Christianity and the Future of American Conservatism

First Things - logo

From: First Things. America's most influential journal of religion and public life.

Mark L. Movsesian

One day last year, on a trip to Washington, D.C., I visited two museums: the National Gallery of Art and the Museum of the Bible. These two museums sit only a short distance away from one another near the National Mall, but in focus and feel they differ greatly. The National Gallery, founded 80 years ago, houses one of the world’s most important collections of Western painting and sculpture. The Museum of the Bible, by contrast, is only a few years old and much less prepossessing. Its collection consists mostly of reproductions and multimedia exhibits on the Bible’s history and continuing social and cultural impact. The contrast between these two museums is stark; and I imagine the subset of people who visit both is quite small.

Perhaps it was just the day I picked to visit, but the demographics of the crowds at the two museums differed dramatically. At the National Gallery, people were mostly (though not exclusively) white. Judging from the slogans on the t-shirts and tote bags, it was a progressive crowd, though I did notice one or two MAGA hats on kids in school groups. There were a significant number of foreign visitors, too, especially Europeans. In fact, the crowd seemed little different from what you would find at any other great art museum anywhere in the world.

In terms of ethnicity, the crowd at the Museum of the Bible was much more mixed. There were many whites, of course; probably they made up a majority. But there were also many blacks, Latinos, and Asians. Presumably, given the museum’s subject matter and the general feel of the place, these were all conservative Christians—mostly evangelical, I’d guess, but some Catholics as well, and at least two Orthodox (my wife and me). From what I could observe, the crowd was solidly middle class. More young kids seemed to be present than at the National Gallery, but there were hardly any European tourists.

I have been thinking a lot about the demographic differences at these two museums over the last month, as election returns have come in. It seems to me that the differences I observed may help explain what happened in the 2020 election, specifically, Republicans’ surprising success with minority voters. Reihan Salam has written of a “multiethnic mainstream” of whites, blacks, Latinos, and Asians that might serve as the core of a new American conservatism. The crowd I observed at the Museum of the Bible suggests that, if such a new conservatism is to form, an ecumenical, conservative Christianity will feature prominently in it.

In the 2020 election, Donald Trump did surprisingly well with minority voters, and Republican candidates other than Trump, buoyed by those voters, did surprisingly well in down-ballot races across the country. The results will be refined over the next several months, but the early exit polls show consistently that Trump, and Republicans more generally, received significant support in minority communities—nowhere near majority support, of course, but more than Republicans typically receive and enough to make a difference in certain places. In a closely divided electorate, even small shifts can affect outcomes.

For example, nationally, more than a third of Latino voters chose Trump, and more than a quarter of Asian voters. Trump had less success with black voters, but he increased his share significantly with them as well. According to one national exit poll, Trump received 18 percent of the vote of black men, a 13-point increase from 2016.

In some states, the increase in minority support was more pronounced. The New York Times reported that in Texas, Latino voters swung decisively to Trump in 2020, including in heavily Latino counties on the Mexican border. In fact, according to the Times, Latinos “delivered enough votes” to Trump “to help cancel the impact of white voters in urban and suburban areas” and allow him to carry the state. Florida, which Trump also won, presents a similar picture. Again according to the Times, President-elect Biden “underperformed in many precincts with a majority Hispanic population, particularly those in the Cuban-American communities of Miami-Dade County, which overwhelmingly supported Mr. Trump.”

Salam argues that the rise in minority support for Republicans represents the growth of an upwardly mobile, multiethnic middle class attracted by the GOP’s focus on economic growth and repelled by the Democrats’ embrace of woke progressivism and the cancel culture. The members of this voting bloc do not perceive themselves as minorities needing vindication against white America—only one-quarter of Latinos see themselves as “people of color,” Salam reports—but as new members of the American mainstream.

The factors Salam identifies no doubt figure in minorities’ increasing affinity for conservative politics. But I think his explanation misses another important factor: conservative Christianity. The media typically presents conservative Christians as monolithically white, but that is not the case. For example, about one-quarter of evangelicals are members of racial and ethnic minorities, and Republicans apparently did very well among them. According to Gaston Espinoza, a researcher at Claremont McKenna College who conducted a survey of Latino voters, it was “Latino evangelicals” who “helped Trump to do better than anyone expected in Texas . . . and in Florida.”

I don’t know of studies that analyze minority voters in terms of church attendance, but in the general population, religious observance correlates with voting for the GOP, and that pattern presumably holds for many minorities as well. According to the AP Vote Cast Survey, people who attend church regularly—up to a few times a month—broke solidly for Trump, 54 percent to 45 percent. People who attend church once a week or more voted 61 percent for Trump. By contrast, people who never attend church went strongly for Biden, 63 percent to 32 percent. (This last figure is consistent with surveys that reveal that more than two-thirds of Democrats “never attend religious services.”) To be sure, differences exist among minority communities; black Christians, for example, continue to vote Democrat in very large numbers. Still, it is reasonable to think that, with respect to minorities, as with respect to the American public generally, the religiously observant tend to vote Republican.

If Republicans are to become a multiethnic, middle-class movement, a popular, ecumenical Christianity of the sort I observed at the Museum of the Bible will likely have an important place in it. In fact, the religious identity of the movement need not be exclusively Christian. Americans are famously non-sectarian when it comes to public religion, and it’s possible to imagine a political coalition of the traditionally religious from all faith communities. Although good studies are difficult to find, some suggest that Orthodox Jews increasingly vote Republican. And President Trump drew one-third of Muslim voters in 2020, a large increase over 2016.

What would an ecumenical political movement stand for? Probably it would favor public religious expression and religious freedom; as to the latter, it is noteworthy that an informal interfaith coalition of Catholics and Orthodox Jews has formed in New York City to litigate against public-health rules that unduly restrict worship during the COVID epidemic. Beyond that, it’s hard to say. Minority Christians have different policy preferences and priorities, not all of which qualify as conservative in conventional terms. For example, Latino evangelicals tend to be conservative on questions like abortion and same-sex marriage but progressive on education, economic policy, and immigration. Asian evangelicals similarly differ among themselves on political questions.

The precise contours of an ecumenical politics thus remain to be worked out. There are risks to a religiously inflected politics, of course, as the history of many countries shows. And it would be a pity if religious freedom, an asset for all Americans, even nonbelievers, were to become simply a partisan commitment. But the polarization of American politics along lines of religious observance seems underway and may be inevitable. In any case, the role of conservative Christianity in the movement of minority voters to the GOP, and the future of conservative politics, seems hard to deny.

Mark L. Movsesian co-directs the St. John’s Center for Law and Religion.