“Evangelical:” More GOP than KJV

How? How? How? That’s the question we’ve been asking for the past few years: How is it possible that four out of five white evangelical voters support President Trump? After all, love him or hate him, it is fair to say that Trump is not well known for his clarity of moral purpose. A new CNN poll suggests the obvious answer.

CNN REAL voter graphic

Red Votes

Here’s what we know: CNN’s poll sliced and diced some numbers to offer a few suggestions. It surveyed voters in the recent mid-term elections and found that white people who call themselves “evangelical” or “born-again” voted Republican in huge numbers.

As they found,

At least 77% of white evangelicals without a college degree voted against the Democratic Senate candidates in Florida, Missouri and Tennessee, while 72% opposed defeated Democratic incumbent Joe Donnelly in Indiana, the exit polls found. In the Georgia governor’s race, a breathtaking 89% of non-college white evangelicals voted for Republican Brian Kemp over African-American Democrat Stacey Abrams; 84% of those voters picked Ted Cruz over O’Rourke in Texas. Only Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in West Virginia ran competitively, losing those voters by a narrow 52% to 46% margin.

The numbers weren’t much different for white evangelicals who had been to college. As CNN put it,

Nationally, Republicans again won almost exactly three-fourths of them in the House races, with relatively small differences between the men and the women. Results on that group were not available in as many states, because they comprised a smaller share of the total vote, but Republicans carried about 70% of them in the Tennessee, Indiana and Missouri Senate races; in Georgia, 83% of college-educated white evangelicals voted for Kemp.

It’s tempting to conclude that white evangelicals voted Republican with large majorities. If we really want to understand these polls, though, we need to add an important qualifier. These polls don’t actually tell us how white evangelical Christians voted. Rather, they suggest only that white people who call themselves evangelical do so.

It might seem like a quibble, but it is a significant distinction. Why? Because, as other surveys have shown, yes, white evangelicals vote Republican. But many white evangelicals are also voting with their feet and leaving the “evangelical” label behind. According to a different set of poll data from the Public Religion Research Institute, the number of people who call themselves evangelical has dropped from 21% of the total US population in 2008 to only 15% this year. CNN quotes Robert P. Jones of PRRI, who calls the exodus “asymmetrical.” It’s not just white evangelicals as a whole who are dropping the label, but especially “younger and better-educated members.”

So what?

CNN writes that those younger voters are “the most likely to leave the faith,” but that’s not a fair conclusion. After all, CNN’s poll didn’t find out anything about respondents’ faith. Rather, it only asked them one question: “Would you describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian?”

These days, people who answer “yes” to that question likely connect those labels to a set of political beliefs. They are choosing to identify with a label that has come to imply political conservatism, not just a certain cluster of religious beliefs.

In short, this poll helps dramatize the trend among American evangelicals. Instead of the word “evangelical” meaning primarily a set of religious ideas and theological commitments, it has become a political and culture-war marker. If you call yourself an “evangelical” these days, it usually means you think of yourself as white, Christian, and politically conservative.

So it’s no surprise that big majorities of people who call themselves evangelical voted Republican. Choosing to call yourself an evangelical these days usually means endorsing a set of conservative political beliefs associated these days with the Republican Party.

What do evangelical Christians think about Trump and the GOP? This poll doesn’t tell us. To be an “evangelical Christian” can mean a whole bunch of different things. There are lots of non-white people who have religious beliefs that have historically been associated with evangelical Protestantism. There are white liberals who no longer call themselves evangelical but who retain their evangelical religious beliefs.

What this poll does tell us is that the word “evangelical” has come to imply a set of political beliefs, not only religious ones. People who embrace the label tend to embrace those politics. Are they still religious? Sure. But we make a mistake if we try to understand how someone with evangelical religious beliefs could support politicians who seem to go against those beliefs. Calling yourself “evangelical” these days is more about those political leanings than any specific religious commitments or theological ideas.

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3 Comments

  1. I think it is more likely that the younger crowd, especially those exposed to modern college campuses, has left the label, Evangelical behind in self defense. To be known as one is an actual risk to their lives and futures these days.

    Reply
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