The Strength of White Evangelical Support for Trump

Tomorrow night I’ll be in Chicago making the case that Pietism might help renew evangelicalism. That assumes, of course, that evangelicalism can be renewed. Or that we have any idea who “evangelicals” are.

I’m going to proceed as planned with the talk, but a new report from the Pew Research Center has me a bit more skeptical that either assumption is valid.

As part of a larger survey of American responses to the first month of the Trump administration, Pew asked respondents about the president’s executive order on refugees. Overall, 59% disapproved and 38% approved, with majorities disapproving in almost every demographic category. Not surprisingly, 81% of Republicans approved of the Republican president’s order.

And so did 76% of white respondents who identified as evangelical.

British protest against Trump refugee order: "Refugees & immigrants welcome"
British protest against the executive order on refugees and other immigrants – Creative Commons (Alisdare Hickson)

I know I’m on the other side of this issue, but it’s still hard to believe.

I’m from an evangelical family, attend an evangelical church, and work at an evangelical university, and I can’t think of a single evangelical who viewed that executive order favorably. Perhaps I just move in relatively progressive circles, or people are censoring themselves around me (in person or on social media). But off hand I can think of several evangelicals in my acquaintance who supported Trump (or at least opposed Clinton) and yet were bothered by the order.

Leith Anderson
Among those signing the recent World Relief letter on refugees: Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals

Moreover, on this particular issue, a wide array of evangelical leaders actually did speak out, responding with varying degrees of alarm to the administration’s treatment of refugees and preference for some religions over another.

So what do we make of this 76% figure? It’s entirely possible that evangelical has simply lost all meaning. Or that there’s a fundamental split between the term as a category that historians like me use to interpret religious belief and behavior and the term as what Tim Gloege has called a “marketing segment… ‘Evangelicals’ in this sense were not an untapped segment of voters that pollsters discovered, it was one they created.”

So “this ‘evangelicalism’ was not an organic movement; it was a conjured segment.” But a conjured segment that soon attracted leaders… many of whom now seem not to speak for their supposed followers.

To the extent that “evangelical” remains a useful category for such analysis… At the very least, we ought to question Ed Stetzer’s “It’s the Supreme Court, stupid” theory. In the wake of the Gorsuch nomination, Stetzer argued at his Christianity Today blog that evangelicals did not necessarily have any deep affinity for the larger Trump agenda, but did want to ensure friendly votes on a Supreme Court faced with cases involving abortion and religious freedom:

I’ve grown weary of the untrue and unfair accusation that all Trump voters are racists, misogynists, and xenophobes because they voted for Trump. (In the same way, I am weary of claims that anyone who votes for a Democrat automatically supports the radical abortion views of the Democratic party.)

People make decisions from the choices they have—and many Evangelicals chose the Supreme Court as they voted….

Neil Gorsuch
SCOTUS nominee Neil Gorsuch – U.S. Court of Appeals, 10th Circuit

Evangelical Trump voters made a choice and many of them saw today, with the nomination of Neil Gorsuch, that their choice was validated. They voted for the sanctity of life and for religious liberty. And they believed that Hillary Clinton would have appointed a justice who would have continued to pull the nation away from those fundamental values.

If that’s true, I have no idea why Trump would retain such a high level of support among white Christians who describe themselves to pollsters as “evangelical” (given margin of error, 76% is awfully close to the 81% of evangelical voters who cast ballots for Trump) when presented with an issue that, ostensibly, didn’t matter to them — an issue on which they’re hearing strong evangelical voices on the other side.

But then, they told Pew last July that they did care about Trump’s core issues. While 70% of white evangelicals in that survey agreed that the Supreme Court was “very important,” only 52% said the same about abortion. And the Court ranked sixth among the issues that mattered to that group. Far more important were terrorism (89%) and immigration (78%); in fact, white evangelicals weighted those issues more heavily than did any other religious group.

Finally, consider a recent CBS News poll probing various levels of Trump support and opposition. Here are the national averages and white evangelical results for the four categories:

  National Average White Evangelicals
“I am a Trump supporter, period.” 22% 41%
“I am a Trump supporter, but to keep my support, he has to deliver what I want.” 22% 38%
“I am against Trump now, but could reconsider him if he does a good job.” 21% 13%
“I am strongly against Trump, period.” 35% 8%

Here too, the only categories where Trump support is stronger are Republicans and Conservatives.

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