more broad mainstream and secular appeal. But this is not to be.
In a world where legal abortion were eliminated, an army of WEPs would still be summoned to hold the line of unwavering, uncritical support for the party of pro-life, lest the scourge of abortion re-assert itself. To drive abortion underground, and keep it there, single-issue WEPs are called to look the other way on an ever-expanding list of anti-Gospel, anti-Jesus offenses. It is important to acknowledge that some white Christians are already rejecting that compromise.
“The unborn” are a convenient group of people to advocate for. They never make demands of you; they are morally uncomplicated, unlike the incarcerated, addicted, or the chronically poor; they don’t resent your condescension or complain that you are not politically correct; unlike widows, they don’t ask you to question patriarchy; unlike orphans, they don’t need money, education, or childcare; unlike aliens, they don’t bring all that racial, cultural, and religious baggage that you dislike; they allow you to feel good about yourself without any work at creating or maintaining relationships; and when they are born, you can forget about them, because they cease to be unborn. It’s almost as if, by being born, they have died to you. You can love the unborn and advocate for them without substantially challenging your own wealth, power, or privilege, without re-imagining social structures, apologizing, or making reparations to anyone. They are, in short, the perfect people to love if you want to claim you love Jesus but actually dislike people who breathe.
Prisoners? Immigrants? The sick? The poor? Widows? Orphans? All the groups that are specifically mentioned in the Bible? They all get thrown under the bus for the unborn.
“All the groups that are specifically mentioned in the Bible.”
When WEPs are asked about the trade-offs they make to oppose abortion — and they are very aware that there are trade-offs — they will tell you confidently that abortion kills more people than any of the causes on which they compromise. And this can be true because the fight against abortion is not a fight on behalf of those gestating waiting to be born. For true believers, it is a fight for the lives of every American who will ever be conceived, and will need the protection of the law to ensure their safety in the womb. And the number of those vulnerable is literally unquantifiable. This is the spiritual math that justifies the wholesale abandonment of every named, conscious, striving, suffering, breathing person. There are, and will always be, more hypothetical vulnerable unborn children in the minds of WEPs than there are actual murdered Black Americans, caged and orphaned children, sterilized immigrant women, or exploited migrant workers. For single-issue pro-life WEPs, the calculus on abortion is simple. The protection of those who may someday be born outweighs any actual suffering of those who already have been.
However morally questionable this calculus is to some, it might as least be logically understandable… except that it is baldly, transparently illogical.
Political policy positions do not have to be either/or. There is no reason that WEPs cannot advocate for the life of the unborn and the dignity of the poor. Indeed, some of the minority of WEPs who have peeled away from the mass have advocated just such a position. If life is sacred, they reason, then it is sacred “from the womb to the tomb.” There is no discounting suffering after birth. This way of reasoning is not only theologically sound; it is also potentially politically transformative. Imagine if the energy of the pro-life movement were also marshaled in support of incarcerated people, or immigrants, or the poor. Imagine if the cost of a White Evangelical Protestant vote was meaningful policy in the interest of underprivileged children, or exploited workers. What profound social good might be born out of the marriage of WEP faith and Republican politics?
Instead we find the mass of American WEPs willfully and ardently joined to a racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, anti-scientific, egomaniacal, and anti-Gospel political platform. And this is how we know that contemporary White Evangelical Protestant politics are not about the sanctity of life. But if it is not actually respect for life that animates the faithful in White Evangelicalism, what is it?
Let’s have a look at some recent findings.
In the 2020 American Values Survey, the Public Religion Research Institute asked Americans about their positions on a range of contemporary social issues. Respondents were given fifteen issues and asked to rate them all as “Critical”, “One of many important issues,” or “Not that important.” The results, broken down by religious sect and summarized below, present a disturbing picture of the actual social commitments of White Evangelical Protestants.
Three curious and concerning observations are represented here. First, we see what we have already observed. Abortion is a critical issue in the mind of WEP Americans (upper left corner). But scan the remaining entries and a curious dissonance emerges. The issue of abortion, for which WEPs attribute their passion to their Christian faith, does not appear among the top three issues of concern for any other mainstream sect of American Christians, nor for non-Christians. It is not among the most “critical” priorities for other White or Black Protestants. It does not even make the top three for White or Hispanic Catholics.
This brings us to the second point of concern. WEPs are the only religious sect in which a majority (more than 50%) of respondents did not view the coronavirus pandemic as a critical issue. In every other religious or unaffiliated subgroup, the pandemic appears as a critical issue facing the United States. In six of the nine groups, the pandemic was the most frequently cited critical issue facing our country. White Evangelical Protestants are the only subgroup in the survey who did not rank a global pandemic that is currently killing the elderly, making widows, orphaning children, ravaging prisons, and starving the poor, among the three most critical issues facing their country.
Now we arrive at the most telling point. If WEPs are not critically concerned with the coronavirus pandemic, what then, besides abortion, do they consider critical? The answer is not racial inequality, like we see in the responses of Black Protestants. It is not health care, as it is with Hispanic Protestants, White Catholics, and other Christians. It is not even crime, as it is with other non-Black Protestants. The third most critical issue concerning WEPs is terrorism.
That racially loaded, ever-present threat of violence from others and outsiders. That obvious justification for refusing immigrants, detaining strangers, profiling minorities, and stockpiling guns. This, rather than the sick, the poor, the climate, or the unemployed, is a top three critical issue for White Evangelical Protestants. We need not linger on the racial implications of this point. It is widely understood that “terrorism” in the American imagination connotes violence committed against White America by people of color. (If you still require evidence of this point, see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)
But we need not rely on popular understandings of racially loaded terms to prove our point. The architects of the American Values Survey did not simply ask questions with racial implications, leaving readers to interpret the results. In one particularly telling instance, they asked an explicitly racial question about how respondents view events in American life.
The survey conductors explain the question this way:
This survey contained an embedded experiment to evaluate how the race of protesters influenced Americans’ perceptions of the protests themselves. PRRI divided the sample into two demographically identical subsamples and gave each subsample a nearly identical question, differing only by the fact that one question specified the race of the protesters while the other did not. This experiment found significant differences in opinions on these statements among whites overall, and particularly among white subgroups such as Republicans and evangelicals.
The graph below presents the results of the embedded experiment on race. The green dots on the right reflect the percentage of each group who support protests by Americans. The blue dots on the left reflect the percentage of the same demographic group who support protests by Black Americans. The difference between the blue and green dots can be thought of as how much a group’s support for protesting falls when they know the protestors are Black. Among every demographic subgroup of White Americans, the group that is most likely to withdraw its support for protests when the protestors are Black is White Evangelical Protestants.
When WEPs are asked their opinion of those protesting against unfair treatment by the government, they are 20 percentage points less likely to support Black Americans than they are to support “Americans.” This is a greater drop-off than was observed in any other group of white respondents, including whites without a college degree. WEPs, a religious group whose charter exalts love of one’s neighbor second only to love of God, are less supportive of their Black neighbors’ struggle for justice than any other demographic group of white voters in America.
At this point, it is worth pausing to reflect on where we stand. What we see in WEP politics is not Christian, insofar as it is neither commanded nor condoned by Christ. And it is not actually respect for life, insofar as it is not concerned with the lives of those outside the womb. Instead, we have a single-issue religiously-driven political project supposedly aimed at securing the fundamental rights of voiceless, voteless, numberless unborn Americans… but which, at a minimum, also functions to give genteel Judeo-Christian cover to the racial insecurities of members of the nation’s dominant ethnic group.
The implications of this for both religion and politics in America are alarming. The religious implications are in some ways easier to quantify. A simple review of the Gospel message makes plain how far WEPs have strayed from its teachings. And white Christian communities are openly wrestling with the implications of that divergence for their witness.
In “Why Evangelicals Disagree on the President,” Timothy Dalrymple argues that different groups of WEPs hold different, but equally respectable views of the place of the church in public life. In a masterful and humane apologia of WEP Trump supporters, Dalrymple argues that there is “nothing essentially irrational or immoral” in supporting the president. But he goes on to explain his own position this way:
I believe the evangelical alignment with the Trump administration has advanced the kingdoms of men but not the kingdom of God. I worry it has damaged the culture and tarnished our witness for generations. Of course, I could be wrong. I hope I am wrong. But I lament that so many people now look at evangelicals and see Trump instead of Christ, and I fear my children will grow up in a society more hostile to their faith as a result. And I am heartbroken that so many on the margins, in particular African American believers, have been wounded by white evangelical support for the president.
What happens when a group whose charter commands that it make followers of “all nations” adopts a white supremacist, anti-immigrant platform? For American Christians reflecting on their political alliance with this administration, the consequences for their Kingdom-building work are clear.
The political implications may actually be more damaging.
Divorced from any political allegiance to the Gospel proper, White Evangelicals effectively constitute a mercenary voting bloc with religious zeal. In exchange for ethnic cover, disguised as fealty to the sanctity of unborn life, irreligious political strategists can summon tens of millions of WEP votes in support of anti-Christian political projects across American and international life. We have already seen protection of the unborn invoked to support or excuse police brutality, the abuse of immigrants, the abduction of children, and the destruction of the environment. The astounding and destructive hypocrisy of this calculus is well-documented within and beyond Christian circles. (For examples, see here, here, here, and here.)
But what, if anything, can be done to combat this damage? The answer is once again found in Whiteness.
If you wanted to recruit a group of partisan followers who would be loyal to a fault, it would be hard to conceive a more suitable group than evangelical Christians. Christians are taught that their faith will set them apart from the world. They are taught to expect that they will be misunderstood, rejected, and even persecuted for adherence to their faith. It matters not that secular Americans don’t understand them. They’re not supposed to. This priming is an important form of defense for devoted Christians who (sometimes of their own fault, sometimes not) are ostracized by the rest of the world. But this same defense inoculates well-meaning, wayward Christians from valid and vital critiques of their racism, classism, homophobia, and ethnonationalism.
We see this difficulty in the testimonies of those who have found their way out of the Christianist cult of Trumpism. In a wonderfully warm, honest, and reflective piece, Carol Kuruvilla shares the testimonies of several former Trump supporters who split with the president over their moral and religious convictions about his politics. If you want to be encouraged about the future of authentic, egalitarian Christianity in America, it is a worthwhile read. But it is both encouraging and alarming to know that so many earnest Christians were so deeply misled, and that the path out of that dark and backward place was so hard to find and to walk. Nearly all report that praying and reading the Gospel again were critical parts of their journey. But these are all the things that Christians are supposed to do anyway. And certainly these devoted pro-life believers were not wholly unfamiliar with the Gospel message. So how did they come to be lost?
America’s crippling, shameful failure to foster open, honest, critical awareness of its own racial past has come home to roost in the rise of a Christianist Frankenfaith that distorts our national politics. Its adherents have all the passion of true Christianity, but are unrestrained by any of the practical commitments to modesty, charity, and brotherly love that would normally curtail their most radical impulses. And because white Americans have been taught not to think of race, most of the followers of this false faith lack the social and psychological tools to self-diagnose and recalibrate their beliefs. You cannot identify and filter out the effects of white ethnic anxiety on your own thinking and behavior if you have been conditioned all your life not to acknowledge that it exists.
So this is where we find ourselves. The world’s preeminent democracy, misshapen by the influence of an amoral religious sect that pursues, defends, and enables white supremacy with the fervor of religious conviction. Misshapen because WEP politics do not only influence the party for which they vote.
Remember the other voting bloc whose members operate with seemingly blind loyalty to a single party. Black Americans vote for Democrats at rates that surpass even WEP support for Republicans. They do this because the other party is controlled by an interest group they know to be hostile or indifferent to their lives, livelihoods, families, and communities. They do this despite their own misgivings about abortion, despite their desire for lower taxes, despite their religious convictions about sex, and despite their interests in fiscal conservatism.
In a country that must confront real challenges on issues of climate change, global health, nuclear power, and labor rights, race and racial ideology are the driving force behind the two most visible partisan voting blocs in American politics. So long as white evangelicals skew the only other major party platform toward narrowly conceived pro-lifeism and away from any practical concern for the needs and experiences of their neighbors, Black Americans will be Democrats. No matter our interests, finances, or faith. This arrangement is neither healthy nor desirable in a functioning democracy. But unless and until WEPs have their Come to Jesus moment on race, this is where we are.