(RNS) How can we understand the role of religion in Republican Donald Trump’s victory?
One interpretation is that religion heavily influenced the outcome, as Trump won regular churchgoers in spite of his own unchristian rhetoric and actions. After struggling among white Catholics this summer, Trump won this key demographic 60 percent to 37 percent.
And despite strident warnings from a few courageous leaders about Trump’s moral unfitness for office, overwhelming support from white evangelicals handed President-elect Trump a resounding Electoral College victory.
According to exit polls, Trump matched or exceeded George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney’s impressive vote totals from white Christians.
But that interpretation is flawed. The 2016 election was not primarily a religion story.
Americans voted largely along the lines of race, education, and party identification. Nonwhites strongly preferred Clinton, while whites decisively chose Trump. Compared with past Republicans, the businessman received a stunning surge of votes from non-college-educated white voters.
None of this is surprising.
And yet the result upends so much conventional wisdom. We were told the GOP had to broaden its outreach to nonwhites and support immigration reform. Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, published a book this year called “The End of White Christian America.”
But with white Christians growing the GOP’s electoral base and turning out to ensure Trump’s election, it’s clear that white Christian America is not dead yet.
As Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels explains, the Republican Party can thrive on white identity for a few more decades. Demographic change is happening, but it happens slowly over time.
Non-Hispanic whites will remain a majority in the U.S. for another 25 years, and a majority of the electorate for even longer.
As minorities grow in strength and success, whites are banding together in what writer Jonathan Chait calls an “indistinguishable stew of racial, religious, cultural, and nationalistic identity.”
Even as white America becomes less religious, Christianity remains an important cultural marker and reference point for whites -- Protestants especially -- who have seen their influence, prestige and prospects diminish over their lifetimes.
There remains a strong association of nostalgia, nationalism and a cultural attachment to religion.
Immigration, pluralism and secularism strengthen aggrieved whites’ cultural and religious identity, even if they no longer attend church.
What kind of religious beliefs and practices find expression in white Christian America?
For some, it is the revealed religion of the Bible, transmitted and reinforced in church and family life.
But for many others, belief persists long after Christian worship, sacraments and ethics are abandoned. Just as religious “nones” usually continue to hold some theological beliefs, most cultural Christians retain a nominal religious identity.
This is not, however, the same as authentic Christian faith and devotion. Some people simply stopped believing, but many more fell out of step with the church when they or their loved ones experienced hardship, violence, addiction, abuse, or family breakdown.
While there has been a documented collapse in churchgoing among working-class whites, a Christian identity remains. It is easily activated when figures like Donald Trump talk about “one people under one God saluting one American flag.”
This brand of faith merges elements of Christianity with nostalgia and a theologically vapid civil religion, ignoring or excusing Trump’s glaring deficiencies as a candidate and as a man.
It’s true that some white Christian leaders opposed Trump from start to finish, risking blowback and alienation from their own people but remaining faithful to the gospel of Jesus.
But white Christians overwhelmingly put their political faith in a new Republican president. Because Trump’s rhetoric and behavior was so blatantly unchristian, his disciples’ credibility as Jesus followers suffered.
Americans surely disagree about whether the majority faith over two American centuries was mostly for good or ill.
But while it is not yet dead, it seems certain that white Christian America will never be great again.
(Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at RNS and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University)