I was paging through Ed Stetzer’s new book some weeks ago and was reminded of these astonishing bits of data from that big Lifeway/Billy Graham Center research project last year: in the 2016 election, only 5% of “evangelicals by belief”* cited the candidate’s position on abortion rights as the most important factor in their vote. Much larger numbers of “evangelicals by belief” went to the polls with the same concerns as non-evangelical Americans: the economy, health care, immigration, and national security (these results are for all evangelicals by belief, not just white evangelicals).
But let’s be as fair as possible. 7% of evangelicals by belief also cited supreme court nominees as their most important consideration; abortion may have loomed large for those voters. And it’s possible that many evangelicals approached the election with abortion as a secondary or tertiary concern that factored into their vote. Still, I find these results remarkable. When evangelicals are asked to name the most important thing determining their vote, abortion barely registers. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that abortion plays a rhetorical function in right-wing politics out of all proportion to its actual power to drive evangelical moral concern.
As the 2020 election approaches, you’ll hear a lot of commentary about abortion and binary choices and the lesser of two evils. There are a small number of evangelicals who are sincere in their commitment to protect the unborn. With them I have no quibble. Though I disagree with many of their tactics and am concerned about pervasive sexism in the pro-life movement, protecting the unborn is a noble and righteous work. But the tenor of evangelical political discourse in the coming year and half will be an elaborate gaslighting effort. For most white evangelicals, abortion is a rhetorical shield to avoid answering for their enthusiastic embrace of an evil ruler.
A recent Foxnews poll highlights this again. White evangelicals broadly have warm and happy feelings toward Trump and his administration’s policies! Most white evangelicals seem to like racism and have unusual amounts of fear and hatred toward people who are not like them. Some results from that poll, among white evangelicals:
77% approve of Trump’s job performance.
75% have a favorable opinion of Trump himself.
3% think abortion is the biggest issue facing the country today. 33% think immigration is the biggest issue facing the country.
38% think the Trump administration is “not tough enough” on illegal immigrants; another 40% think it’s “about right.”
71% support building a wall on the border.
92% would be satisfied if Trump receives the 2020 Republican nomination (so much for the binary choice defense!). [Clarification: this question obviously only includes white evangelicals who are Republican primary voters].
Abortion is a very serious moral problem with no easy solutions. It is a shame that its primary role in evangelical politics is as cover for shameful behavior.
*The survey defined respondents as “evangelical by belief” if they “strongly agree” with the following statements:
The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe
It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior
Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin
Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation
The survey seemed designed to rehabilitate evangelical reputations in the age of Trump, but instead it only reinforced the evidence that, broadly speaking, mainstream polls of self-identified evangelicals provide a roughly accurate picture of opinion. As data has consistently shown in recent years, more committed evangelical churchgoers tend to be more committed Trump supporters.