Robert P. Jones is the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute and the author of the forthcoming book The End of White Christian America. In a recent piece in The Atlantic, he argues that evangelicals in America are not “values voters” any more. Instead, it is more accurate to describe them as “nostalgia” voters. As Jones puts it, these voters make up a “culturally and economically disaffected group that is anxious to hold onto a white, conservative Christian culture that is passing from the scene.”
Here is a taste of Jones’s article:
The American Values Survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, where I’m the CEO, found that heightened anxieties about cultural change and economic worries are strikingly prevalent among white evangelicals today. Two-thirds of white evangelicals say that immigrants are a burden to the country because they take American jobs, housing, and health care; and nearly six in 10 say it bothers them when they come into contact with immigrants who speak little or no English. Nearly three-quarters of white evangelicals say that the values of Islam are incompatible with American values and way of life. More than six in 10 believe that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. On the economic front, eight in 10 white evangelicals believe the country is still in an economic recession today. And most notably—in a question that demonstrates the importance of the last word in Trump’s campaign slogan—more than seven in 10 white evangelical Protestants say that American society and way of life has changed for the worse since the 1950s.
Jones’s conclusions fit well with what I argued recently about Trump’s appeal to evangelicals on “cultural issues” such as the threat of Islam and immigration.
The last sentence of the snippet I posted above is striking. I remember a few years ago sitting with a bunch of thoughtful evangelical Christians trying to solve all the problems of the world over a one-hour lunch. Someone in the group was complaining about how American culture has become more coarse. I seem to remember this person making a reference to the increase in sex and violence on television. I think his remarks were made in the larger context of the way our kids are exposed to these things at a much earlier age. We all nodded in agreement.
A few others then gave examples of how the moral fabric of America was eroding. They were all good points.
Finally, an African-American woman seated at the table offered a different perspective about moral progress or the lack thereof. Because she was a serious Christian, she acknowledged the concerns of the other white people in the group. But she rejected the idea that American society had “changed for the worse” in the past century. Instead, she talked about the moral progress that had been made in the last hundred years, particularly in relationship to the role of African Americans and women in society. How could anyone think that the 1950s were better than today?
A few weeks later I was speaking at a conference on racial reconciliation at a Christian college in the Midwest. One of the speakers was a very popular African-American pastor from the South. He made it clear that the best time to be an African American in the United States was “right now.” Granted, I am sure that this pastor was outraged about what has happened in Ferguson or Baltimore. There is a lot more work to be done in the area of race-relations in the United States. But he ultimately took a long view–the view of moral progress. Things are better in America today.
Every now and then someone asks me a question that goes something like this: “If you could travel back in time and live in any historical era, which one would it be?” People are usually surprised when I say that I would live in the present. Sure, I often get nostalgic for lost moral worlds where some things may have been done better than in the present. (For example, the music of the 1970s is much better than what passes for popular music today!). But would I really want to go back? I don’t think so. As a historian I have a pretty good sense of what happened back there.
By the way, you may be wondering why I was speaking at a conference on racial reconciliation. The African American pastors who organized the conference were sick and tired of listening to Christian nationalists like David Barton trying to tell their fellow evangelicals that America was founded as a Christian nation. These Christian nationalists, the pastors argued, were nostalgic for a golden era of the American founding that did not exist. They pointed out over and over again during our weekend together that the founders owned slaves and believed that blacks were inferior to whites.. How dare Barton and others say that we need to return to the moral and “Christian” values that apparently founded this country!
If Robert Jones’s survey is correct, then it makes perfect sense that white evangelicals would flock to a candidate who wants to “Make America Great Again.”