Karen Johnson went to her Lutheran church so regularly as a child that she won a perfect attendance award. As an adult, she taught Sunday school. But these days, Ms. Johnson, a 67-year-old counter attendant at a slot-machine parlor, no longer goes to church.
She still identifies as an evangelical Christian, but she doesn’t believe going to church is necessary to commune with God. “I have my own little thing with the Lord,” she says.
Ms. Johnson’s thing includes frequent prayer, she said, as well as podcasts and YouTube channels that discuss politics and “what’s going on in the world” from a right-wing, and sometimes Christian, worldview. No one plays a more central role in her perspective than Donald J. Trump, the man she believes can defeat the Democrats who, she is certain, are destroying the country and bound for hell.
“Trump is our David and our Goliath,” Ms. Johnson said recently as she waited outside a hotel in eastern Iowa to hear the former president speak.
White evangelical Christian voters have lined up behind Republican candidates for decades, driving conservative cultural issues into the heart of the party’s politics and making nominees and presidents of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
But no Republican has had a closer — or more counterintuitive — relationship with evangelicals than Mr. Trump.
The twice-divorced casino magnate made little pretense of being particularly religious before his presidency. The ardent support he received from evangelical voters in 2016 and 2020 is often described as largely transactional: an investment in his appointment of Supreme Court justices who would abolish the federal right to abortion and advance the group’s other top priorities. Evangelical supporters themselves often compare Mr. Trump to the ancient Persian king Cyrus the Great, who freed a population of Jews even though he was not one of them.
But religion scholars, drawing on a growing body of data, suggest another explanation: Evangelicals are not exactly who they used to be.
Being evangelical once suggested regular church attendance,a focus on salvation and conversion and strongly held views on specific issues such as abortion. Today, it is as often used to describe a cultural and political identity: one in which Christians are considered a persecuted minority, traditional institutions are viewed skeptically and Mr. Trump looms large.
“Politics has become the master identity,” said Ryan Burge, an associate professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University and a Baptist pastor. “Everything else lines up behind partisanship.”
This is most true among white Americans, who over the course of Mr. Trump’s presidency became more likely to identify as “evangelical,” even as overall rates of church attendance declined. The trend was particularly pronounced among supporters of Mr. Trump: A 2021 Pew Research Center analysis found that white Americans who expressed “warm views” of him were more likely to have begun identifying as evangelical during his presidency than those who did not.
The Republican caucuses in Iowa next week will be a test of how fully Mr. Trump continues to own that identity. Among his rivals, Gov. Ron DeSantis has invested most heavily in courting Iowa evangelicals, using a traditional playbook. He has secured the support of prominent evangelical figures and attested to his hard-line bona fides on abortion, an issue on which he has criticized Mr. Trump for being inconsistent, and in culture-war fights in Florida, his home state.
“In Iowa, these things matter,” said Andrew Romeo, a spokesman for the DeSantis campaign.
But Mr. Trump’s track record and recent polling suggest that is not certain. In early December, Mr. Trump had a 25-point lead over Mr. DeSantis among evangelical voters, according to a Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa Poll.
What may matter more than endorsements and policy plans are Mr. Trump’s embrace of Christianity as a cultural identity — and his promises to defend it.
At a recent rally in Waterloo, Iowa, Mr. Trump cast Christians as a broadly persecuted group facing down a government weaponized against them. Catholics are the current target of “the communists, Marxists and fascists,” he said, citing a recent controversy about a retracted F.B.I. memo, and adding that “evangelicals will not be far behind.”
Ms. Johnson’s Sunday morning routine changed well before Mr. Trump arrived on the political scene. In her early 20s, she was married to a man who didn’t believe, so she “dropped off going to the building.” She didn’t lose her faith, but life, including children and a few moves, pulled her in other directions.
In this she was typical. Church membership in the United States has been slipping for decades, along with the share of Americans who identify as Christian — and particularly as Protestants, the branch that has historically been the gravitational center of American religion. In the middle of the 20th century, 68 percent of Americans described themselves as Protestant. By 2022, 34 percent did, according to Gallup. (A further 11 percent described themselves as simply “Christian,” a category Gallup did not include until the late 1990s.)
At first, declines mostly affected the more liberal mainline Protestant denominations. But in recent years, self-identified evangelical church attendance has dropped as well, and a larger share of conservatives than liberals report leaving church. In 2021, for the first time on record, less than 50 percent of Americans were members of a church.
“It’s the largest and fastest religious shift in our nation’s history,” said Michael Graham, the former executive pastor of a nondenominational church in Orlando, Fla., and the co-author of the recent book “The Great Dechurching.”
The transformation has been particularly visible in Iowa, where self-identified evangelicals, who make up about a quarter of the state’s population, are influential bellwethers in Republican politics — but where religious practice has changed more starkly than almost anywhere else in the country.
From 2010 to 2020, the state’s population of church adherents — people with some level of involvement in a congregation — fell almost 13 percent, a sharper decline than in any state except New Hampshire, according to the U.S. Religion Census, a comprehensive decennial survey of congregations.
In interviews, congregants and clergy described churches and churchgoing as transformed by an array of forces, including aging populations and youth activities.
In Lucas County, a sparsely populated rural county with Iowa’s second-lowest rate of church adherence, Marci Prose, the lead pastor of the Chariton Church of the Nazarene, ministers to a congregation of around 30 people. The church recently moved out of its building into a smaller space that used to be a fitness studio.
When the church hosted a luncheon for the congregation’s senior-citizen members, “the only people who weren’t invited were one woman in the church and my husband and I,” she said.
The early months of the coronavirus pandemic, when churches suspended in-person worship under quarantine orders and in many cases began livestreaming services on Facebook and YouTube, produced lasting transformations in habits. Some once-faithful attendees now join services online, in some cases sampling the streamed offerings of churches far from home. Others simply never got back in the habit of attending at all.
And the schedules of blue-collar jobs and youth sports no longer consider Sunday mornings sacrosanct, making regular attendance more difficult for working people and families.
Tricia Shuffty, 42, a Republican-leaning independent in Lucas County, said she voted mostly on “biblical issues.” But “unfortunately, I work Sundays,” Ms. Shuffty, a security guard, said, “so I don’t get to go to church regularly.”
Clergy and religion experts are quick to note that people who have left church, or did not attend in the first place, have not necessarily abandoned religion. Evangelicalism has long had an individualistic strain that resists the idea that personal faith requires church attendance. Many people whose connection to organized religion has eroded continue to strongly identify as Christians.
But the drop-off has had impacts far beyond individual spirituality. As ties to church communities have weakened, the church leaders who once rallied the faithful behind causes and candidates have lost influence. A new class of thought leaders has filled the gap: social media personalities and podcasters, once-fringe prophetic preachers and politicians.
‘The Only Savior I Can See’
There was little sign at the outset of the 2016 Republican primary season that evangelicals would take to Mr. Trump as enthusiastically as they eventually did. When World magazine, an influential Christian publication, surveyed about 100 evangelical leaders in December 2015, none of them named Mr. Trump as their preferred candidate.
But as Mr. Trump gained ground in the early primaries, his growing strength among white evangelical voters became clear. Polls showed that the future nominee was most popular among one group in particular: white evangelicals who seldom or never went to church.
He would also win over white regular churchgoers, a group that leans Republican. But Mr. Trump’s relationship with evangelicals tracked his relationship with the Republican Party. He capitalized on eroding trust and participation in civic institutions and then, as president, remade the institutions in his own image.
Mr. Trump elevated a cohort of obscure evangelical pastors and media figures, who were often outside the theological mainstream but unwavering in their devotion to him. He increasingly championed Christians as a constituency, rather than nodding to their values, as previous presidents had. His rallies took on a tent-revival atmosphere.
“People who love their country and believe in God, but haven’t been typical churchgoers — he’s brought those people into the fold,” said Jackson Lahmeyer, the founder of Pastors for Trump, a national group of church leaders backing the former president.
In 2008, over half of Republicans reported attending church at least once a month, according to data Mr. Burge compiled from the Cooperative Election Study at Harvard University. In 2022, over half reported attending church once a year or less.
Mr. Trump himself has become a model for embracing evangelicalism as an identity, not a religious practice. In 2020, he announced he no longer identified as a Presbyterian but as a “nondenominational Christian,” a tradition closely associated with evangelicalism. He is rarely seen in church, but a poll this fall by HarrisX for The Deseret News found that more than half of Republicans see Mr. Trump as a “person of faith.” That’s more than any other 2024 Republican presidential candidate and substantially more than President Biden, a lifelong Catholic who attends Mass frequently.
An increasing number of people in many of the most zealously Trump-supporting parts of Iowa fit a religious profile similar to the former president’s. “Iowa is culturally conservative, non-practicing Christians at this point,” Mr. Burge said. “That’s exactly Trump’s base.”
In the farming communities of Calhoun County, for instance, church adherence fell 31 percent from 2010 to 2020 — the steepest decline in the state — even as 80 percent of the population continued to identify in surveys as white Christians. More than 70 percent of the county’s voters cast ballots for Trump in 2020.
“I voted for Trump twice, and I’ll vote for him again,” said Cydney Hatfield, a retired corrections officer in Lohrville, a town of 381 people in Calhoun County. “He’s the only savior I can see.” Raised as a Baptist, Ms. Hatfield no longer attends church. “I just try to do right,” she said. “I pray to God every night.”
For evangelicals who do not embrace Mr. Trump’s politics, the politicized identity now regularly attached to the label has occasioned some soul-searching.
“It was becoming very difficult,” said Dale O’Connell, a Presbyterian pastor in Lucas County, who retired from the ministry in 2016, after 50 years, in part because of an increasingly right-wing atmosphere in some of the congregations he served. Mr. O’Connell, 82, is liberal in his own politics, and for years described himself as an evangelical. But he no longer does.
“I don’t know if there’s a politically and theologically satisfying word that I can even find now,” he said. “I really don’t.”
New Causes, New Leaders
The evolving evangelical identity is already scrambling how politicians appeal to these voters. Mr. Burge’s research has found that “cultural Christians” care relatively little about bedrock religious-right causes like abortion and pornography.
In interviews across Iowa, non-churchgoing Christians who supported Republican candidates, even those who said they believed in governing the country by Christian principles, cited immigration and the economy most often as their top issues in this year’s election.
While they almost universally opposed abortion, they were also often skeptical of the more uncompromising policies that candidates like Mr. DeSantis have championed.
Abortion policy is “one thing I don’t really stress,” said JoAnn Sweeting, who pulled her eighth-grade son out of school to attend a rally for Mr. Trump last month in Coralville, Iowa. Referring to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, she said: “I feel like the policies set for us now seem to be working.”
Ms. Sweeting described herself as an evangelical but does not attend church anymore. She sees Mr. Trump as a man who believes in God and prays. But the reasons she supports him, she said, are his approach to the economy and his progress on building a wall along the southern border.
She also likes his bluntness. “He doesn’t try to sugarcoat things,” she said.
Shifts in evangelical identity have also threatened the influence of the evangelical leaders whose posts at large churches, Christian media companies and faith-based organizations for decades made them power brokers in Republican politics.
In recent months, Republican candidates competed for the endorsement of Bob Vander Plaats, a power broker in Iowa’s evangelical politics. But polls show his endorsement of Mr. DeSantis in November having little effect on the loyalties of evangelical voters, who continue to favor Mr. Trump broadly. Mr. Vander Plaats said he thought “there’s a lot more wiggle room” than the polls suggest.
At Mr. Trump’s rally in Coralville, it was Joel Tenney, a 27-year-old local evangelist who does not lead a church, who delivered the opening prayer.
The crowd responded tepidly to his impassioned recitation of several Bible verses. But the rallygoers roared to life when he set aside the Scripture and told them what they had come to hear.
“This election is part of a spiritual battle,” Mr. Tenney said. “When Donald Trump becomes the 47th president of the United States, there will be retribution against all those who have promoted evil in this country.”