Americans Are Getting More Secular All the Time—Which Is One Reason Why Trump Voters Are So Angry
A new poll finds white evangelicals are out of step with the rest of the country.
By Amanda Marcotte
March 14, 2017
Despite all the conservative posturing about how their movement represents “real” America and liberal political attitudes are restricted mainly to the “coastal elite,” new research from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) suggests that, at least in political terms, most Americans are secular in their orientation. While many Americans may still hold conservative personal beliefs, when it comes to the issue of church-state separation, large majorities reject efforts by the religious right to use the power of the state to impose conservative Christian values on others.
In fact, the polling data shows that there’s really only one group of Americans that rejects a secular society: White evangelical Christians. And this study is just further evidence that a lot of the political polarization in our country is the direct result of white evangelical Christians realizing that they are no longer dominant majority, and lashing out angrily in an effort to regain the levels of dominance they used to enjoy.
For instance, the poll found that while the majority of Americans from all walks of life have come to embrace the rights of gay and lesbian Americans, white evangelicals remains stubbornly opposed to the gay rights movement. White evangelicals are the only category of the population that supports business owners who want to discriminate against gay and lesbian customers.
You see similar results regarding the issue of same-sex marriage, which has seen a dramatic rise in acceptance in recent years. Sixty-three percent of Americans surveyed this year by PRRI support same-sex marriage, up from 51 percent in a similar PRRI survey from 2013. But white evangelicals, and to a lesser extent black Protestants, refuse to get on board.
“Same-sex marriage now garners majority support among most religious groups,” the study authors write. “Roughly two-thirds of white mainline Protestants (66 percent) and Catholics (68 percent), and more than eight in ten (84 percent) religiously unaffiliated Americans and members of non-Christian religious traditions (86 percent) favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally. In stark contrast, only about one-third (34 percent) of white evangelical Protestants and roughly half (47 percent) of black Protestants support same-sex marriage.”
I spoke with Daniel Cox, the director of research for PRRI, about this survey. He emphasized that this gulf between white evangelicals and everyone else goes a long way towards explaining how Donald Trump was able to turn white evangelicals out at the polls, despite Trump’s own seedy personal history and his total inability to put on a persuasive display of personal religiosity.
“Yes, there were a lot of feelings of economic insecurity, but there [were] also pervading and pervasive cultural fears that the U.S. was changing, not just racially and ethnically, but religiously as well,” Cox said.
The trends that are making white evangelicals nervous, Cox explained, are real enough. “We’re seeing, just during the Obama era, a significant drop in Americans who identify as white Christian,” he said. Instead, the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation or align themselves with a non-Christian religion are rising.
Trump didn’t need convince conservative Christians he was one of them to get their votes, Cox suggested. All he needed to do was to assure them that he saw them as a privileged category and would treat them as such.
“At a time when white evangelical Protestants were really feeling under assault culturally, you had someone pugnaciously saying, ‘You know, we’re going to turn back the clock to a place where you were so much more comfortable and you had more influence,’” Cox said. He noted that Trump won an even bigger share of the white evangelical vote than even George W. Bush, even though the latter was indisputably a person of faith fluent with white evangelical traditions.
The PRRI survey shows that many white people, especially white conservatives, are confusing the loss of cultural dominance with actual oppression. While nearly every other group of Americans believes that Muslims face more discrimination than Christians in the United States, white evangelicals believe the reverse is true.
Most religious groups oppose allowing businesses to refuse services to gay and lesbian people on religious ground : Graphic here
Here’s another symptom of growing secularism in America: The religious right is finding it a lot harder than it used to be to whip the public into some kind of social panic about cultural change. When the same-sex marriage issue first started to emerge onto the public radar, Cox said, the majority of Americans bought into religious right claims that legalizing it would somehow do real damage to the institution of marriage. Now the religious right is trying to do the same thing to transgender people, painting them as a threat to society, but the public isn’t biting.
“I think when it comes to the issue of transgender rights, there’s not going to be as steep a learning curve as when it came to the rights of gay and lesbian people,” Cox said.
More than half of Americans support the right of transgender people to use the bathroom corresponding to their gender identity. The divide on this issue, moreover, is deeply partisan, with independent and Democratic voters supporting trans people and Republicans rejecting trans rights.
PRRI had a similar finding regarding insurance coverage of contraception, a previously non-controversial idea that the Christian right began making hay over a few years ago. Despite a huge propaganda push from the right to characterize contraception coverage as immoral and greedy, two-thirds of Americans believe the government should require insurance plans to cover birth control.
But while the public is politically secular, Cox noted, the United States still has “this strong culturally conservative streak that runs through our politics.”
PRRI’s survey picks this up in a clever way. While LGBT and contraception-access issues are framed in terms of “rights,” the question of premarital sex is framed in terms of “morals.” That shift in framing drastically changes the levels of public approval. Nearly half of Americans — 48 percent — said that any sex outside of a marriage between a man and a woman was immoral. Only 49 percent of Americans allowed that there are other ways to have sex that can also be morally acceptable.
“It’s important to remember that rights and morality aren’t really the same thing,” Cox said, by way of explaining how so many Americans can simultaneously embrace legalized gay marriage and contraception coverage, while also rejecting a behavior — premarital sex — that nearly everyone participates in at some point.
I’d argue that this finding also shows that American attitudes about sex are aspirational, if you’re feeling generous, or hypocritical, if you’re not. Unless PRRI accidentally stumbled on a rare vat of virgins, which is highly unlikely, the vast majority of people who expressed moral disapproval of non-marital sex have themselves had non-marital sex. A famous Guttmacher poll from 2006 showed that 95 percent of Americans have premarital sex at some point in their lives, so this PRRI finding can safely be seen as a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do result.
But, as Cox pointed out, white evangelicals — 83 percent of whom disapprove of premarital sex — show considerable distance between their moral aspirations and their actual behavior in other areas of life, too. They also disapprove of divorce and gambling in large numbers, he said, but they get divorced and hit the casino in the same numbers as everyone else.
The good news is that the younger generation is a little better at aligning its stated values with their its experiences.
“While nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of seniors agree sex is only moral when it is between a married man and woman, only three in ten (30 percent) young adults say the same,” the study write-up explains. “Nearly seven in ten (69 percent) young adults disagree that sex is only morally acceptable when it takes place within a heterosexual marriage.”
Of course, this very shift goes a long way towards explaining Trumpism. Everyone has sex outside of marriage, but the expectation that you feel bad or guilty about it is fading with the younger generation. That refusal to pay tribute to hypocritical social values is part of the social shift that is making conservative Americans, especially white evangelicals, so angry. The same people who thought this would always be “their” country are not only finding that the laws are geared towards a diverse and tolerant nation, but even that their cultural values, like disapproval of premarital sex, are on the wane. In this context, Trump is their weapon for lashing out.
Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon.