In 2016, white evangelical Protestants strongly supported Donald Trump, a septuagenarian candidate who promised to make America great again, to bring back “Merry Christmas” and to protect, cherish and defend America’s Christian heritage. White evangelicals have consistently told pollsters that life in the U.S. has gotten worse since the 1950s. Nostalgia seems to be animating much of white evangelical politics.
But in longing for an American past, white evangelical Protestants1 may be neglecting their future. As a group, they’re drifting further away — politically and culturally — from the American mainstream. There are growing signs that white evangelical Protestantism is no longer immune to the broader social and cultural forces that are reshaping the American religious landscape.
In the aftermath of the 1960s, scholars began to note that while more liberal mainline Christian churches appeared to be shedding members, conservative and more traditionally minded churches were unaffected. In 1972, sociologist Dean Kelley published the study “Why Conservative Churches are Growing,” arguing that evangelical churches were prospering because they placed greater demands on their members. Subsequent research published decades later appeared to support this claim. Conservative churches that offered a rigorous theology were thriving, arguably because of it.
Over the past couple of decades, though, Americans have become far more accepting on nearly every issue that fits under the rubric of sexual morality.