Want to see something interesting? Below is a chart listing the top three issues members of different religious groups viewed as critical. The top three issues indicated by white evangelical Protestants are: abortion (63%), fairness of presidential elections (62%), and terrorism (57%). Only one of these issues—fairness of presidential elections—was included in any other religious group’s top three critical issues. The other two issues listed by white evangelical Protestants—abortion and terrorism—were not among any other religious group’s top three. (Terrorism? Really? What is this, 2002?)
When compared with members of other religious groups, white evangelical Protestants are substantial outliers in their concerns. It’s tempting to look at the chart below, shake our heads, and conclude simply that evangelicals are out of touch, but I think there’s another explanation as well (in addition to being out of touch, I mean).
Let’s start with the chart:
Note that every single other religious group listed the coronavirus pandemic among their top three political issues. Curious how far down the coronavirus pandemic was in evangelicals’ list of concern, I turned to PRRI’s poll and found that 35% of white evangelical Protestants listed the coronavirus pandemic as a critical issue facing the country. And remember, as you can see in the above chart, that’s compared to 55% of white mainline Protestants, 79% of Black Protestants, 54% of Hispanic Protestants, and so on. In every other group, at least 54% found the coronavirus pandemic an issue of critical concern.
White evangelical Protestants are outliers on just about every other issue as well. For instance, while 35% of Americans overall think Trump has handled the pandemic well, a whopping 76% of white evangelical Protestants approve of how he has handled the pandemic. They’re outliers on whether Trump has damaged “the dignity of the office of president”: compared with majorities of every other group, only 35% of white evangelical Protestants say Trump has sullied the office of president. Here’s another way white evangelical Protestants are an outlier: while 59% of white evangelical Protestants say the country is headed in the right direction, at most 40% of any other group feels the country’s direction is positive.
Let me tell you how I see it: white evangelical Protestants are an outlier because they sold their soul to Republican politics some number of generations ago, the way Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. This is why white evangelical Protestants are ideologically tied to a political party in a way no other religious group is. Because that’s what’s going on here—everything that makes white evangelical Protestants look like an outlier compared with other religious groups is actually white evangelical Protestants leaving no daylight between themselves and the Republican Party.
Here, let’s take a look.
Remember how odd it seemed that white evangelical Protestants listed terrorism among their top three issues? Well, PRRI also includes a breakdown of top issues by political party, and white evangelical Protestants simply listed terrorism as a critical issue at the same rate as individuals who belong to the Republican Party (57% in both cases).
Remember how out-of-step it looked that only 36% of white evangelical Protestants listed the pandemic as a critical issue? Well, it turns out a very similar 39% of Republicans listed the pandemic as a critical issue.
Remember how white evangelical Protestants were outliers in that 76% of them approved of Trump’s handling of the pandemic? Yes. It turns out that 78% of Republicans approve of Trump’s handling of the pandemic.
59% of white evangelical Protestants said the country is headed in the right direction, which was high compared to other religious groups; however, 66% of Republicans said the same thing. 35% of white evangelical Protestants said Trump had damaged the dignity of the office of president, which was low compared with other religious groups; however, 27% of Republicans said the same thing. And on and on it goes.
White evangelical Protestants seem out of step when compared with other religious groups because no other religious group is tied so closely to a political party, with perhaps the exception of Black Protestants. However, I’d argue there’s a major difference between Black Protestants’ alliance with the Democratic Party and white evangelicals allegiance to the Republican Party: white evangelical Protestants have actually allowed their party alliance to shape their theology.
For example, white evangelical Protestants weren’t anti-abortion until after Republican Party strategists decided to make abortion a wedge issue in an effort to both bring white southerners and white Catholics (who were historically opposed to abortion) into the Republican Party. These political operatives were able to pull this off so successfully that white evangelicals literally rewrote the Bible to make it more in line with their newfound opposition to abortion.
There are other ways evangelical interpretations of the Bible have been shaped by their thrall to the Republican Party as well. See, for example, their opposition to government programs to feed and house the poor, despite the fact that there are a plentitude of passages in the Bible about helping the poor, and not a single verse saying the government shouldn’t participate in this helping of the poor (to the contrary, the Old Testament would seem to suggest the opposite).
Yes, white evangelical Protestantism is a religion. But it is also arguably a political ideology. This is why, for example, white evangelical Protestant pastors, leaders, and laypeople often get the boot when their politics don’t align with the Republican Party. Being an evangelical isn’t just about Bible study or altar calls; it’s also about achieving specific political goals. This was never inevitable. White evangelical Protestants could have focused on winning souls, leaving politics more alone and allowing their adherents to vote for one party according to their own conscience. It didn’t have to be this way.
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