New research has discovered that Donald Trump, the former president who once claimed that “nobody has done more for Christianity, or for evangelicals, or for religion itself than” he has, apparently made a statistically significant impact on church attendance during his presidency.
He contributed to the acceleration of its decline.
To be sure, church attendance in America was already in decline. But according to religion researcher Ryan Burge, 2016 was a watershed year.
“For every action there is a reaction,” Burge told Christianity Today. “Donald Trump is the action. His election caused all these ripple effects in American society, and you can see it in the pews.”
The decline was most pronounced among moderate and left-leaning evangelicals. In 2016, 32% of millennials in that category said they never attended church. In 2020, that number had jumped to 40%. Gen X jumped from 33% to 40%. Baby Boomers went from 30% to 36%.
“The rate of self-identified Democrats giving up on church in their 20s–50s doubled from the end of Barack Obama’s presidency to the end of Trump’s,” writes journalist Daniel Silliman. “At the same time, more Republicans started identifying as evangelical but not attending any worship services.”
This data is in line with an overall trend in which more people are coming to assume that “evangelical” and “Republican” are more or less synonymous. Furthermore, adds Silliman, “the growing consensus of social scientists is that political identities are currently much, much stronger than religious commitments.”
So unless a person votes Republican, or at least leans that way, they are increasingly less likely to feel at home in the pews of an evangelical church—and increasingly more likely to opt out of church altogether.
This is a deeply troubling trend. If evangelicals truly care about the mission of the gospel as much as we say we do, we have to ask ourselves how and why it is that we are pushing away so many people on account of their politics.
Some may say that moderate and left-leaning evangelicals have self-selected themselves out of the church by standing behind political policies that are at odds with Christian teaching. An element of that may certainly be true. For example, high profile Democrats such as President Joe Biden and former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have, at certain points, been denied communion for being outside Catholic Church teaching on abortion.
It has even been said of Biden that he can’t rightly be characterized as a devout Catholic because of his stance on abortion, despite the fact that he reportedly attends Mass weekly. That may be a somewhat fair critique, given that Biden is the arguably most pro-abortion president in American history.
But then again, why is that same standard not applied to Donald Trump and other high profile Republican leaders who, even laying aside their personal immorality and church attendance records, hold to policies on issues such as immigration, poverty, and racial justice that are likewise incongruent with longstanding church tradition?
The answer is that evangelicals have for far too long put the political cart before the theological horse. We lead with our political vision for America and then develop a theological system to buttress it.
But the reality is that if we are truly taking the Bible seriously in its entirety, earnestly seeking to lay aside our political affiliations in order to allow the Scriptures to shape our vision not only for personal morality but also group responsibility, we will quickly come to understand that both the Democratic and Republican party platforms fall woefully short of what Jesus has called us to do and become.
Nothing I’m saying is new. It’s just that seemingly every new bit of statistical analysis illustrates that we are still failing to get it: Jesus died for Democrats, too.
What’s more is that you have more in common with a fellow Christian who is a member of an opposing political party than you ever will with someone who aligns with your politics but rejects the lordship of Christ.
Or at least you should.
Nevertheless, the fact that many of us bristle at the very thought of counting a card-carrying Democrat as a brother or sister in Christ rather than an America-hating liberal is something that has been discipled into us. It has been reinforced in our hearts and minds time and again through the media we consume, the sermons we listen to, and the conversations we indulge.
For many of us, the idea that Democrats are “the enemy” has been so thoroughly ingrained that we have come to believe you must repent of being one in order to receive Christ.
And that may be true. You certainly must renounce certain aspects of the Democratic party platform in order to follow Jesus. But the same could be said about the Republican party platform. If your theology only ever affirms your pre-existing political leanings, I’m sorry to say that the latter is in the driver’s seat.
But the good news is this: What has been discipled into us can likewise be discipled out of us. It just takes intentionality.
When Jesus began his ministry, there were plenty of political parties with which he could align himself. He agreed with some more than others. But his vision and mission weren’t captivated by any of them. (Ironically enough, the party with which he shared the most agreement was the one he most often called to the mat.)
Many political issues have theological implications, and vice versa. So it’s important that we engage them with the level of care they deserve. However, if the numbers are any indication, we also need to do a much better job of leading with our Christian identity rather than our party affiliation.
In a culture that holds political identity in the highest regard, setting it back within its proper place is countercultural. But it’s also captivating. It’s magnetic. It’s beautiful.
Your political identity isn’t even remotely the most important thing about you. Jesus is. Let’s act like it.