Donald Trump and Roy Moore both enjoyed a wave of support from white evangelical Christians in their recent political campaigns despite both behaving anathema to Christian ideals. Trump won the 2016 U.S. presidential election thanks in large part to the support of the Christian right, but Moore lost his bid to represent Alabama in the Senate last week. Moore was accused of sexual assault and pedophilia in the weeks leading up to the election, and yet many evangelical leaders and voters were quoted by news outlets as maintaining their support for him. Despite their support, he lost. And it seems that the evangelicals themselves might be losing, too. More and more evidence seems to suggest there is a shift occurring within evangelical circles.
While the number of evangelicals in the United States has shown a decline over the last few years, they still make up just over 25% of the U.S. population. It is still too early to tell what kind of an impact Trump and other notable figures like Moore will have on evangelical membership, but it is beginning to look like the rate of decline is going to increase, maybe even substantially.
Before we delve deeper into current events, why was there already a decline among self-identifying evangelicals? That story starts in the 1980's, when the Moral Majority party, led by the televangelist Jerry Falwell, began mobilizing conservative Christians and asserting increasing political power.
In order to support Reagan, and later Republicans, the evangelicals had to make compromises. Evangelicals were aggressively anti-divorce before Reagan came along, but Reagan was divorced and had remarried when he ran for office. This was the start of a maddening trend of cherry-picking principles and applying an increasing number of justifications for abandoning earlier tenets of faith to blindly support the Republican party.
As time went on, and evangelicals become completely locked into the Republican party, a weird metamorphosis took place. The Republican identity became inseparably linked with evangelical Christianity. Most Christians already use their faith as an important part of the foundation for defining their identity, so this alignment with the Republican party became equally dogmatic and identity-based.
As this happened, an increasing number of evangelicals began seeing a problem with this, even early on. As the cognitive dissonance began to break through they recognized the comprises that were being made, and they were not OK with it all. Over the years it has become increasingly problematic. Even back in 2011, Billy Graham, of all people, admitted that he would have steered clear of politics if he could do it all over again. Just to emphasize how poignant that revelation is, Graham had personal audiences with 12 consecutive presidents, from Harry Truman in 1950 to Barack Obama in 2010. Graham regularly prayed with President Lyndon Johnson at his bedside whenever Johnson was in need of "spiritual counseling." Graham was a longtime friend of President Richard Nixon. His admission that he regrets it all is very telling.
So all that means that there was fertile ground for unrest among evangelicals before Trump descended the escalator in his presidential bid. Now that people like Trump and Moore have garnered support from the evangelical community overall, many evangelicals see this as a sign that evangelicalism is increasingly morally bankrupt.
For example, Christianity Today conducted a survey of 440 evangelical pastors and other leaders in evangelical churches. 52% of the respondents said that they do not feel comfortable identifying as evangelical while speaking to non-Christians. Even among fellow Christians 30% of respondents were uncomfortable using the term.
We can already see impacts from this shift in acceptance of the label. After 80 years the Princeton Evangelical Fellowship just changed their name to Princeton Christian Fellowship in early October. While they had been discussing the name change before Trump's election because of the negative baggage already associated with the label, it was not until after the election that things reached a tipping point.
We can only hope that the flight from evangelicalism is real and will continue. Its impact on the political landscape in the United States has really been harmful. The sooner it loses influence the better.