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How Is The GOP Adjusting To A Less Religious America?

Donald Trump attends a worship service in Las Vegas when he was a presidential candidate in 2016. Trump won over many white conservative Christians by wrapping their traditional priorities in with his own particular cultural fixations.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
Donald Trump attends a worship service in Las Vegas when he was a presidential candidate in 2016. Trump won over many white conservative Christians by wrapping their traditional priorities in with his own particular cultural fixations.

When Ronald Reagan accepted the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, he ended his speech with a pious request.

"I'll confess that I've been a little afraid to suggest what I'm going to suggest — I'm more afraid not to — that we begin our crusade joined together in a moment of silent prayer," he said.

It was the preface to a presidency that would help make white evangelicals the staunchly Republican voting bloc they are today.

Fast-forward to a 2015 campaign event, when Republican consultant Frank Luntz worked to pin down soon-to-be-President Donald Trump on a simple question of faith:

"Have you ever asked God for forgiveness?" Luntz asked Trump twice, before getting this answer: "I'm not sure I have. I just go and try and do a better job from there. I don't think so."

Trump benefited from the white evangelical support that Reagan helped solidify, but he also presided over a country that, religiously, looks far different from the one Reagan took over after 1980. Trump's presidency is one early case study in how the Republican Party — which has long associated itself with conservative Christian values — may attempt to deal with a country that's less and less religious.

In fact, the U.S. recently passed a religious milestone: For the first time, a majority of Americans are not church members, Gallup found this spring.

Over the last decade, the share of Republicans who are church members fell from 75% to 65%, according to Gallup. That's a solid majority but also a sizable fall.

The key bloc of white evangelicals is also shrinking as a share of the population, while the share of religiously unaffiliated Americans grows.

This makes religion one key part of a looming, long-term demographic challenge for Republicans, says Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster.

"Republicans clearly have a stronger hold among the religiously affiliated, especially evangelical Protestants. And consequently, any decline in evangelical Protestant affiliation is not good news for the GOP," he said.

The upshot, to Ayres, is that a party still deeply entwined with conservative Christianity and, particularly, white evangelicals will eventually have to win over more Christian conservatives — for example, among the growing Hispanic electorate — or make gains among substantially less-religious groups, like young voters.

A change in tone

For now, it's fair to say that in the Republican Party, overtly religious rhetoric is being replaced by broader culture war issues, Ayres said.

"While religiosity may be declining, people attracted to culturally conservative causes may not be — cancel culture, TV shows and movies that exalt more left-wing values, that cast aspersions on right-wing values," he said.

That dovetails with another trend in American politics — of people increasingly centering their identities on their partisan affiliations. It's a trend that can give pastors headaches that have nothing to do with whether church attendance is rising or falling.

Christian Gaffney, pastor at Expectation Church in Fairfax, Va., says congregation members have pushed back when he has preached about things like masks, as well as race.

Gaffney said that conflict arises for him when congregants center their lives on their partisan identities rather than their Christian beliefs.

"I think it goes back to the idea of culture wars — the idea that everything is so polarized — and because there's this trajectory of polarization, Trump kind of gives a lightning rod for one of those poles, one of those sides to really rally around and adhere to," he said. "My job as a pastor is to show people it's not about rallying around either side; it's about rallying around the person Jesus Christ."

Though he considers himself conservative, Gaffney said that right-leaning congregation members have accused him of being "liberal" when he has questioned Republican orthodoxy.

Christianity vs. Christian culture

Gaffney's church has been growing. But on the whole, the shrinking American Christian church may, counterintuitively, tighten the bond between the Republican Party and conservative Christianity.

"These kinds of data about the shrinking share of the population of white evangelicals or declines in church membership actually intensify the relationship [between the GOP and conservative Christians]," said Sarah Posner, author of two books critical of white evangelicals' politics.

"As those numbers shrink, the demography is not in [the GOP's] favor. And so intensifying their relationship becomes ever more important, in terms of winning elections and so forth," she said.

Through statements like saying he had never asked for forgiveness, as well as infamously referring to the biblical book typically called Second Corinthians as "Two Corinthians," Trump showed that he didn't have the churchgoing bona fides of rivals like Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who invoked God regularly at his campaign events.

Indeed, Trump early in the 2016 primaries appealed more to Republicans who identified as Christian but weren't regular churchgoers. More observant Republican Christians preferred Cruz.

But Trump did eventually win over stauncher Christian conservatives. In the process, he wrapped more traditionally conservative Christian issues like abortion in with his own particular cultural fixations, such as race and grievance politics.

At this point, Posner added, Christianity and politics can be so muddled together on the right that they can be hard to separate.

"There is an entire constellation of organizations and media and social media and other ways of getting these ideas, ideas about what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be an American, what it means to be an American Christian, what it means to be a patriot, what it means to fight the left or cancel culture," she said.

Jackson Avery, president of the College Republicans at George Mason University and a Christian himself, said he doesn't hear his fellow young Republicans talking a lot about their faith, but he nevertheless thinks maintaining a Christian identity is good for the party.

"I don't think the Republican Party saying, 'We are not the party of not only the Christians, but atheists' — I think that drives away more people. You know, you only need enough percentage to win," he said.

He believes that the GOP won't hit its Reagan-era heights again but also suggests it may not need to, at least in the short term.

"There's this idea where like they go back to Ronald Reagan, where he gets like 60% of the popular vote," Avery added. "Republicans will never, never get that, at least in our lifetimes. I don't think so."

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Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.