Democrats Lost White Christians. Can They Win Them Back?

Democratic presidential candidates former Vice President Joe Biden, from left; Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont; Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota; and businessman Tom Steyer participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate Feb. 7, 2020, hosted by ABC News, Apple News and WMUR-TV at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

(RNS) — In the lead-up to the 2020 election, Democratic candidates and party officials have worked hard to counter the narrative that their party has a “religion problem.” They’ve hired faith outreach directors, met with religious activists and courted the votes of people of a wide range of faith groups throughout the Democratic primary season.

But experts say the party still has failed to win over the largest religious demographic in the country: white Christians.

Much has been written about President Donald Trump’s support among white evangelicals in the 2016 election, when he won 80% to 81% of the group. But less attention has been paid to how Trump also swept all major categories of white Christians. He won 60% of white Catholics on Election Day, according to a Pew analysis of exit polls, and a January 2017 Public Religion Research Institute survey found 57% of white mainliners had a favorable view of the president around the time of his inauguration.

Trump’s success with white Christians outpaces most other Republican presidential candidates in recent memory. It also reflected a larger shift in party affiliation along religious lines. According to Pew, 48% of white Christians identified as Republicans or leaned toward the party in 2007. By 2014, that number jumped to 56%.

The change signals a steady increase of broad-based white Christian support for the Republican Party and its candidates, a phenomenon political scientists credit to a complex mix of religion, identity and race.

Supporters of President Donald Trump pray during an “Evangelicals for Trump Coalition Launch” at King Jesus International Ministry on Jan. 3, 2020, in Miami. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

While Democrats have been able to eke out victories in previous elections by relying on ever-winnowing slivers of the religious vote, the exodus of white Christians from their ranks may be harder to ignore this year.

“Almost every major majority-white Protestant denomination in America is majority-Republican now, and almost all of them have become more Republican over the last 10 years,” Ryan Burge, political science professor at Eastern Illinois University, told Religion News Service in an interview.

The trend may surprise some mainline Protestants, whose leadership often skews liberal. But according to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, Republicans are the most popular political affiliation among members of the United Methodist Church (53.7%), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (49.3%) and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (49.9%).

Burge said this rightward shift has increased over time. Citing CCES data, he said that over the last 10 years the United Methodist Church became 5% more Republican, the Episcopal Church 4.7%, the ELCA 3.5% and the United Church of Christ 4%.

Scholars say there are multiple factors influencing the shift. Many point to the rise of the religious right, which spent decades pushing conservative religious voters to focus on opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion.

According to a 2018 survey from PRRI, majorities of white evangelical Protestants (65%) believe that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, as do sizable percentages of white mainliners (35%) and white Catholics (42%).

Penny Edgell, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota, said the growth of the so-called nones — Americans who claim no religious affiliation — also plays a role. That group, which generally espouses deeply liberal views regarding same-sex marriage and abortion, includes a significant number of younger voters who have broken ties with evangelicalism and mainline Christianity, she said.

“The liberal/moderate Protestant ranks have declined as people who were ‘moderately’ religious have left altogether as religion has become more politicized and associated with the political right,” Edgell told RNS in an email.

Clemson sociologist Andrew Whitehead pointed to the influence of Christian nationalism, an ideology that champions the belief that the United States should be a Christian nation. Whitehead argues that “cultural framework” has long been trumpeted by leaders of the religious right and was embraced during the 2016 election by Trump, who often declares at his rallies, “We don’t worship government, we worship God.”

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Source: Religion News Service