Evangelicals, Trump, and How Politics Shapes Religion—Not the Other Way Around

An acclaimed religion writer finds a complex picture of Evangelical voters and even more cause for worry about political polarization.

Who represents the core of Donald Trump’s constituency? Throughout his presidency, that core was widely assumed to be white Evangelical Christians. A groaning board of books—a few thoughtful, many alarmist—appeared over the last four years excoriating not only white Evangelicals but all of “white Christian America” and especially “white Christian nationalists.”

To be sure, most white Evangelicals did vote for Donald Trump. But so did a majority of white Catholics and mainline Protestants, albeit Evangelicals gave much larger majorities to Trump than voters of other faiths. It is also true that the non-religious Trump courted Evangelical Christians by making their issues—curbing abortion rights, expanding religious liberty, and appointing conservative jurists—his own. For many white Evangelical leaders, supporting Trump was purely transactional. That’s how Trump saw it. “The support you have given me is incredible,” Trump said at a White House reception for a group of Evangelicals in 2018. “But I really don’t feel guilty because I’ve given you a lot back, just about everything I promised.” It was the art of the deal.

No question, white Evangelicals constitute a significant and so-far loyal element of the Republican party, with or without Trump as its leader. But that should not blind us to the truth the last two presidential elections have revealed: in the highly polarized state of American public life, it is politics that shapes religion, not the other way around.

The perception that white Evangelicals form the base of Trump’s support rests chiefly on a single statistic: the 81 percent of white Evangelicals who, according to exit polls at the 2016 presidential election, voted for him. The idea that conservative white Protestants would vote overwhelmingly for a thrice-married womanizer who did not belong to a church and was manifestly ignorant of the Bible produced a cascade of editorials chiding them as moral hypocrites who excused in Trump what they previously excoriated in Bill Clinton.

That 81 percent figure, however, is misleading. As Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow showed in his 2019 study, Inventing American Religionexit polls are notoriously crude instruments—both in the questions asked and the lack of training of those hired to do the asking. At best, exit polls may give us a rough snapshot of how various groups voted. At worst, the very act of filtering voters according to religious self-identification, as all the major polls do, encourages the assumption that religion is more of a factor in Presidential elections than it actually is.

For example, we know from numerous studies that religious identity alone cannot tell us how white Christians—Catholic, mainline Protestant, or Orthodox—are likely to vote. Why, nonetheless, does religious identity appear to be a good predictor of how white Evangelicals will vote?

Like other Americans, white Evangelical voters are influenced by where they live, income level, and other social and political factors. Here are a few reasons—other than religion—that better explain why white Evangelicals vote the way they do.

Habit is one. White Evangelicals have been part of the Republican coalition for 10 straight presidential elections. Beginning with Ronald Reagan, they were allowed to say the prayers, but not until Donald Trump came along did they help set the political table. Conversely, it is not as if the Democrats put out a welcome mat for them. Jimmy Carter has lamented not doing more to keep his fellow Evangelicals in the Democratic fold after they rallied around him in 1976, propelling him to victory and carrying the South. There are good reasons why the largest single constituency within the Democratic coalition is the non-religious (the “Nones”).

Geography and demography also play a role. White Evangelical voters skew older than most Democrats, and most of them live in red states or red districts in blue and purple states. One does not expect white Evangelicals in Baton Rouge to vote Democratic any more than one expects Unitarians in Berkeley to vote Republican.

Education is key: only 30 percent of Americans over the age of 25 have degrees from a four-year college, and white Evangelicals are more likely than other white Christians to have no more schooling than a high school diploma. Education largely determines their social class and caste—just above African Americans, according to Isabel Wilkerson’s latest book, leaving them feeling like they are in competition with Black Americans.

The economic consequences of limited education are obvious. A study of Ohio voters found that economics was the main reason Evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016. As I reported in Commonweal magazine, a third of white Evangelicals nationally earned less than $30,000 a year in 2016—at a time when the poverty line started at $24,250 for a couple with two children. And more than half (57 percent) earned less than $50,000 annually. Like most blue-collar workers, they hadn’t seen a real wage increase since the 1970s. When Trump promised to Make America Great Again, a large number of white working-class voters, Evangelical or not, heard more jobs and better pay.

At the same time, some portion of the Evangelical community listened to Trump and heard him promising to make America white again. But it would be a mistake to think only Evangelicals heard racial dog whistles. As noted above, a majority of white mainline Protestants also voted for Trump, and among Catholics, non-Hispanic whites chose Trump over Hillary Clinton by a whopping 56 to 37 percent, although Biden, a Catholic, won many of them back in 2020.

A major difficulty with talking about Evangelical Christians as a voting bloc is that they elude simple definition. As historian Linford D. Fisher has shown, at different times in American history, Unitarians, Christian Scientists, and Catholics, as well as Protestants, have used the term “evangelical” to describe their form of Christianity. At the height of his influence in the middle of the last century, evangelist Billy Graham gave definition to Evangelical Protestantism by personifying it. “If you want to know where Evangelicalism is,” it was said in those days, “watch Billy. And if you want to know where Evangelicalism is headed, watch Billy.”

Today, observes political scientist John Green, a leading expert on religion and political behavior, “an Evangelical is anyone who says he is.” Besides your standard small-town, business-suited white Baptist, that can include aproned Amish in Iowa and California Quakers like the late Richard Nixon, strands of Minnesota Lutherans and Pentecostals from everywhere—plus as many as one in four worshipers in mainline Protestant churches. Moreover, according to political scientist Corwin Smidt, academic studies show that up to 25 percent of American Catholics also identify as Born Again, depending on how the questions are framed. So do similar percentages of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Adventists. What is significant about this diversity is that many of these Christian groups and denominations hold widely divergent beliefs and practices. More significant yet is their lack of any overarching organizational ties or commonly accepted leaders. Donald Trump is a populist politician, and if his pugnacious style resonates with most white Evangelicals, it’s because their style of Christianity is populist too.

In the eyes of most Americans, however, white Evangelicals possess a cohesive political profile. The genealogy of “Evangelical” as a political category began with Carter, the first Democrat to sweep the South since Franklin Roosevelt in 1944. The Georgian identified himself as a “born-again” Christian and in doing so won over legions of independent, non-denominational Fundamentalists who usually voted every four years but otherwise shunned party politics. He also introduced the national media to a new (to them) term, “Born Again,” which Newsweek blazoned across its cover just before the election. When Carter’s presidency turned out to be more liberal than these (mostly Southern) Evangelicals expected, conservative Republican operatives easily recruited Fundamentalist pastors like Jerry Falwell to party activism and the “Religious Right” was born.

Because of Carter, the category “Evangelical or Born Again” was added to public opinion polls—chiefly, in the words of Princeton’s Wuthnow, as “a crude indication of the likelihood that someone [who self-identifies this way] will vote Republican” or take a conservative stand on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Although there are probably an equal number of American Evangelicals of color, the term has become identified exclusively with those who are white.

In short, what was once a Christian modifier has morphed into a synecdoche for white voters holding a constellation of conservative social and political attitudes. The connection has been costly. As political scientist David Campbell of Notre Dame demonstrated in a recent essay, the perceived confluence between Evangelicalism and the most reactionary forces in the Republican party is a major reason for the upsurge in the percentage of Americans who self-identify as nonreligious or wholly secular. 

But, as I have argued, there is no reason to believe that religion alone determines how any group of Americans vote. A case in point: most Catholics in 2004 voted against John Kerry, the first Catholic to be nominated for President by either party since John F. Kennedy in 1960. On the contrary, the preponderance of evidence shows that it is politics that shapes how religious Americans vote rather than the reverse.

This is a stunning change in our culture, a reflection of how politics has insinuated itself into every aspect of American life in ways that might have once seemed bizarre. An early clue: in 1960, a survey asked parents to rate a list of the qualities in whom their child chose to marry that would most displease them. A scant 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats checked a marriage to someone from the opposite political party. If you were a Kennedy Democrat and your would-be son-in-law was a Nixon Republican, you were highly unlikely to boycott the wedding. By 2010, that percentage increased to 27 percent of Republicans and 20 percent of Democrats, and two years later the numbers had jumped to 40 percent and 33 percent respectively.

More recent studies find an increase in “affective polarization,” meaning that our feelings of animosity toward and distrust of the opposite party weigh more in how we vote than do differences in policy and ideology.

More ominously, other studies identify a parallel phenomenon—negative affinity—meaning that Americans are motivated politically more by hatred of the other party than by attachment to their own. Altogether, this “political sectarianism,” as many researchers now call it, has recast the relationship between politics and religion, as well as politics and race, social class, and demography. As political scientist Lilliana Mason pungently put it in her magisterial book, Uncivil Agreement: How Politics became Our Identity, politics has absorbed and recast all our other identities: “[A]single vote now indicates a person’s partisan preference—as well as his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood, and favorite grocery store.” Not to mention what media they watch and whether they’re driving a Prius or a pickup.

Despite President Biden’s promise to unite the country, the outlook is for greater divisiveness, not less. Political scientists, of course, are not equipped with divining forks. They can’t tell us what will happen, but they can show us which direction the truck marks are headed. In their path-breaking new book, Secular Surge, Campbell, Green and a third political scientist, Geoffrey Layman, find that the margin of religious over non-religious Americans has narrowed to seven percentage points and is closing fast on an evenly divided nation. This is not based on mere polling data. It represents a variety of academic studies, surveys, and social science instruments.

What these political scientists see—indeed, what they worry about—is the emergence of “a new fault line in American politics” with the Republicans perceived as the party hospitable to religious Americans and the Democrats seen as the home of the non-religious. This may seem implausible with a Democratic president, Joe Biden, who regularly attends Sunday mass succeeding a Republican, Donald Trump, who was more at home in a casino than a pew. But this is where we’re heading: an alignment in our politics, and not one to be wished for, a world where elections are tantamount to a referendum on the existence of a God whose work on earth, as President Kennedy said, “must truly be our own.” A house so sharply divided does not look like one that would long stand.

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Kenneth L. Woodward

Kenneth L. Woodward, former Religion Editor of Newsweek, is the author of Getting Religion: Faith, Culture, and Politics from the Age of Eisenhower to the Ascent of Trump.