From the late 1970s through the early 2000s, evangelical Christians were among the most zealous foot soldiers of the New Right. They pushed the Republican Party to a more extreme conservatism and provided the electoral muscle to win key elections. Their power reached new heights in the 1990s, and their political influence peaked during George W. Bush's presidency -- and especially the 2004 election, which Bush won with high levels of evangelical turnout.
But it's been all downhill since then, with an even steeper decline in evangelical power likely in coming years. That's the projection of a new article
in the American Scholar by Jim Hinch that looks closely at the evangelical movement. The basic problem is that young people just aren't that interested in what Hinch calls the "simplifying, popularizing impulse" of evangelical Christianity. Most millennials have a negative view of evangelicalism and few are drawn to these churches, setting the stage for an accelerating decline in membership and revenues. This shift partly reflects the growing secularization of the young and partly reflects a number of specific aspects of evangelicalism that turn off the young, such as the intolerance and retrograde social views of its older white leaders and members.
Of course, Hinch is not the first to document the decline of evangelicalism and there isn't much argument that this trend is real. Less discussed, though, is what this means for the conservative movement and Republican Party. If evangelicals have been core to the power of the Right, what will happen as they fade?
The Right, too, may fade is one answer. If evangelical leaders and networks can no longer turn out a unified force of conservative voters, Republicans will have a harder time winning elections -- especially in key swing states where evangelicals have made a crucial difference in recent decades -- like Colorado and Ohio. A weakening of the evangelical bloc will make it harder for Christian leaders to push the GOP right on social issues, which could mean a significant moderation of the Republican Party as we have known it for over two decades. Indeed, one can already see this happening, as key Republican leaders like Rob Porter break with the Christian right on gay marriage.
But here's a less optimistic thought: If Republicans turn their back on evangelicals and surrender in the culture war, they may set themselves up to have far more traction with young voters, single women, and people of color, and do better in future elections. We are already witnessesing this with Rand Paul, whose rise may portend the creation of a more libertarian Republican Party with far right views on economic and regulatory issues, but a laissez-faire attitude on social issues.
So, no, the decline of evangelicalism doesn't mean that Republicans are toast. While it means that the left will finally and fully win the culture war, it could also mean the GOP has greater leeway to reinvent itself in a new and powerful way.