Two decades ago, with GOP president George W. Bush at the height of power, the white evangelical movement claimed to be the largest religious faction in America. “They had a president who claimed to be one of their own,” says Robert P. Jones, leader of the Public Religion Research Institute. “He had a testimony and talked in evangelical terms.”
“In 2004, if you had said, ‘We’re the majority, we oppose gay rights, we oppose marriage equality, and the majority of Americans is with us, that would have been true,” Jones told Michelle Goldberg of The New York Times this week.
“Youthful megachurches were thriving,” Goldberg wrote this week. “It was common for conservatives to gloat that they were going to outbreed the left.”
She adds, in a column published by the paper on Friday:
Activists imagined a glorious future. “Home-schoolers will be inordinately represented in the highest levels of leadership and power in the next generation,” Ned Ryun, a former Bush speechwriter, said at a 2005 Christian home-schooling convention. Ryun was the director of a group called Generation Joshua, which worked to get home-schooled kids into politics. The name came from the Old Testament. Moses had led the chosen people out of exile, but it was his successor, Joshua, who conquered the Holy Land.
But the evangelicals who thought they were about to take over America were destined for disappointment. On Thursday, P.R.R.I. released startling new polling data showing just how much ground the religious right has lost. P.R.R.I.’s 2020 Census of American Religion, based on a survey of nearly half a million people, shows a precipitous decline in the share of the population identifying as white evangelical, from 23 percent in 2006 to 14.5 percent last year. (As a category, “white evangelicals” isn’t a perfect proxy for the religious right, but the overlap is substantial.) In 2020, as in every year since 2013, the largest religious group in the United States was the religiously unaffiliated.
The poll by P.R.R.I. found that white mainine Protestants who don’t belong to any congregation or movement far outnumber white evangelicals, who are aging and are not being replenished by younger Americans who share their right-wing beliefs.
“It’s not just that they are dying off, but it is that they’re losing younger members,” Jones told Goldberg. “As the group has become older and smaller, a real visceral sense of loss of cultural dominance has set in.”
Jones adds that white evangelicals once thought they were “the owners of mainstream American culture and morality and values.” Now, he says, “they are just another subculture.”
White evangelicals, Jones says, gave us the sordid presidency of Donald Trump and fueled the growth of radical subcultures like QAnon and the outlandish debate over “critical race theory.”
He told Goldberg: “It’s not just that they are dying off, but it is that they’re losing younger members As the group has become older and smaller, a real visceral sense of loss of cultural dominance has set in.”
Goldberg agrees, noting that the evangelicals are “now just another subculture.:
“It’s hard to overstate the strength of this feeling, among white evangelicals in particular, of America being a white Christian country,” said Jones. “This sense of ownership of America just runs so deep in white evangelical circles.” The feeling that it’s slipping away has created an atmosphere of rage, resentment and paranoia.
QAnon is essentially a millenarian movement, with Trump taking the place of Jesus. Adherents dream of the coming of what they call the storm, when the enemies of the MAGA movement will be rounded up and executed, and Trump restored to his rightful place of leadership.
“It’s not unlike a belief in the second coming of Christ,” said Jones. “That at some point God will reorder society and set things right. I think that when a community feels itself in crisis, it does become more susceptible to conspiracy theories and other things that tell them that what they’re experiencing is not ultimately what’s going to happen.”
The fight over critical race theory seems, on the surface, further from theological concerns. There are, obviously, plenty of people who aren’t evangelical who are anti-C.R.T., as well as evangelicals who oppose C.R.T. bans. But the idea that public schools are corrupting children by leading them away from a providential understanding of American history has deep roots in white evangelical culture. And it was the Christian right that pioneered the tactic of trying to take over school boards in response to teachings seen as morally objectionable, whether that meant sex education, “secular humanism” or evolution.
Jones recognizes the growing militancy of the evangelical movement. He is the author of one book, “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity” and “The End of White Christianity.”
Goldberg is worried too. She concludes:
I was frightened by the religious right in its triumphant phase. But it turns out that the movement is just as dangerous in decline. Maybe more so. It didn’t take long for the cocky optimism of Generation Joshua to give way to the nihilism of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists. If they can’t own the country, they’re ready to defile it.