Yesterday, my social media feed exploded with news coming out of the Pew Research Center. Based on polling done over the last two weeks, they found that 78% of white evangelicals supported Trump for president, a figure that is actually stronger than that expressed for Mitt Romney at the same point in 2012.
In fact, white evangelicals are 10 percentage points higher on strong support than was true for Romney. My response to this data is to quote Captain Renault in Casablanca: “I’m shocked, shocked to find out that gambling is going on in (Rick’s club)“.
This data shouldn’t be surprising for several reasons.
First, there is the matter of historical pattern. When we got to the conclusion of the 2012 election, white evangelicals supported Mitt Romney by 79% to 21%. That’s one percent better than Romney did among Mormons! Nothing that has happened in the past four years should have led anyone to expect those patterns to shift substantially.
Second, as I’ve written before, it’s possible that the evangelical vote is actually reflecting a set of other co-variants that correlate with voting Republican: Southern, rural, high school educated, small government, working class, concern over immigration. It’s very difficult to parse the independent impact of an evangelical identity (even controlling for theology and church attendance). To the extent that all of these factors correlate to some degree, this finding would be somewhat expected.
Third, Lydia Bean observed in her book (as I quoted recently) that for many American Evangelicals the perceived moral decline of society is placed at the feet of liberal Democrats. (This is not the case in her Canadian churches.) So when bright line social issues like opposition to abortion and concern over same-sex marriage stand as markers of identity, and the Democrats are on the other side of those arguments, it’s hard to see white evangelicals who might switch parties in the face of Mr. Trump’s personal background and rhetorical style. This helps explain why the evangelical summit was important to Trump. It is in line with Pastor Robert Jeffress saying that “we need a mean son of a you know what” to shake things up. It’s why evangelicals have been telling themselves that we don’t need a pastor in chief. Voting for the other side is a bridge too far.
Fourth, there is a clear alignment between some sectors of the evangelical world and conservative Republican causes. Two weeks ago, Colorado Christian University hosted the Western Conservative Summit. The speakers list is a who’s who of Republican favorites. During the Republican primaries, candidates spoke at a number of Christian universities (who were mostly very careful not to endorse). While other evangelical institutions have gone out of their way to be places of dialogue without party affiliation, they are in the minority.
Fifth, the data reflects shifting age demographics. I just got my copy of The Death of White Christian America by Robert Jones of PRRI in the mail today. While I haven’t read it, I did watch a live event he did at Brookings on Monday (and am pleased to be attending an event in NYC on the 27th). In his remarks, Robbie spoke to why attitudes toward same-sex marriage haven’t shifted as much among White Evangelicals as among other groups. He suggested that there is evidence that some young people are shifting out of evangelical groups because of the evangelical stance on same-sex marriage. The result is that the percentages remain stable because the moderating forces are departing the fold. This is consistent with anecdotal information found in works by Robert Putnam and David Campbell (American Grace), David Kinnaman (You Lost Me), Vern Bengston (Families and Faith), and Wes Markofsky (The New Monasticism). If a segment of millennials feel that evangelicalism is too wedded to partisan politics and thereby leave evangelicalism, the percentage that remain evangelical will show up as more conservative.
Sixth, there is some relationship between race and the electorate. The same day that the Pew Survey was released, an NBC/Marist poll found that Donald Trump’s support among Blacks in Ohio and Pennsylvania had hit 0.0%. To the extent that our churches (both evangelical and mainline) are too segregated, we’d expect the kinds of patterns shown in the Pew data to be consistent.
Sociologists, political scientists, and religion reporters will spend most of the next two years trying to figure out what all this means for the relationship between politics and evangelical faith. If the current FiveThirtyEight model holds, there is a 2 in 3 chance of a Democratic victory.
Since that kind of loss feeds the dominant narrative the Lydia Bean and the Western Conservative Summit describe, it’s hard to see these patterns shifting in the future. I would expect the percentages claiming to be evangelical to shift but not the percentage Republican within that group.