Michael Gerson: Evangelical leaders are tidying up the kitchen while the house burns down
Much white evangelical support for Donald Trump is based on a bargain or transaction: political loyalty (and political cover for the president’s moral flaws) in return for protection from a hostile culture. Many evangelicals are fearful that courts and government regulators will increasingly treat their moral and religious convictions as varieties of bigotry. And that this will undermine the ability of religious institutions to maintain their identities and do their work. Such alarm is embedded within a larger anxiety about lost social standing that makes Trump’s promise of a return to greatness appealing.
Evangelical concerns may be exaggerated, but they are not imaginary. There is a certain type of political progressive who would grant institutional religious liberty only to churches, synagogues and mosques, not to religious schools, religious hospitals and religious charities. Such a cramped view of pluralism amounts to the establishment of secularism, which would undermine the long-standing cooperation of government and religious institutions in tasks from treating addiction, to placing children in adoptive homes, to caring for the sick, to educating the young.
But this is not, by any reasonable measure, the largest problem evangelicals currently face. It is, instead, the massive selloff of evangelicalism among the young. About 26% of Americans 65 and older identify as white, evangelical Protestants. Among those ages 18 to 29, the figure is 8%. Why this demographic abyss does not cause greater panic — panic concerning the existence of evangelicalism as a major force in America — is a mystery and a scandal. With their focus on repeal of the Johnson Amendment and the right to say “Merry Christmas,” some evangelical leaders are tidying up the kitchen while the house burns down around them.
There is a generational cycle of religious identification that favors religion. Adolescents and young adults have always challenged the affiliations of their parents and been less likely to attend a house of worship. This tends to change when people have children and rediscover the importance of faith in the cultivation of values and character. So there is likely to be some recovery upward from 8% as this cohort ages.
But this recovery will come from a very low baseline of belief. Evangelical identification could triple without reaching the level found among senior citizens today. In an interview last November, David Campbell of the University of Notre Dame said: “It’s unlikely that [young people are] going to be able to climb back to the same level of religious involvement as their parents’ or grandparents’ generation did. Just because they’re starting at a much, much lower point.”
Why is that point so low? There are a number of reasons, but one of them, Campbell argues, is “an allergic reaction to the religious right.” This sets up an irony. “One of the main rationales for the very existence of this movement was to assert the role of religion in the public square in America. And, instead, what’s happening in that very movement has actually driven an increasing share of Americans out of religion.” This alienation preceded the current president, but it has intensified in the Trump era.
Since 2000, according to Gallup, the percentage of Americans with no religious affiliation has more than doubled, from 8% to 19%. The percentage of millennials with no religion has averaged 33% in recent surveys.
As Campbell describes it, some of those alienated from religion merely drop out of the faith marketplace. They are what he calls “passive secularists.” But there is also an increasing number who are “active secularists” — people who have chosen secularism as an identity. And this is creating a secular left within the Democratic Party to counter the religious right in the Republican Party. In their hands, the culture war will be fought to the last man or woman.
If evangelicals were to consult their past, they would find that their times of greatest positive influence — in late 18th-century and early 19th-century Britain, or mid-19th-century America — came when they were truest to their religious calling. It was not when they acted like another political interest group. The advocates of abolition, prison reform, humane treatment of the mentally disabled and women’s rights were known as malcontents in the cause of human dignity.
Today, far too many evangelicals are seen as angry and culturally defensive, and have tied their cause to a leader who is morally corrupt and dehumanizes others. Older evangelicals — the very people who should be maintaining and modeling moral standards — have ignored and compromised those standards for political reasons in plain view of their own children. And disillusionment is the natural result.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.