White Conservative Christian America Not Going Down Without a Fight

A vortex of news stories concerning the upcoming GOP convention, platform, and Trump coronation—placed together with forthcoming works about the rapid racial and demographic remapping of American Christianity (and American unbelief, for that matter)—suggest that, if the end is near, the cultural right still has plenty of punches to dish out.

First, as yet another broad survey of attitudes among Trump supporters indicates, a pervasive sense of racial anxiety characterizes a broad base:

Dozens of interviews—with ardent Trump supporters and curious students, avowed white nationalists, and scholars who study the interplay of race and rhetoric—suggest that the passions aroused and channeled by Mr. Trump take many forms, from earnest if muddled rebellion to deeper and more elaborate bigotry.

This is more confirmation than “news,” but stands powerfully in relation to a few other related news items and scholarly findings.

Related to that is the most recent Pew study showing that evangelicals are “rallying” to Trump in numbers even greater than they did to Mitt Romney at the same point in the 2012 election cycle. According to the report, “fully 78% of white evangelical voters say they would vote for Trump if the election were held today, including about a third who ‘strongly’ back his campaign.” Vocal evangelical proponents of #NeverTrump, in short, have made little or no headway.

The second involves news coming from the GOP platform committee. Famously, after their 2012 debacle of self-deporting much of any chance of victory, party leaders conducted an autopsy over their recent presidential aspirant corpses, and determined that the only way forward was a bigger tent, a move away from divisive social issues (which, in Trump’s words, could be called “losers”), and some attempt to embrace or entice greater ethnic diversity, particularly among Latino voters.

Evidently the autopsy report did not reach this year’s platform committee. Or if it reached them, it’s clear that drafters of the platform—featuring co-chair Mary Fallin (current hard-right governor of Oklahoma recently quoted as believing that Trump was campaigning as a “racial healer”), and including the repeatedly discredited pseudo-historian David Barton and hard-right culture warrior Tony Perkins—is a grab-bag of wish lists from cultural conservatives, white cultural nationalists, and “government is the problem” supply-siders. The platform, in fact, as it is currently shaping up, while in accord with Trump’s views on immigration and “the wall” and issues of national defense and coal as a “clean” energy source, is far to the right of Trump himself on issues of gay marriage and a panoply of other social issues:

But nearly every provision that expressed disapproval of homosexuality, same-sex marriage or transgender rights passed. The platform calls for overturning the Supreme Court marriage decision with a constitutional amendment and makes references to appointing judges “who respect traditional family values.”

. . .

Additional provisions included those that promoted state laws to limit which restrooms transgender people could use, nodded to “conversion therapy” for gays by saying that parents should be free to make medical decisions about their children without interference and stated that “natural marriage” between a man and a woman is most likely to result in offspring who do not become drug-addicted or otherwise damaged.

To be sure, platforms are symbols, much fought over and then generally ignored and forgotten except by historians. Nonetheless, this is the place where leaders of factions of a party faithful can make their mark and demand accountability. And by that standard, the cultural and religious right will leave its mark. Indeed, the single provision that took up the most time in terms of debate involved a provision urging elective study of the Bible in public schools, and reliance on religion in public policy decisions.

The platform demands that lawmakers use religion as a guide when legislating, stipulating “that man-made law must be consistent with God-given, natural rights.”

It also encourages the teaching of the Bible in public schools because, the amendment said, a good understanding of its contents is “indispensable for the development of an educated citizenry.”

Finally, according to the platform, while internet pornography is a public health crisis, guns are not.

The resurgence of cultural conservatives in the drafting of the party platform, and cultural nationalists more generally within the Trump orbit, stands in stark contrast to what Robert Jones calls “the eclipse of white Christian America” in his piece for The Atlantic, which effectively previews his new book The End of White Christian America. Jones argues:

These racial and ethnic changes are dramatic, but they only partially account for the sense of dislocation many whites feel. In order to understand the magnitude of the shift, it’s important to also assess white Christian America’s waning cultural influence. It’s impossible to grasp the depth of many white Americans’ anxieties and fears—or comprehend recent phenomena like the rise of the Tea Party or Donald Trump in American politics, the zealous tone of the final battles over gay rights, or the racial tensions that have spiked over the last few years—without understanding that, along with its population, America’s religious and cultural landscape is being fundamentally altered.

By this reasoning, the drama of the current GOP platform debate is part of the waning cry of a white evangelical Protestant America (not just the mainline, long since noted to have been in decline, but evangelicals as well) whose demographic trajectory inexorably points towards a diminished cultural significance.

Predictions invoking “deaths” and “the end of . . . ” may justifiably be viewed somewhat suspiciously. Over the past decade, as my colleague Dan Schultz points out, rumors of the death of the religious right consistently turn out to have been greatly exaggerated. The question here is whether an American Christianity moving towards a de-Europeanization, necessarily means a different relation of religion and politics over the next generation. That question, it seems to me, remains open. In the meantime, the religious right and a broad spectrum of white cultural nationalists will go down swinging, even if they often end up punching themselves.