Arts and Culture

Author and public opinion researcher Robert P. Jones is the winner of the 2019 Grawemeyer Award in Religion from the University of Louisville and the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Jones is author of the 2016 book “The End of White Christian America,” which posited that anxieties among the white working class about their declining status amid rapid demographic change explained much of the anger and resentment evident in the 2016 presidential election.

Jones also founded the Public Religion Research Institute, which uses public opinion polling to probe questions about how religion and politics intersect. One of his biggest questions lately has to do with President Donald Trump’s strong and sustained support from white evangelicals.

Even after news about affairs with a porn star and a Playboy model, Jones said, those self-described “values voters” still support the president they helped elect, even if his personal behavior does not reflect their professed values.

“It’s a real paradox,” Jones said, explaining that Trump succeeded by converting “values voters” into what Jones calls “nostalgia voters.”

“Trump made an appeal, not that he was one of them, but that he understood their anxieties, fears, and worries about the changing values in the country and, really, the changing demographics of the country,” Jones said. “He was promising to turn back the clock, back to a previous time.”

Shifting Values

Jones said white evangelicals voted 81 percent for Trump, “a man who, by no one’s measure, really, met any of the metrics that white evangelicals had said qualified someone to be worthy of a values voter’s support.”  

Jones said the Trump era coincides with a “sea change” in white evangelical political ethics. He points to shifting responses to a question his group put to the public in 2011 and again in 2016. The question had to do with how much character mattered in an elected official.

“We asked: ‘If an elected official committed an immoral act in his or her personal life, can they still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in public life?’” Jones said.

In 2011, only 3 in 10 white evangelicals said this was possible. But by 2016, when Trump was atop the Republican presidential ticket, white evangelicals “had changed their minds completely.”

By then 72 percent of white evangelicals said it was possible to behave immorally as a person but perform acceptably as a public official. Jones said that reflects a shift from a political ethic centered on the character and values of a candidate to what he calls a “consequentialist ethic.”

“The ends justify the means,” Jones said. Values voters now have made a decision that what they really value is a candidate who “will stand up for us.”

Racial Divisions

In “The End of White Christian America” Jones explains how changing demographics set the stage for those political changes. Just about a decade ago more than 55 percent of Americans identified as white and Christian. Today that number is about 42 percent.

His group’s polling finds increasing anxiety about race. He also finds a lot of distress about the racial components of President Trump’s rhetoric.

The group’s most recent polling, conducted just before the November midterm elections, found that 56 percent of respondents say that President Trump’s decisions and behaviors have encouraged white supremacist groups.

“That’s a number I never thought, as a public opinion pollster, that I would see,” Jones said with an air of disbelief. “A majority of the country thinks that a sitting president has encouraged white supremacists.”

He noted a sharp split among which groups are most likely to hold that view, and in how Americans view the connections between Trump’s rhetoric and acts of political violence and hate crimes.

Take, for example, incidents this fall such as the attempted mail bombing of prominent Democrats, the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, and the apparently racially motivated killing of two African-American shoppers at a Louisville grocery.

“It’s fair to say that leadership matters on these issues,” Jones said. “President Trump has been very fuzzy in his denouncement of many acts of violence.”

Jones said younger Americans and Democrats are far more likely to say that they see a pattern among those events, and are more likely to connect those events to the influence of Trump’s language and the larger national political discussion. Older Americans and Republicans, however, are more likely to see those violent acts as separate, random incidents unconnected to the president’s rhetoric.

Grappling With Change

Jones said it’s clear that racial divisions still loom large in American society. But he cautions against blanket assertions of racism amid debate about values and rapidly changing demographics.

“I think painting everybody who might have some anxiety or fears or even a sense of vertigo about some of the changes that are happening so fast — to paint all of them as racist — I think, is really just too easy, inaccurate, and misses the point,” Jones said. “We really are in a major area of transition.”

Jones said the rapid pace of change challenges our shared sense of a national identity. He looks to large, trusted social institutions such as schools and churches to play a role in helping people meet that challenge. However, those institutions, in turn, suffer their own racial divisions.

Public schools have seen recent setbacks in integration. And he notes that few church congregations are racially integrated.

“The task really should be about how do we help everyone through this adjustment period so that we get to the other side and we recognize a country that we all feel a part of and we are all still invested in.”

Jeff Young is managing editor of the Ohio Valley ReSource, a journalism collaboration led by Louisville Public Media.