You’ve seen the polls. In spite of breathtakingly obnoxious and unchristian words and actions, “the evangelicals” are sticking with Trump and the Republican Party.
By June, one study found that 94% of Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters who were white and evangelical would vote for Trump over Clinton.
In July, Pew found that 78% of evangelicals supported Trump. There was a real sense that Trump might exceed McCain’s and Romney’s stellar performance with this group.
Current polling shows Trump’s evangelical support in the mid- and high- 60s. This is lower than we’ve seen in recent cycles, but there are more undecideds now, and plenty of them will break for Trump. Again, we’re talking about white people.
But really, what is an evangelical?
I have argued that it is basically pollsters’ shorthand for “conservative white Protestant.” What if we identified evangelicals by whether or not survey respondents affirm core evangelical beliefs?
Over at Christianity Today, evangelical workhorse-at-large Ed Stetzer has a concise post on a new election survey in which “evangelical” respondents strongly agree with the following four 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.
According to these data, only 45% of respondents who hold evangelical beliefs plan to vote for Trump. Nearly a third support Clinton.
That’s 20-35 points lower than we are used to seeing when pollsters report “evangelical” support for Republican presidential nominees.
What’s going on?
Trump support remains solid among white evangelicals, but nonwhite evangelicals prefer Clinton over Trump, 62% to 15% (≈20% are undecided or supporting another candidate).
Vote choice is much more correlated with race and partisanship than with religiosity. When we see sky-high support among white evangelicals for Republicans (or black Protestants for Democrats), we are seeing the effects of race and party ID, not theology.
Looking at the LifeWay data, two points come to mind.
First, let’s revisit the 65% of white Americans who hold evangelical beliefs and are supporting Trump. This is actually a pretty low number. I would expect that nominal evangelicals (who many journalists and experts suppose to be the backbone of Trump’s base) probably support Trump at an even higher level. So while you may be dismayed to find that nearly two-thirds of whites who hold evangelical beliefs are for Trump, I think it is very reasonable to believe that millions of white evangelicals who have voted GOP all their lives will withhold their votes from Trump in 2016.
And second, let’s focus on the 62% of nonwhite evangelicals who are supporting Clinton. White evangelical leaders have for decades sent the message that a well-formed Christian conscience simply cannot vote for a Democrat. A lot of Bible believing, Jesus-loving evangelicals either are not getting the message or do not care. In any event, they do not agree. These are people who love the Lord, who go to church on Sundays, spread the gospel, and trust Christ. They are voting for Clinton. Millions of them. White evangelical leaders need to take note and start grappling with the reasons why.
There’ll be lots more to say about this after the election. “Evangelical” has become lazy shorthand for conservative white Protestant. This has not been helpful for pollsters, and it certainly has not been helpful for the evangelical church. In fact, that may be a big part of how we ended up where we are.
Thanks to LifeWay Research, the National Association of Evangelicals, Scott McConnell, Bob Smietana, and others involved in this research.