The Story: A survey of American voters finds that one-in-four would not vote for an evangelical running for President of the United States.
The Background: A Gallup survey taken this summer asked respondents to answer the following question:
Between now and the 2016 political conventions, there will be discussion about the qualifications of presidential candidates—their education, age, religion, race, and so on. If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be _______________, would you vote for that person?
Of those surveyed, 25 percent responded they would not vote for an evangelical Christian. That response was higher than for a Mormon (18 percent), Jewish (7 percent), or Catholic (6 percent) candidate. (It was, however, a lower percentage than for those who refused to vote for a Muslim (38 percent) or atheist (40 percent).)
One-in-three Democrats (33 percent) and more than one-in-four independents (27 percent) said they would not vote for an evangelical, compared to one-in-seven Republicans (14 percent).
Why It Matters: Political elites in both major parties know how to read surveys, and they’ll likely use this and other data to further marginalize evangelical candidates. In future elections, it may be as unlikely to find an evangelical on a presidential ticket as it is now to find a Muslim or atheist.
In many ways, that won’t matter at all. But it could signal a broader marginalization of evangelicals and other orthodox Christians. By repeatedly declaring Christian believers to be “toxic” (whether in politics, academia, etc.) it can have the effect of actually turning us into pariahs.
In an intriguing essay on this phenomena of “projective identification,” Scott Alexander explains how the process works:
The average group has everyone from well-connected reasonable establishment members to average Joes to horrifying loonies. Once the group starts losing prestige, it’s the establishment members who are the first to bail; they need to protect their establishment credentials, and being part of a toxic group no longer fits that bill. The average Joes are now isolated, holding an opinion with no support among experts and trend-setters, so they slowly become uncomfortable and flake away as well. Now there are just the horrifying loonies, who, freed from the stabilizing influence of the upper orders, are able to up their game and be even loonier and more horrifying. Whatever accusation was leveled against the group to begin with is now almost certainly true.
Alexander is an atheist, but he provides a sympathetic portrayal of how this process can (and likely will) be applied to Christians:
Christianity has people like Alvin Plantinga [an evangelical philosopher] and Ross Douthat [a Catholic columnist at the New York Times] who are clearly very respectable and key it into the great status-conferring institutions like academia and journalism. It has a bunch of middle-class teachers and plumbers and officer workers who go to church and raise money to send Bibles to Africa and try not to sin too much. And it has horrifying loons who stand on street corners waving signs saying “GOD HATES F**S” and screaming about fornicators.
Imagine that Christianity suffers a sudden total dramatic [drop] in prestige, to the point where wearing a cross becomes about as socially acceptable as waving a Confederate flag. The New York Times fires Ross Douthat, because they can’t tolerate people like that on their editorial staff. The next Alvin Plantinga chooses a field other than philosophy of religion, because no college would consider granting him tenure for that.
With no Christians in public life or academia, Christianity starts to seem like a weird belief that intelligent people never support, much like homeopathy or creationism. The Christians have lost their air support, so to speak. The average college-educated individual starts to feel really awkward about this, and they don’t necessarily have to formally change their mind and grovel for forgiveness, they can just – go to church a little less, start saying they admire Jesus but they’re not Christian Christian, and so on.
Gradually the field is ceded more and more to the people waving signs and screaming about fornicators. The opponents of Christianity ramp up their attacks that all Christians are ignorant and hateful, and this is now a pretty hard charge to defend against, given the demographic. The few remaining moderates, being viewed suspiciously in churches that are now primarily sign-waver dominated and being genuinely embarrassed to be associated with them, bail at an increased rate, leading their comrades to bail at an even faster rate, until eventually it is entirely the sign wavers.
Then everybody agrees that their campaign against Christians was justified all along, because look how horrible Christians are, they’re all just a bunch of sign-wavers who have literally no redeeming features. Now even if the original pressure that started the attack on Christianity goes away, it’s inconceivable that it will ever come back – who would join a group that is universally and correctly associated with horrible ignorant people?
Alexander underestimates the endurance of “average Joes” in the pews, but he is right about how the effect on public perception. While there will still be many of us “Christian Christians” around, the public will increasingly treat us as if we are no different from the “sign wavers” (i.e., the Westboro Baptist types). This is particularly true for those of us who will remain complementarian and hold an orthodox view of Biblical sexuality.
For many of us, of course, this is not a new idea. Some of us even welcome the demise of nominal Christianity and the opportunity it gives us to show more clearly what it means to be a faithful witness to the Kingdom. We move forward into the post-Christian era embracing both optimism and realism.
Part of that realism will be the realization that the “nominal” Christians who abandon the faith—and distance themselves from us—will be our own sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, and friends and neighbors. Too often we assume the separation will be with an abstract “culture” rather than with the very real people who live in our homes and in our communities.
Increasingly, we’ll be deemed unfit to be seen in the public square, and those who care more about tenure and respect and peer pressure will abandon us as they leave the faith or hide their light under a bushel. It’ll start in realms such as the political but eventually will come to our doorstep. This latest Gallup poll is merely one of the many signals of what is to come. It’s not a cause for alarm, but merely another bell signalling that we need to prepare for what comes next.