If your social media feed looks like mine, the world is suddenly surprised that a new Pew Report shows that 78% of White Evangelicals are supportive of the job President Trump has been doing over the first 100 days. Unlike patterns that seemed to be evident during the Republican primaries a year ago, those who regularly attend church at least once a month seem most supportive of the president.
It doesn’t help that Jerry Falwell, Jr. claims that “evangelicals have found their dream president”.
The Pew Report contained a link to a September report that helps explain this data. As their chart shows, the alignment between White Evangelicals and Republicans has shifted significantly in recent years.
As I estimate the numbers on the chart, when George W. Bush was elected over Al Gore, White Evangelicals favored Republicans by under 30 percent. Sixteen years later, the gap has nearly doubled.
This data is very consistent with some analysis I’ve been doing using the Pew 2014 Religious Landscape Study. I gave a preliminary analysis of this research this past weekend at the Henry Symposium on Faith and Politics at Calvin College.
For some time, I’ve been trying to sort out what is going on with White Evangelical voters. Like many others, I’ve wondered how religious values influence policy preferences and resulting voting decisions.
Last month Gallup did a report that gave a clue to what was going on. The researchers examined data on how religious variables related to support for Trump and found the kinds of church attendance patterns frequently cited. But when they controlled for political party and only looked at Republicans, the religious differences disappeared!
Taking Gallup’s lead, I went into the Pew 2014 data and began examining the handful of policy variables they ask about. I found two very different patterns: one set for what I call “conservative issues” and another for what I call “moral issues”.
The conservative issues are policies that do not have obvious religious influence (I know that there are sound scriptural reasons for engaging these issues but that’s not how conservatives are seeing them). I examined four different issues: belief that welfare creates dependency, that environmental policies cost jobs, that immigration is harmful, and that small government is good.
The moral issues are the kinds of things more likely to be addressed in sermons: abortion should be illegal in all/most cases, opposition to gay marriage, concern over children born out of wedlock, and belief in absolute right and wrong.
I calculated the percentage of Republicans supporting the various positions to see how they varied by religious variables. What I found was surprising but exactly what Gallup found — on conservative issues religion isn’t a factor; on moral issues it is.
I’ll give one example of each issue: Welfare Dependency and Gay Marriage show the patterns well.
The religion variables are fairly standard: do you claim to be born again, how often do you attend church, how important is religion, religious tradition (as characterized by Pew), and a measure of religious orthodoxy. The red bar at the bottom shows all Republicans without considering religious variables.
The conservative issues of welfare dependency is remarkably stable. There is very little difference between the religious subcategories. While there is slightly higher variation among some of the other issues, their overall pattern is similar.
On the other hand, there is significant difference among Republicans by religious category on moral issues like Gay Marriage. The other moral issues show similar patterns, again with some variation.
What does this mean for our contemporary politics? I believe we are in a period where the moral issues have taken a back seat. While abortion was indirectly related to a Supreme Court nominee, any Republican nominee was likely to hold that position. In the aftermath of Obergefell, gay marriage fades in significance as a political factor.
This is, in fact, what the Trump campaign claimed all along. While Candidate Trump made noises about the Johnson Amendment and saying Merry Christmas, the heart of his argument was about borders, government, jobs, and safety. These were all hot-button conservative issues.
Furthermore, to go back to the Pew chart at the top of this post, when you have 76% of White Evangelicals identifying as Republicans it just doesn’t make sense to treat them as a conceptually distinct category. Especially when the moral issues are not of high salience when the questions are being asked.
This alignment will be problematic going forward, more so for Evangelicals than for Republicans. As the general public (especially Gen-X and younger) see such a strong alignment, they will likely flee both Evangelicals and Republicans. Over the long run, it may well become considerably harder for Evangelicals to be heard even on moral issues.