Why White Evangelical Voters Love Donald Trump : Code Switch One of the biggest storylines from the 2020 presidential race has ... well, race at the center of it. If you paid attention to the stories about exit polling, you heard a lot of talk about how Latinx and Black voters showed up in bigger numbers this year than back in 2016. But on this week's episode, we also focus on a conversation that's not happening: The one about a group whose support for Donald Trump hasn't wavered. We're talking about the white vote, and in particular, white evangelical voters.
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The White Elephants In The Room

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The White Elephants In The Room

The White Elephants In The Room

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GENE DEMBY, HOST:

The following episode contains explicit language, mostly because we quoting the president of the United States.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

I think LA Times columnist Gustavo Arellano summarized the early post-election coverage best in his November 4 column. No matter who ends up winning the presidential election, one thing is already clear - it's all the fault of Latino voters.

DEMBY: All your fault, Shereen.

MERAJI: (Laughter) Let's not forget about the Black men who voted for Trump in greater numbers than last time.

DEMBY: OK. OK. OK. OK, them, too. But, yes, we should absolutely pin this tighter-than-expected election that took place during, you know, a global pandemic with a surge in early voting and mail-in voting - we should blame that all on the brown people who voted for Donald Trump.

MERAJI: Never mind that POCs turned out in record numbers, and Joe Biden won the election. We still heard a whole lot of this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVID BROOKS: Trump getting more nonwhite voters than any Republican in 60 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: New polling showing fewer Black men voting blue in this election.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE DAILY")

NATE COHN: Many listening right now have probably heard that Donald Trump fared quite well among Latino voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: In places like Wisconsin, we've seen that Donald Trump's approval rating as high as 22% amongst Black men.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji, and this is CODE SWITCH.

DEMBY: From NPR.

OK, so one of the big storylines from the 2020 presidential race has race at the center of it.

MERAJI: Surprise. But the media spotlight wasn't on white voters and, more specifically, the white evangelical voters who were a big part of President Trump's support.

DEMBY: Don't worry, y'all, we will be talking about that on this episode.

MERAJI: Yes.

DEMBY: But before we get to that, we're going to talk about the increases in Black and Latinx support for Trump.

MERAJI: And some of the big takeaways from those numbers. Tag. Gene, you're it.

DEMBY: (Laughter) All right. So let's get into it. Trump's improved standing with Black voters - well, Black men specifically - it was the focus of a lot of media attention, as we just heard. And to make sense of what happened there, I called up one of our faves, Chryl Laird.

MERAJI: She's been on the podcast before. And I've heard her name mentioned quite a few times on NPR's Politics Podcast, too.

DEMBY: She's everywhere right now. And that's because this is her bailiwick. She's a political scientist at Bowdoin College. She's an expert on Black voting behavior. And she's the co-author along, with Ismail White, of the book "Steadfast Democrats," which explores why it is that so many Black voters, even Black conservatives, cast their ballots so overwhelmingly for Democrats.

MERAJI: Yep. And she told us on the podcast that the short answer is hashtag-housing segregation and everything.

DEMBY: Ain't that the short answer to everything, though - housing segregation and everything? So the idea there is that voting is a social behavior and the intense segregation that Black people experience means it's also easier for Black people to maintain certain norms around voting behavior.

MERAJI: Like voting Democratic.

DEMBY: And for more on that, you should go listen to our episode about Black Republicans. It's called "The Black Table In The Big Tent."

MERAJI: But, G.D., it's not like residential segregation has alleviated in the four years of the Trump presidency.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: So what gives with this increase in Black support?

DEMBY: I asked Chryl about that.

CHRYL LAIRD: When I heard and then I saw those numbers about Black men and the 20% increase, I was like, really? Really?

DEMBY: She said that she and her co-authors started texting like, what is going on here? And they basically, like, we probably got some bad data.

LAIRD: The exit polls create a whole question of methodology, right? And that's a lot of my question around some of the numbers that we're seeing that are being told about Black voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: She said there was all this drama on the political science Listservs around what happened here.

MERAJI: (Laughter) I love nerdy group chats. I think that should be a CODE SWITCH spinoff series.

DEMBY: But the question is, OK, so did something change for Black voters and their priorities, or did something change the way we count the Black people who voted this year?

MERAJI: We know Democratic voters opted to vote by mail or early as opposed to in person on Election Day. Our president was also tweeting quite a bit about how the vote-by-mail system was rigged. So it's possible that the exit polls from Election Day were getting more Republican voters, including Black and Latinx Trump voters.

DEMBY: That's what Chryl said. So, like, unless you know how to weight the sample between mail-in, between early voters and between Election Day voting - and it's not clear pollsters have figured out quite how to do that just yet because, you know, all this is so new for this year - you're going to get some funky numbers, probably. Chryl also said that the other thing is, if you're someone who studies Black voting behavior, you know that you have to give added weight to Black women in the sample.

MERAJI: Because Black women vote at higher rates than Black men.

DEMBY: And Chryl looked under the hood at the data for one of the, you know, main polls that was being cited as evidence of this shift of support to Trump among Black people. And she said their sample had a roughly equal number of Black women and Black men. But she said you have to assume that the Black vote is going to skew more female and adjust your exit poll calculations accordingly.

MERAJI: And - what - that didn't happen?

DEMBY: She said it wasn't clear that that was what happened.

LAIRD: Do I think that there are Black men that are likely to go for Trump? Yes, I do. Do I think that they are more likely to be conservative-leaning than Black women? Yes, I do. But do we see the uptick in gains that I think are being claimed right now of Black men? I don't know.

DEMBY: All right, so just - let's just game this out. Let's presume that the numbers are true. So one thing that could be happening here is that Trump was really just going hard at Black men specifically.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: President Trump believes in rehabilitation, not just incarceration. He wants everyone in America to have the opportunity towards success. That's the type of president that we need.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I'm Donald J. Trump, and I approve this message.

DEMBY: But another theory - this is what Chryl said - is that, you know, before Donald Trump got into politics, he was famous for being a cartoonish rich person. He was kind of a reference point for a certain kind of hyper-capitalist, materialist, you know, American dude, which was really attractive to a lot of people, especially rappers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRUMP CHANGE")

E-40: (Rapping) Trump change. I'm talking Donald Trump change. I'm talking...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THREE STRIKES YOU IN")

ICE CUBE: (Rapping) I'm just trying to get rich like Trump. The home...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COUNTRY GRAMMAR (HOT SH*T)")

NELLY: (Rapping) Donald Trump, let me in now. Spend...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Hey, Method Man. This is Donald Trump, and I'm in Palm Beach. And we're all waiting for your album.

DEMBY: So, you know, Trump is this braggadocious, sexist dude. He likes shiny stuff. Would it really be surprising if, like, you know, rappers and aspirational types with certain politics, like, looked up to him?

MERAJI: #notallrappers.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: Why don't we just say a certain segment of the rap community loves Donald Trump?

DEMBY: Fair. Fair. Fair.

LAIRD: Oh, my gosh. I mean, I specifically remember the family photo of them. And Barron was, I think, sitting on the back of a stuffed lion. Like, I mean...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: If you haven't seen that photo Chryl's talking about, Donald Trump, Melania and Barron are in a penthouse apartment. Little Barron is indeed sitting on a stuffed toy lion. There's not one but two toy limos parked near the lion's paws. And it's just gold, gold, gold everywhere.

DEMBY: It looks like they live in a casino or just, like, you know, in an illustration of late capitalism. But Chryl says because he does too much all the time, Trump specifically might have a higher ceiling with Black men than, like, Mitt Romney or some other generic, super rich Republican.

LAIRD: He's flashy. And I feel like that is very fitting with the aesthetic of wealth and richness that many people look to, especially within the hip-hop space - I mean, even with Ice Cube's Platinum Plan.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

TRUMP: We call it the Platinum Plan.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Two weeks ago, Cube praised the president's Platinum Plan to invest $500 billion in Black community.

LAIRD: I felt like - it felt like a RushCard. It felt like it was going to have, like, a 39.97 interest rate, right? I was like, this feels like a payday loan. Something called the Platinum Plan is designed to appeal to Black men. Like, I don't know how else to say that. Like - and not that they are not taking in policy and substantive things. And I think even there, that is a substantive decision because I think for many Black men, the path to liberation for the Black community, especially those who lean more towards that Black nationalist type of conservatism, is an idea of economic wealth and economic improvement. I mean, that's literally the argument Ice Cube gave. He's like, this will improve the Black community because we need to build more Black entrepreneurs. We need to build more Black business.

DEMBY: And yeah, so we can't say for sure yet. But maybe on the edges, the Platinum Plan kind of work.

MERAJI: Yeah, that's the theory for why more Latinos voted for Trump, too - not necessarily the Platinum Plan itself, but Donald Trump's so-called business prowess and emphasis on entrepreneurship and economic mobility.

DEMBY: He was, like, famous for being rich. Basically, that was his brand. But again, Chryl said, OK, even if that movement among Black men towards Trump is real, it was on the edges. We got to remember that because Black men still overwhelmingly supported Joe Biden. It was just slightly less overwhelming than Black women because, you know, Black women. So any movement toward Trump by Black voters was probably going to happen among Black men just because Black women vote for Democrats at rates higher than any other group.

Chryl said, though, if you assume the numbers are true, they put Trump's performance with Black voters pretty much in line with the typical range for a Republican presidential candidate. He actually didn't do better or worse than your typical Republican. Back in 2004, George W. Bush cracked double digits of the Black vote. And the media treated that as a very big deal. They thought the GOP was making inroads with Black voters then, too.

LAIRD: It is consistent with every trend that we've seen of Black behavior since the '60s, since the consolidation of Black people around the Democratic parties. Even if Black men did go in larger numbers for Trump, the vast majority went with Biden. And that is consistent. And again, I think it speaks to the strength of the norm. And one of the things that I think Ismail and I argued for why the Republicans would have a hard time really chipping away very heavily at the Democratic loyalty that we see amongst Black people is because that norm is maintained more so than just at an individual level, but it is maintained by the community as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: So, like, a 20% jump in Black support for Trump means something like he got 12% of Black votes as opposed to 10% of Black votes. So we're talking about very small numbers. He still got washed. What's probably throwing so many people off is the idea that Trump should do worse with Black voters because Trump is, I mean, Trump.

MERAJI: Didn't you mean to say racist?

DEMBY: (Laughter) Basically. All right, Shereen. It is your turn.

MERAJI: All right. So piggybacking on what you said about long-term consistency and Black support for Republican presidential candidates, you're seeing that with Latinx voters, too. Nationally, two-thirds went Biden and one-third Trump. That's how it's been for decades. There was a lot of focus on counties that had much bigger jumps for Trump, like Starr County in Texas's Rio Grande Valley and Miami-Dade County in Florida.

DEMBY: And what's so interesting about those two places you pointed out is that the two groups of Latinx voters were very different. Like, in Miami-Dade, it's Cuban Americans; it's Venezuelan Americans. And in Texas, we're talking about Mexican American voters.

MERAJI: Yes. Also, Miami-Dade is an urban metropolis. Starr County is much more rural. But like Chryl pointed out with Black voters, the data showing how Latinos voted has a lot of noise in it. And it's going to take some time to get a clearer picture of what went down.

DEMBY: OK.

MERAJI: So I'm going to dig into the thing I found most interesting from all this hand-wringing about Latinos voting for Trump in greater numbers. It led to a national conversation about whether we should be talking about a Latino vote at all.

DEMBY: Because if you watch the news, these votes for Trump clearly signaled that we're not talking about a monolithic Latino electorate.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: This may be the last election cycle where we talk about the Latino vote.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: A Cuban is not the same as a Puerto Rican is not the same as a Guatemalan.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Is there such a thing as the Latino vote?

LUCAS RENGIFO-KELLER: It might be useful to get rid of the term altogether because there is a danger of grouping all these people.

WALTER PEREZ: Trying to cast a net over what's referred to as the Latino vote is unrealistic at best, impossible at worst.

MERAJI: I called up an expert who we've had on CODE SWITCH before. She wrote the book about the creation of the panethnic label we are now beginning to call Latinx, others call Latino while the majority still say Hispanic.

CRISTINA MORA: Hi. I'm Cristina Mora, and I am the author of "Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats And Media Constructed A New American."

DEMBY: We had Cristina on not too long ago on one of our census watch episodes...

MERAJI: Yes.

DEMBY: ...Ahead of the 2020 census. Remember the census job? Remember that other enormously consequential thing that was supposed to happen this year? And you and her, you talked about how the creation of the Hispanic category on the census helped make Latinos into this big national panethnic identity group here in the States. So what was her reaction to this idea that there's really no such thing as a Latino vote?

MERAJI: I would love to hear your perspective on that. Is there such thing as a Latino vote?

MORA: I mean, Latinos are voters (laughter), and they have clear political preferences. I think here, we make the mistake of thinking that heterogeneity within a group is proof that that group should not exist or is fake or contrived in some ways. That's BS in many ways.

Think about whites, right? Whites are amongst the most heterogeneous group that we have in America. Just even think about political preferences. We would never dream of thinking about sort of the white vote and not sort of split it up between those in rural places, those in urban places, white women versus white men, things like that. We split it up all the time, right? And yet we still don't deny that whiteness is a category, that it has been reinforced in a racialized state. You know, it seems like only for - only some groups are allowed to be complicated, and others aren't (laughter). And that's what I think of when I see this.

DEMBY: So, Shereen, what I'm hearing Cristina say is, yes, there is Latino vote in the same way there is a white vote. And just like the white vote, you can and probably should break it down into its different constituent parts.

MERAJI: Hispanic farmers, Latinx entrepreneurs, Latina suburban moms - they all make up the Latino vote. Cristina says the media generalizes in ways that are not helpful, especially when it comes to Latinos.

MORA: I think you're quick to sort of argue that the way a community votes is a reflection of what that community likes and thinks instead of a reflection of sort of the systematic ways that parties have not paid attention to them, the systematic ways in which minority groups have been made to feel like they are not fully American, don't fully belong. All of that context, that sociopolitical context, is left to the wayside when we run with, you know, a trend about the Rio Grande Valley.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Gene, the next expert I hit up sees things a bit differently.

GERALDO CADAVA: To note that a record number of Latinos voted, to note that a Latino turns 18 and becomes eligible to vote every 30 seconds - I mean, to understand the growing importance of Latino voters, I don't think that's the same as saying that this is the importance of the Latino vote.

MERAJI: Gene, you recognize that voice, right?

DEMBY: That sounds like Geraldo Cadava, who was just on our episode about Gen Z Latino voters, like, a couple weeks ago.

CADAVA: And my book is called "The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping Of An American Political Identity, From Nixon To Trump."

DEMBY: So, Shereen, I take it he's one of the people who would like us to stop talking about the Latino vote.

MERAJI: Yes. He even tweeted something to that effect and later deleted it.

DEMBY: Uh-oh (ph) - deleted it?

MERAJI: Geraldo told me it's the emphasis on the Latino vote which makes it seem like all Latinos vote one way and they all see themselves in the same way. You know, we're talking about 32 million eligible voters here. He told me not one of the voters he interviewed for his book about Hispanic Republicans talked about their racialization, as Cristina puts it, as the thing driving their politics.

CADAVA: We could say they're wrong. We could say that they're suffering from some sort of false consciousness or voting against their self-interests or any other number of things that you could say about them. But to me, that does take away from them some agency to decide for themselves how they see themselves. Does that mean that I have the right to say to the 25, 30%, whatever the percentage is - the millions of Latinos who don't identify themselves racially - am I able to tell them that they're wrong?

DEMBY: So I feel like they're saying the same thing in slightly different ways. They're both saying Latinos are a diverse group and that we should acknowledge that.

MERAJI: But Geraldo's saying that by letting go of the Latino vote, politicians and journalists might do a better job getting to know millions of voters for who they really are, what drives them, what they have in common with other voters. Basically, if we keep talking about the Latino vote, the generalizing is going to continue.

DEMBY: This reminds me of the POC/BIPOC episode. I'm not saying that word - the complications of talking about specificity versus a broader group political identity.

MERAJI: Yeah.

DEMBY: Like, do these umbrella groupings - do they actually mean anything? Do they serve a purpose beyond flattening all the diversity and uniqueness and complications underneath a label?

MERAJI: This just feels like a slippery slope to me. Like, if we shouldn't talk about the Latino vote because it's too diverse to characterize as such, can the same thing be said about the entire Latinx, Latino, Hispanic, whatever we're calling it - that entire category? Like, should we just get rid of that, too? I asked Geraldo and Cristina about that.

MORA: Yes, there is diversity. There is heterogeneity. Absolutely.

MERAJI: Once again, Cristina says, and yes, Latinos are still a group because of how we've been racialized here in the United States.

MORA: A dynamic population that is continuously being replenished by, you know, new waves of immigrants. Things like skin color, national identity, age, politics - all of those things matter. You know, we need to just be more sophisticated and be able to hold that a group can be diverse and have a common, you know, way of having been racialized. And so if it takes more complex thinking, it takes more complex thinking. I'm not sure that this, you know, can be distilled on tweets.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: And here's Geraldo one last time.

CADAVA: I want to be careful about how I say this. But I would say that the essence of what it means to be Latino is the conversation that we're having right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CADAVA: I teach a class on Latino history at Northwestern, and we start with the question - who or what is a Latino anyway? And we never resolve that question. I mean, it kind of weaves its way through our story about the past 500 years, but we don't resolve it. And I don't think the point is to resolve it. I think the point is to keep having the question. And so in some ways, Latino group identity, all it is, is an ongoing conversation about what it means to be Latino.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Wow, wow. So, like, man, I didn't think talking about, you know, Trump doing a little bit better with Latino voters was going to end up becoming this big existential question...

MERAJI: Yeah.

DEMBY: ...About whether Latinos are, like, a coherent, cohesive demographic that exists in the world.

MERAJI: Yeah. And it's something I've been thinking about for years - like, what makes us Latinx anyway? Are we a race? Are we an ethnicity? Are we both? Are we neither? If you're listening to this right now, let us know what you think. This is something we want to have a much deeper discussion about in an upcoming episode or episodes.

DEMBY: Yes. Please email us at codeswitch@npr.org. Shereen, I'm going to leave the correspondence to those emails to you this time.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: I'm sure the inbox is going to get real spicy. Wait (laughter). Should I say - I don't think I should say spicy in proximity to, like, Latino...

MERAJI: Yeah, I don't think you should.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: We're about to break. But when we come back, we're going to talk about the white elephants in the room.

ROBERT P JONES: There's no group that more consistently is either unable or unwilling to see systemic racism in the country than white evangelical Protestants - really, my people.

DEMBY: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH.

MERAJI: OK, we've talked about the uptick in Black and Latinx support for President Trump and some of the conversation sparked by those numbers. Now let's talk about the conversation that's not happening - the one about a group whose support for Donald Trump hasn't wavered, a group that is certainly one giant reason why the election was closer than expected. I'm talking about a very influential portion of the white vote.

DEMBY: White evangelical voters. So Trump's support is overwhelmingly white. We all know that. But no one - no one - goes harder for him than the white voters who have been the beating heart of the conservative movement for decades now - no matter what's happened over the last four years. I mean, and it's just so much. We're going to forget a lot, but Charlottesville, shithole countries, the disastrous handling of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. About 80% of white evangelicals still consistently approve of President Trump's performance.

To understand why white evangelicals support him so much, I talked to someone who's paid a lot of attention to that group over the last few years.

JONES: I am Robert P. Jones. I'm the CEO and founder of PRRI. That is the Public Religion Research Institute. We're a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization in Washington, D.C.

DEMBY: If you've listened to, like, more than one episode of CODE SWITCH, you've probably heard me cite the stat that 75% of white people have no friends of color.

MERAJI: Yeah. And since we're shouting out the entire CODE SWITCH back catalog on this episode, we use that exact stat very prominently in an episode we called Keep Your Friends Closer.

DEMBY: I love that episode. Well, that' stat, anyway, it comes from Robert and PRRI. His company does this big survey that comes out in October every year. It's called the American Value Survey. And they ask people this, you know, wide-ranging set of questions about all kinds of topics on religion and politics and social issues. And it's always fascinating. But Robert has been particularly zooming in on how white evangelicals answer the questions on that survey. A few years ago, he wrote a book called "The End Of White Christian America." And earlier this year, he dropped another one.

JONES: "White Too Long: The Legacy Of White Supremacy In American Christianity."

MERAJI: "White Too Long," which is a nod to James Baldwin.

DEMBY: Robert, who is white, by the way, he grew up in Mississippi. He grew up Southern Baptist. He told me a while back that at one point before he became a political scientist and a pollster, he was studying to be a pastor. He's literally been doing the math on white evangelicals. I asked him to walk us through who they are.

JONES: They are heavily concentrated along the southeastern states and the kind of Gulf of Mexico states and in the Midwest. They also are older than Americans in general. The median age is around 57 years of age, whereas the median age in the country is in the low 40s. And only 9% of them are under the age of 30.

MERAJI: Wow. Only 9% of white evangelicals are under the age of 30.

DEMBY: Isn't that wild?

JONES: I think they're often associated with white working-class Americans, but, in fact, there's been a fair amount of upward mobility among white evangelicals in the past generation or so. And so we find basically that white evangelicals today are almost at parity with Americans overall in terms of the proportion of them that hold college degrees.

DEMBY: He said part of the reason that this cohort is getting older is because, you know, younger people who grew up in the evangelical movement are just leaving the church. But also it's this college degree thing. More white evangelical women are going to college, so they're having children later. And that aging - it means that there are fewer and fewer white evangelicals all the time.

JONES: It's been a shrinking number in the general population. And so, you know, if we go back to 2008 - a couple election cycles ago - they were 21% of the country. Today, though, they're only 15%.

MERAJI: But when it comes to voters, they are punching way above their demographic weight.

DEMBY: Listen; so this is the thing that jumps out to me the most. Robert said white evangelicals make up a quarter of all voters, and that number has not really moved in the last few presidential cycles.

MERAJI: Wait. So 1 in 4 voters who turns out to vote is a white evangelical?

DEMBY: That is so many people, right? That is just a wild thing to think about. And since they're overwhelmingly Republican, that power is really concentrated. About 40% of all Trump voters are white evangelicals, Robert said.

MERAJI: Jesus - pun intended.

DEMBY: Send your letters to Shereen, please. The sacrilege - I'm not on the hook with that.

MERAJI: I'm sorry. No, I'm sorry. That was rude. But President Trump has done much worse than take Jesus's name in vain, so...

DEMBY: Yep.

MERAJI: I really don't get what's going on with this unwavering support.

DEMBY: Listen. Yeah, I mean, I asked Robert this. Like, OK, so why all this white Christian love for president grab-them-by-the-pussy?

JONES: I think I probably spent more time answering this question over the last four years than maybe any other question (laughter) in my career because it is perplexing. And the thing we should remember is that, you know, this group defined itself as so-called values voters - right? - during the Bush years and would talk incessantly about candidates' character and those kinds of things, mostly as a reaction to Bill Clinton. They were trying to kind of criticize Bill Clinton. So I think that's sort of, like, the internal history, you know, there. But, you know, they have supported Republican candidates no matter who they were - somewhere around three-quarters of support - going all the way back to Reagan.

MERAJI: So he's saying President Trump's performance isn't an outlier when it comes to Republican presidential candidates, which is kind of a theme running through this episode.

DEMBY: Right. Like, President Trump is an outlier in so many ways, but voting behavior is not really when it comes to him. Robert said, actually, that Trump did a little better with white evangelicals than a typical Republican might. In 2016, Trump did better in exit polls than George W. Bush, who was himself a white evangelical, let's not forget.

JONES: His appeal among this group, really, was a kind of cultural appeal. It was really the Make America Great Again mantra. I think most of the power of that slogan was in the last word - again - that it was hearkening back really to this time, the kind of 1950s America where white Christians and particularly white Anglo-Saxon Protestants were more dominant in the society demographically, culturally.

MERAJI: So that nostalgic appeal was strong enough that this entire group overlooked Trump's (speaking Spanish) - I'm channeling my grandmother here - and trespasses.

DEMBY: Yeah. So - and Robert's book, "The End of White Christian America," focuses on this question. It's about the angst that white Christians felt about, you know, their receding cultural and political dominance, all these fears about secularization and demographic change. And there was one very visible example of change that supercharged all these anxieties.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: It's been a long time coming. But tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.

(APPLAUSE)

MERAJI: President Barack Hussein Obama.

DEMBY: Who wasn't white, obviously. And, you know, white Christians didn't think he was a Christian either. And so part of white evangelicals' embrace of Trump was that he was speaking directly to their sense of lost status that Obama seemed to represent to them.

MERAJI: With his talk of birtherism and demonization of Mexicans and banning Muslims.

DEMBY: I mean, yeah, we can go on for a while on that. And what jumps out from Robert's polling data is just how different white evangelicals are on most of the issues than other voters on questions of race when he asked them. So, for example, in his American Values Survey for this year, they were the religious group most likely to say that terrorism was a critical issue facing the country. They were also the only group to say that coronavirus was not a critical issue. They were the only religious group in the survey where most people said immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background.

JONES: How could white evangelicals continue to support, you know, a candidate who has openly refused to call out white supremacist groups and refuse to condemn them on multiple times, who's said really derogatory things around immigrants, calling them rapists? Those kinds of appeals actually, you know, weren't repellents. They were actually part of the attraction.

DEMBY: And there's some hidden history behind how white evangelicals came to be so distinct in holding these racial views, and that history is kind of hiding in plain sight, actually. But I'll let Robert tell it since he grew up in this world.

JONES: You know, I didn't know until my 20s the real origin story of our denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. And that is that in 1845, there was a dispute between Baptists in the north - white Baptists in the North, white Baptists in the South - over whether someone who is going to be appointed as a member of the clergy could also enslave other human beings. And the Baptists in the North said no, and Baptists in the South said yes. And that was really the impetus for setting up their own convention in the South, which became known as the Southern Baptist Convention.

DEMBY: The Southern Baptist Convention declared that enslaving other people based on their race was perfectly compatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ. And the SBC was not some fringe Christian group.

JONES: By the middle of the 20th century, it became the dominant expression not only of evangelical Protestantism, but it was the largest Protestant denomination of any kind. So it becomes the dominant expression of Protestant Christianity in America with that origin - that genesis story at its heart.

MERAJI: I had no idea.

DEMBY: Right? Yeah, that history is really important because it also gets to the next part of the sort of political resurgence. So the SBC and other white evangelical groups become really politically active in the 1970s.

MERAJI: Which makes sense to me because Roe v. Wade happened in 1973.

DEMBY: That's the story, supposedly, right?

MERAJI: Yeah.

DEMBY: That's the story we all know. But Robert said to really understand how they became so activated, you need to look at another landmark Supreme Court case - Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

MERAJI: Which made segregation in public institutions unconstitutional.

DEMBY: You know, after Brown, white people in the South began fleeing public schools to avoid integration. They started setting up these whites-only private Christian schools. They just started popping up all over the place in Alabama and Mississippi.

MERAJI: Yeah, the quote-unquote "segregation academies."

DEMBY: And in the early 1970s, these white Christians came together to fight to keep their segregation academies from integrating. And it was the alliances over those fights that became the foundation of the nascent religious right.

JONES: I think it's a little-known fact. I think - again, I think it's part of the internal public messaging by evangelicals themselves that it's all about abortion, right? And I think one of the reasons for telling that story is that that's a much more comfortable story to tell about oneself than to say it's all about race.

DEMBY: So Shereen, this is wild, but in the years before and just after Roe, the Southern Baptist Convention actually put out resolutions supporting the idea that women should have access to abortion. It didn't actually put out...

MERAJI: What?

DEMBY: I know, right? It didn't actually put out an anti-abortion resolution until 1979, six years after Roe. So why did they land on abortion as an issue?

MERAJI: Yes.

DEMBY: Well, throughout the 1970s, there was this growing concern among Americans over the issue of legalized abortion. And that's when white evangelical leaders adopted this previously Catholic issue to hold together this new ascendant political coalition that had mobilized to defend segregation. Robert said abortion is a priority to evangelicals, obviously. Today, three-quarters of white evangelicals he surveyed said it was an important issue to them, but only about 36% said they absolutely would not vote for someone who supported abortion rights.

MERAJI: I think that percentage would be higher just because of the way the issue of abortion is discussed when it comes to evangelicals.

DEMBY: And getting back to this origin story, this racial resentment remains a crucial part of how this bloc votes. So Robert asked his respondents this wide range of questions - right? - about white supremacy, about systemic racism.

JONES: And what I found is that even across, like, 15 different questions, there was just this - such a clear pattern that on every single question, white evangelicals were on the side of holding more racist attitudes, of denying the existence of systemic racism, supporting the Confederate flag, denying the need for police reform up and down the spectrum.

DEMBY: Robert and his team scored the answers they got to the survey on an index of 1 to 10. So 1 meant the respondent had the least racist attitudes, and 10 meant they had the most racist attitudes. And overall...

JONES: White evangelicals scored 8 out of ten. You know, they were topping out the list. Now, I should say that other white Christian groups - white mainline Protestants and white Catholics - also scored 7 out of 10, right? So they're right there. But there's no group that more consistently is either unable or unwilling to see systemic racism in the country than white evangelical Protestants - really, my people.

DEMBY: It matters how white evangelicals answered these questions about race because Robert says the answers they gave to these questions represented a huge divide between people who supported Trump and people who did not.

JONES: And that's a bigger divide than we get even from the issue we all think of as, you know, the kind of culture war issue, the issue of abortion. I think until we get a clear-eyed view of that history and reckon with it and then really reform - I mean, these, you know, white Christian churches for the most part have never reformed this theology and these assumptions and never really faced these assumptions in their midst. And I think until we do, you know, we're not going to get that far. And white Christian churches will continue to be, I think, anchor points for white supremacy in our society.

DEMBY: So the, you know, electoral behavior of this voting bloc has had huge consequences for all of us in so many ways when it comes to abortion, obviously, but also especially when it comes to race or, as Robert put it, about his people to NBC News this week. The heartbreaking truth is that without white evangelicals, the primary issue that has rent the soul of America since our beginnings, the struggle for racial equality and justice, would suddenly become much more manageable.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show. Please follow us on Twitter. We're @NPRCodeSwitch. You can follow Shereen @radiomirage and me at G-E-E-D-E-E 215. We want to hear from you as always. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. And subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts.

MERAJI: This episode was produced by Kumari Devarajan and Alyssa Jeong Perry. It was edited by Steve Drummond and Lauren Migaki.

DEMBY: And of course, we got to show love to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team - Jess Kung, Leah Donnella, Karen Grigsby Bates, LA Johnson and Natalie Escobar. Our intern is Alyssa Baheza.

I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

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