American white evangelicals don’t exist in isolation. We are still struggling to wrap our heads around the fact that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. But we must also reckon with the fact that 64% of white Catholics supported Trump in 2016, as did 59% of mainline Protestants.
In 2020, Trump’s support declined by a few percentage points among white Catholics and mainline Protestants, but 71% of Latter-Day Saints backed the GOP candidate.
Biden, on the other hand, won handily among Black Christians (both Catholic and Protestant), Hispanic Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and voters with no religious affiliation.
But the American religious community divides by ideology as well as race. Ideologically, Catholics and mainline Protestants are roughly split down the middle. And the internal tension within both communities has become unbearable. The worldwide Anglican community is undergoing extreme stress, a reality that is particularly apparent in North America. Across Canada and the United States, Anglicans are undergoing an extraordinary realignment as a large and growing number of diocese abandon mother church in favor of new Anglican affiliations.
Meanwhile, the United Methodist Church, the largest mainline Protestant denomination in America, is negotiating a split that, were it not for the Covid-19 pandemic, would already be a done deal.
You have probably seen Facebook posts comparing Joe Biden’s visit to the Vatican with Donald Trump’s. Pictures taken during the Trump-Francis tete-a-tete are grave and formal. When Biden showed up, Joe and Francis were all smiles and good cheer.
The divide between traditional and reform-minded Catholics is particularly acute in the United States. Some Catholic bishops have refused to admit Biden, a devout Catholic, to communion.
Ostensibly, the issue is abortion, but the divide runs deeper. Biden’s personal preference reflects his Catholic convictions; but his politics are pro-choice. Pope Francis affirms the conservative Catholic position on gay marriage, but has recently expressed an openness to civil unions.
Particularly in America, traditional and reformist Catholics disagree on almost every subject worth discussing. Traditionalists tend to embrace capitalism, conservative views on gay rights and abortion, and express contempt for liberation theology. Justice-based Catholics downplay the abortion debate, seek a reset on gay rights, are suspicious of supply-side economics and place heavy stress on Catholic social teaching.
Conservative Catholics and mainline Protestants have more in common with white evangelicals than with their more liberal co-religionists.
As a consequence, white evangelicals have plenty of allies in the white religious community. Evangelicals living in the deep South don’t need much help; they can control the political scene without outside assistance. But in much of the Midwest, Texas and Florida, white evangelicals can’t win hotly contested elections unless they link arms with conservative Catholic and mainline Protestant voters.
There are early indications that the ideological split within American white religion may be benefiting the liberal side of the divide. Between 2016 and 2020, for instance, Trump lost significant support among white Catholics, white mainline Protestants, and, most significantly, with white voters over 65.
The fact that both predominantly white mainline and Catholic churches have been more-or-less evenly split along ideological lines, has made it difficult for priests and pastors to address controversial political issues. The Pope may speak out from time to time, and the upper reaches of American mainline hierarchies have been outspoken for years, but, at the congregational level, social issues are too hot to handle.
That could be changing. For decades, an overriding concern for denominational unity discouraged the frank discussion of issues like gay rights, abortion, and racial justice. But the growing internal divide is making it easier for religious leaders to apply the faith to hot button issues. And, in both liberal and conservative religious settings, opinion leaders are speaking much more forcefully on issues they care about.
A conflict averse caution has long kept white Catholics and mainline churches on the political sidelines. Silence is antithetical to spiritual vitality, just one of the reasons the Protestant mainline has been hemorrhaging members for decades. As a consequence, most of the outspoken religious-political messaging has come from the white evangelical world. That is beginning to change.
Because it typically reinforces long-held values, traditional morality doesn’t require a lot of explanation from the pulpit. When religious leaders are silent, most people assume the preacher comes down on the conservative side of the moral ledger.
Reformist religious views, though familiar to those with theological training, have a counterintuitive ring to the uninitiated. It takes extended explanation and repeated conversation to connect the dots. But if preachers start applying the core teaching of Jesus to the moral issues people care about, new theological, moral and political vistas will open.
More to the point, a considerable portion of the secular community may take notice, especially those who have been wounded by traditional messaging. Thus, when progressive voices are unleashed within the church innovative forms of evangelism can evolve. The clear connection between the kingdom agenda of Jesus and a society disfigured by injustice changes the conversation, especially for men and women who have been turned off by religious pieties or wounded by traditional forms of religion.
It is unlikely, of course, that free moral conversation will produce a simple or uniform theological game plan. And, let’s face it, a Jesus-based message will probably be to be too hot for politicians on either side of the aisle to handle. But that’s okay. People who have been victimized by silence would prefer a messy theological conversation.
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