Pastor Joshua Nink, right, prays for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, as his wife, Melania, watches after a Sunday service at First Christian Church, in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in January 2016.Photo: Jae C. Hong/AP
Without question, the folks who are sorriest to see Donald Trump leave the White House (aside from the grifters in the president’s orbit) are conservative evangelicals.
For them, Trump was just this side of the Messiah himself. The religious right didn’t care that Trump was married three times, paid off a porn actress to keep her silent, ran casinos, bullied people relentlessly, lied about his charitable giving, and caged children. The only thing that really bothered conservative Christians was that Trump cursed.
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If you worship at the same altar of transactional politics that Trump does, the affinity between the president and the religious right makes perfect sense. Trump gave conservative Christians practically everything they wanted. He stacked the courts — especially the Supreme Court — with judges sympathetic to the religious right, who will side with their grievances for decades to come. He loaded his administration with religious right fanboys, starting with his choice for vice president, Mike Pence.
The hypocrisy speaks for itself. But what the religious right never seemed to reckon with was the cost of supporting Trump. That may be a lot higher than they thought.
It’s not just that the Biden administration will be a lot less open to pleasing conservative Christians. The incoming president is not the kind who will punish his political opponents, even when he disagrees with them. (If he did, Kamala Harris wouldn’t have been his choice for a running mate.)
No, the cost is likely to be reflected in numbers. The number of people in the US who identify as evangelicals has been shrinking for years. While the numbers vary depending on who is doing the surveying, the fact remains that the number of Americans who profess to be Christians is on the decline. While the mainstream Protestant denominations and Catholicism have taken the biggest hits, evangelicals haven’t been entirely immune.
Like many church goers, evangelicals tend to be older and whiter than the rest of the population. Moreover, younger evangelicals, while still relatively conservative, are much more moderate than their elders when it comes to issues like climate change or LGBTQ rights.
By aligning themselves so closely with Trump and becoming synonymous with his political base, conservative evangelicals made their movement effectively a wing of the Republican Party. If you want to grow your numbers, or at least slow the decline, becoming so highly politicized and divisive is not the best strategy. It makes it harder to recruit.
Moreover, being overtly partisan doesn’t help retain younger evangelicals. Some young believers have been struggling with the rightward political drift of their churches. The New York Times got 1,500 responses from young evangelicals for a 2018 story, and many questioned the close ties between their faith and the GOP, with some saying it had caused schisms in their families.
The scandal surrounding evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr., his wife and the young man involved in their sexual shenanigans didn’t burnish the movement’s reputation with younger evangelicals either.
The religious right has been fighting so hard because it’s convinced its way of life is disappearing. Trump may have been their last chance to turn back the clock, but no matter how hard they fight, conservative evangelicals can’t stop the demographic and attitude changes working through the American population.
The more the evangelical movement is seen as an attempt to hinder progress, the less its chances for success or growth. They can either adapt to reality or deny it. With Trump, they chose the latter, and for that they’ll pay a price.