How Robust Is White Evangelical Support for Trump?

Supporters of Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump cheer at a campaign rally in Wilkes-Barre
This is one of the first images that a search for “white evangelicals” produced.

Chris Gehrz, a professor of history at Bethel University in Minnesota, has some good thoughts and questions today. Reacting to polls showing strong white evangelical support for Trump’s travel ban executive order, Gehrz writes:

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.

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.

Read the whole thing. I do think there is an artificial polling effect here. Call it a self-fulfilling prophecy or a feedback loop. As “white evangelical” becomes primarily a political moniker in our public discourse, those who disagree with the politics the term signifies stop calling themselves white evangelicals. Anecdotally, we saw a lot of this immediately following the election. If “white evangelical” just means “a White Christian with conservative politics” then the polling results are predetermined.

But there’s something else going on here too. I’m inclined to say to Gehrz: yes, you do just move in relatively progressive circles. It seems to me that white evangelicals who say they don’t know evangelical Trump supporters (or supporters of the ban specifically) are either in a really unusual bubble or they’re kidding themselves. In these progressive evangelical circles, we hear it said that the polls showing 75% white evangelical support for Trump reflect “cultural Christians” in the South who don’t even go to church and aren’t “real” evangelicals. I think the pervasiveness of this feeling does tell us something about how diverse and divided evangelicalism is. But mostly I think this is a self-serving way to avoid facing the rot in our own communities.

Let’s grant that the polls overstate Trump support among “real” evangelicals (whoever they are). The support still appears very strong among churchgoing white evangelicals, almost certainly a healthy majority. How do we know? We can start with Pew’s poll last week, which showed support for Trump by frequency of attendance at religious services. This measure is extremely broad in that it encompasses all kinds of Christianity and other religions as well, but in a way it is more specific than asking someone if they are a white evangelical. Whether or not you go to religious services is more concrete and easy to answer than whether you affirm a disputed identity. In the absence of more detailed polling of white evangelicals, generic religious attendance might be a better measure. And what that shows is that high religious attendance is correlated with support for Trump.

Consider also a Barna poll from last October. It asked people in more detail about their religious beliefs and classified them as evangelicals based on a series of theological questions rather than self-identification. The result? 55% of evangelicals backed Trump compared to 2% for Clinton. Barna’s post-election recap found that the strongest support for Trump was among these evangelicals, not among nominal believers.

Historians can quibble with this data too, mostly because it is defining evangelical only by claimed beliefs rather than practices. But the evidence we have—imperfect though it is—paints an uncomfortable picture. Most committed church-going white evangelicals probably support Trump. A majority may even have an actively favorable view of his presidency. There’s no easy answer to this, or excuse for it. But this is our reality, and we need to face it.

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