Friday, February 21, 2020

Is It That the Democrats "Lost" White Christians, or That Obama's Elections Re-Energized GOP's "White Christian Strategy"?

Yesterday's PRRI "Morning Buzz" email newsletter* discusses a recent article by Jack Jenkins' entitled "Democrats lost white Christians. Can they win them back?" As I read this article yesterday, the thought that kept running around in my head was this: But the Democratic party did not "lose" white Christians. White Christians have walked away from the Democratic party because US white Christianity is deeply racist.

Jack Jenkins cites sociologist Ryan Burge, who states,

White Christians are white, and the Republican Party has become the party of whites, and the Democratic Party has become the party of nonwhites.

As the article also states,

Much has been written about President Donald Trump's support among white evangelicals in the 2016 election, when he won 80% to 81% of the group. But less attention has been paid to how Trump also swept all major categories of white Christians. He won 60% of white Catholics on Election Day, according to a Pew analysis of exit polls, and a January 2017 Public Religion Research Institute survey found 57% of white mainliners had a favorable view of the president around the time of his inauguration. 
Trump's success with white Christians outpaces most other Republican presidential candidates in recent memory. It also reflected a larger shift in party affiliation along religious lines. According to Pew, 48% of white Christians identified as Republicans or leaned toward the party in 2007. By 2014, that number jumped to 56%."

What happened between 2007 and 2014 that vaulted a significant number of white Christians into the Republican party? In 2008 and again in 2012, the nation elected its first African-American president, and white reaction — white Christian reaction — against that development went into overdrive. 

White US Christianity is quite evidently a carrier of deep racist impulses in American society, and it might be better if white American Christians faced what they have made and continue to make of Christianity, and for the media to stop pretending that the problem that needs to be discussed is a Democrats-can't-do-religion problem.

Back to yesterday's "Morning Buzz" newsletter: it notes that Jenkins interviewed Ruth Braunstein of PRRI as he wrote his article, stating: 

Braunstein points to PRRI data that shows that 60% of white evangelical Protestants and 55% of white mainline Protestants believe America's best days are behind it.

The PRRI data to which Braunstein's statement links is found in PRRI's 2015 American Values Survey, "Anxiety, Nostalgia, and Mistrust: Findings from the 2015 American Values Survey, released not long before the 2016 elections. The exhaustive research reported in that document reveals the following:

Six in ten (60%) black Americans and a majority (54%) of Hispanic Americans believe that American culture has mostly changed for the better since the 1950s. In contrast, only 42% of white Americans agree, and 57% say that the American way of life has mostly changed for the worse over the last sixty years."

As PRRI's research demonstrates, the racial perception gap grew during the Obama presidency. From the time Obama was elected up to the election of Donald Trump, an ever-increasing number of white Americans — of white Christians, in particular — began to report that whites were under siege, that Christians were under siege, that the America they had created and which belonged to them was slipping away. As PRRI head Robert P. Jones wrote in his The End of White Christian America (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2016), released almost simultaneously with Trump's election,

To understand the post-Obama milieu, it is necessary to understand the "White Christian Strategy," a political tactic employed primarily by the Republican Party beginning with the campaigns of Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon in the mid-1960s and ending with Mitt Romney's failed presidential run in 2012.  
What I am calling the White Christian Strategy is an outgrowth of the Southern Strategy, a tactic developed by political conservatives and the Republican Party in the mid-1960s to appeal to white southern voters who were angry with the Democratic Party for its support of civil rights. The Southern Strategy picked up momentum through two critical transition moments, one in the 1960s and one in the 1980s, which political scientists Merle and Earl Black identified as the two iterations of the "Great White Switch"  (p. 88, citing Merle and Earl Black, The Rise of Southern Republicans [Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2003], p. 4).

This perception of white Americans and white Christian Americans, in particular, that they were losing "their" country when Barack Obama was elected to the presidency is in direct response  to the growing political and cultural power of Americans of color, of black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans. As the US becomes more diverse and multicultural, whites, and white Christians, in particular, become convinced that "their" country is slipping out of their hands, and they become determined to take back "their" country — and repress and target minority groups perceived as threatening their ownership of the nation.

This is the racist heart of the matter, as white Christians imagine that the America of the 1950s when they — and white heterosexual Christian men above all — were in charge of everything was the ideal American utopia, and as they show themselves capable of doing anything at all to recreate that imaginary utopia, even if recreating it makes others suffer.

Anything at all, including weaponizing the Christian faith and perverting the Jewish and Christian scriptures to make them all about building walls, triumphing over enemies, and electing tyrants who will enshrine "Christian" teachings and values at the expense of every other group in a multicultural, pluralistic democracy — which has to be dismantled to achieve this white Christian autocratic dream…. If any theological or religious problem at all deserves close attention among those who care about the Christian message at this point in history, it's this susceptibility of the Christian faith and its scriptures to ugly weaponization — all over again, as when German Christian leaders glorified Adolf Hitler as a new messiah sent to remasculinize German Christianity and save the German (Christian) people — that demands our attention right now.

* I'm reporting on a newsletter sent out in email editions daily by Public Religion Research Institute. Since this material is in email format, I can't provide a link to it. Anyone interested in subscribing to PRRI's "Morning Buzz" can do so at this link.

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