White Evangelicals Are Steadily Losing Both Followers and Political Clout

A couple of weeks ago I read Frances FitzGerald’s The Evangelicals, and I was a little surprised to learn that the evangelical movement has been in pretty weak shape for the past decade or so. One reason is that the old warhorses—Falwell, Robertson, Dobson—are either old or dead, and very few new warhorses have taken their place as leaders of the movement. What’s worse, many of the new ones who have developed high public profiles, like Rick Warren, are less interested in the old social hot buttons and prefer to devote more of their time to things like helping the poor. This partly explains why evangelicals were so eager to support Donald Trump, even though he’s pretty obviously the least godly president in recent memory. They were looking for any port in a storm, and their followers liked Trump. So they jumped on his coattails in hopes that some of his popularity would rub off on them.

The chart below shows their problem. After years of gaining followers, evangelical strength began to decline during the Bush years and then fell off a cliff in the Obama years, dropping from 21 percent of the population to only 17 percent:

This decline is heavily age dependent—and not because of abortion. Young people feel about the same way toward abortion as older people. The real fault line is gay marriage. As the old evangelicals became ever more strident about it, they lost the loyalty of young people who just weren’t willing to buy the anti-gay hatred. Among 18-29 year-olds, only about 8 percent currently identify as evangelicals.

(Apparently the whole issue of gay rights did damage on a broader scale too. Old-school hardliners like James Dobson were absolutely manic about it, and as it became clear they were losing the battle it did serious spiritual damage. Some of them began to think America was doomed. Others just gave up. This spiritual crisis at the top contributed to the decline of white evangelical churches as a whole.)

Here are two other interesting things from the report. First is a map of American states ranked by diversity of religion. The authors use the HHI scale, which is normally used to measure concentration within industries, so you can think of this as representing how much of a monopoly a single church has in each state:

The least diverse state in the country is Mississippi, followed closely by Alabama and Arkansas. These are states where Southern Baptists rule. The most diverse states are New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and California.

And since this here is a political blog, this chart shows which parties are most popular within various religions. I don’t think there are any big surprises.