Christianity and the Future of American Conservatism

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One day last year, on a trip to Washington, D.C., I visited two museums: the National Gallery of Art and the Museum of the Bible. These two museums sit only a short distance away from one another near the National Mall, but in focus and feel they differ greatly. The National Gallery, founded 80 years ago, houses one of the world’s most important collections of Western painting and sculpture. The Museum of the Bible, by contrast, is only a few years old and much less prepossessing. Its collection consists mostly of reproductions and multimedia exhibits on the Bible’s history and continuing social and cultural impact. The contrast between these two museums is stark; and I imagine the subset of people who visit both is quite small.

Perhaps it was just the day I picked to visit, but the demographics of the crowds at the two museums differed dramatically. At the National Gallery, people were mostly (though not exclusively) white. Judging from the slogans on the t-shirts and tote bags, it was a progressive crowd, though I did notice one or two MAGA hats on kids in school groups. There were a significant number of foreign visitors, too, especially Europeans. In fact, the crowd seemed little different from what you would find at any other great art museum anywhere in the world.

In terms of ethnicity, the crowd at the Museum of the Bible was much more mixed. There were many whites, of course; probably they made up a majority. But there were also many blacks, Latinos, and Asians. Presumably, given the museum’s subject matter and the general feel of the place, these were all conservative Christians—mostly evangelical, I’d guess, but some Catholics as well, and at least two Orthodox (my wife and me). From what I could observe, the crowd was solidly middle class. More young kids seemed to be present than at the National Gallery, but there were hardly any European tourists.

I have been thinking a lot about the demographic differences at these two museums over the last month, as election returns have come in. It seems to me that the differences I observed may help explain what happened in the 2020 election, specifically, Republicans’ surprising success with minority voters. Reihan Salam has written of a “multiethnic mainstream” of whites, blacks, Latinos, and Asians that might serve as the core of a new American conservatism. The crowd I observed at the Museum of the Bible suggests that, if such a new conservatism is to form, an ecumenical, conservative Christianity will feature prominently in it.