The evangelical faction has played a key role in conservatism and the Republican Party for all of modern American history. In each election, the GOP emphasizes the need to mobilize the evangelical vote and recognize religious values as fundamental to the core principles of the party. However, in recent years, the religious wing of the Right has decreased in prominence for several reasons.
The primary cause for the religious decline on the Right is the broader reduction in the portion of Americans that actively practice religion and also the percentage of those who believe in God at all. Young Americans today are far less religiously active than in previous generations, indicating a massive generational gap. Data from the Pew Research Center shows that two-thirds of those born between 1928 and 1945 pray daily and consider religion to be very important in their lives. By contrast, only 39 percent of millennials born between 1990 and 1996 share the same religious perspective.
Much of the loss in religion has occurred within the last two decades, with ABC News/Washington Post polls indicating significant changes in religious demographics in the United States. Since 2003, there has been a 14 percent decrease in the percentage of Americans who identify as Protestant. The portion of Americans who identify broadly as Christian has fallen from 83 to 72 percent over the same time span. Furthermore, the number of Americans who claim no religion has nearly doubled, increasing from 12 to 21 percent.
These changes have a significant impact on the political landscape, particularly for the Republican Party. In 2016, Donald Trump won 80 percent of the white evangelical vote, performing even better than Republican presidential candidates in prior elections who ostensibly had a deeper connection to religious voters. The party’s reliance on this voting block may make future elections difficult, as the white evangelical share of the electorate has dropped from 21 to 13 percent. Non-religious voters are much more likely to support the Democratic Party, which fancies itself as far more secular and seemingly uninterested in courting religious voters. There have been electoral consequences for this disregard, but the continuing trend of secularization in the U.S. unquestionably favors the Democratic Party.
There has been an extensive debate within the Right to determine how best to respond to the decline of religion. Some suggest that Republicans must adamantly appeal to non-religious Americans to avoid becoming electorally obsolete. However, balancing such a transformational change in the party platform while maintaining core principles is sure to be difficult. Others argue that such a transition would necessitate a steep sacrifice of traditional conservative principles that is both unnecessary and undesirable. There is no obvious answer in terms of how to adapt to a population and culture that is increasingly hostile towards religion, but it’s an issue that must be contemplated and addressed in some capacity.
There is also the optimistic view that there will be a religious revitalization in America that will reinvigorate communities and bolster support for conservative causes. The evidence for this is difficult to find, as virtually all data indicates a continued decline in religious belief and activity.
While the conservative constituency goes well beyond mere religious demographics, there are several common core principles between conservatism and Christianity. These include respect for tradition, emphasis on virtue and charity, gratitude, and recognition of the innate value of human life. These philosophical links have created a lasting interconnection between conservatism and Christianity, but this association faces uncertainty in contemporary society.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the Right will be figuring out how to maintain these bonds while simultaneously catering to secular Americans. It’s a difficult issue to navigate, but one that will likely determine the long term success of the Republican Party.