How White Evangelicals Could Influence the 2020 Election
Tanzina Vega: Over the weekend, president Trump traveled to Nevada to court voters and while he was there, he made a stop at the International church of Las Vegas.
Tanzina: In 2016, roughly 80% of white evangelicals voted for president Trump and much of that support can be attributed to the President's promise to appoint conservative judicial nominees and to having Mike Pence as his Vice President but faith is not at the center of Donald Trump's personal life, which has included two divorces accusations of marital infidelity with an adult film star and the sexual abuse and harassment of women many of which the President has denied, but some Christians are beginning to question their support for the President.
A number of prominent Christian faith leaders have come out in support of Joe Biden and a recent Pew poll found that the percent of white evangelical Protestants who plan to vote for the President fell from 83% to 78% between August and October. Here's what former Republican national committee chairman Michael Steele had to say about evangelical support of president Trump.
Michael Steele: I'm not an evangelical, I'm a Catholic Christian and I scratch my head at the community largely speaking because of the positions it's taken in public and how it has used those views in those positions to chastise and reprimand Americans for their behavior et cetera, and yet when it came to Trump, they just went, "Well, that's okay. We get a Supreme Court justice out of this. We'll overturn Roe versus Wade."
Tanzina: Joining me now is Tara Isabella Burton, journalist and author of Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World. Thanks for being with me.
Tara Isabella Burton: Thank you so much for having me on.
Tanzina: Chris Romine is an ordained minister of common ground, a post-evangelical church in New York City. Welcome to the show, Chris.
Chris Romine: Thanks. It's good to be with you.
Tanzina: Also, John Fea is a history professor at Messiah University and the author of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. John, welcome.
John Fea: Thanks for having me.
Tanzina: John, let's start with you. Back in 2016, what was the appeal for President Trump among white evangelical voters?
John: I think you laid it out in the introduction to the piece. Donald Trump was going to deliver on some of the social and moral issues that evangelicals have held dear for years and evangelicals, many conservative evangelicals at least do politics one way and that is abortion, abortion, abortion and then usually some a secondary issue. In this election and in 2016, it was religious liberty.
Again, it's a Faustian bargain in which you get your policy proposals put through, you get a Supreme court justice and you-- To use the words of one of the famous evangelical leaders, Tony Perkins, you give Donald Trump, using a golf phrase, a Mulligan on all of the immorality and non-Christian behavior that he's done in the past. It was very much a contractual arrangement.
Tanzina: When we think about evangelical voters, I think there's one image that often comes to mind, but who are evangelicals in the United States? What do the demographics look like right now?
Tara: I think there is often, I think the most important distinction that can be drawn is that when we talk about evangelicals as particularly Trump supporting evangelicals, what we are talking about is white evangelicals. The famous 80, 81% number of turnout that we saw in the 2016 election, where 81% of evangelicals-- We'll say 81% of evangelicals broke for Trump.
That is actually the story of white evangelicals and increasingly, over the past few decades evangelicals have started to look a little different. There are more and more Latino evangelicals to a lesser extent Black evangelicals and what that means is that the evangelical Christianity is becoming more diverse, both because of demographic shift and also because you do have younger people leaving the evangelical church. The vision of the white evangelical voter that we have is a little bit out of date or on its way to being out of date.
Tanzina: Are there implications for that? We mentioned it in my conversation with the former Republican national committee chair, Michael Steele yesterday, one of the things he said in our extended conversation was that there are differences among how evangelicals of color may view the President versus white evangelicals. Is that right?
Tara: Absolutely. I think that generally speaking, the overwhelming support of Trump on the part of white evangelicals is very much white-specific in that way, which is to say evangelicals of color indeed, Christians of color more broadly, massively tend to prefer Biden in almost every poll.
You see this as well with, for example, the breakdown between white Catholics and who tend to break, I think it's around 54% for Trump and then Hispanic Catholics who break overwhelmingly I think it's in the 60s for Biden's. By and large, in pretty much every Christian denomination, not just evangelical’s race is a primary divider of voting outcomes.
Tanzina: Chris, I want to bring you in here because a couple of things. You left evangelicalism prior to the election of Donald Trump. Do you think Trump's presidency has driven more people away?
Chris: Yes, absolutely. I was part of an evangelical church. It was the first church I ever went to and I got hired by it and saw behind the curtain of some of the beliefs that they stood for that were not present on stage, they were not evident and I exited.
In my exit as Donald Trump was getting elected, there were networks that were popping up, recovery networks if you want to call it that, people healing recovering from evangelicalism and these networks just blew up. They've grown huge. They are helping people exit evangelical churches.
Tanzina: Chris, you are a person of color yourself. How did the way that white evangelicals tend to lean based on what Tara was just saying?
Chris: Absolutely. I think to look at it historically, there's a whiteness problem within American evangelicalism and for many white folk, they were able to look away or not notice this, but this was ever present for Asian, Latinx and Black Christians that would call themselves evangelical. What I'm noticing now, definitely in these networks is that white folks are beginning to wake up and say, this church has insufficiently addressed race and on just economy and they're finding their exits, they are leaving.
It is not only that people of color identifying as evangelicals, but not aligning with Trump, but it's also now a white voter block that we're seeing heavy chips in.
Tanzina: John, we mentioned Mike Pence and how much of a role did Mike Pence play in exciting be evangelical base for President Trump?
John: I think Mike Pence is absolutely essential because Donald Trump delivered on the policy program. It was promised to deliver on the policies that evangelicals were concerned about whether it be abortion, religious liberty, gay marriage, those kinds of things, Israel policy and so forth but he was not part of the community. He couldn't speak the language.
He still can't really speak the language very well of evangelical Christianity.
I'm not just talking about theological language, but there is a certain way in which evangelicals see the world and talk about the world. They talk about being saved. They know how to quote Bible verses. They know that it's Second Corinthians, that two Corinthians. Trump couldn't do any of that. Mike Pence certainly could. Mike Pence has a story that is deeply embedded within evangelicalism.
He can talk about his conversion experience when he became born again at a Christian rock event in Wilmore, Kentucky and he has a long history of being part of the Christian right. From a political standpoint, it was actually a brilliant move to play someone like Mike Pence on the ticket and the thing about Mike Pence is of course, he's also very dutiful and loyal.
Like many evangelicals, he believes that government is ordained by God, even if it's Donald Trump, who's leading that government and he is going to do everything he can to support based upon his understanding of that.
A lot of this comes from the biblical passage of Romans 13, "Submit to government. Government comes from God." I think Mike Pence, is not going to speak out when you see Donald Trump acting in a way that's inherently un-Christian, he's going to do his duty as a good Christian politician to support the godly ordained government, believing that God has placed Trump here for this particular moment in time. That's the worldview that Pence is operating under.
Tanzina: I'm wondering also just how critical Chris, this group is to the overall electorate. We know that according to Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute, white evangelicals made up 26% of all voters in the 2018 midterm elections. Does that indicate that they could be a deciding factor for President Trump this time around?
Chris: Unequivocally, and there are some groups that exist to peel some of those voters off of the just GOP ticket voting downline. There's a group called Vote Common Good that goes across the country and appeals to white voters who have always been aligned with the GOP and appeals effectively to the common good. Is this actually embodying your Christian values?
That electorate, I think is going to be key in states like Pennsylvania that have a huge evangelical population and have a lot of megachurches that are by and large arguing in a political stance.
Tanzina: Tara, I'm wondering if we can also break down some of the generational differences here. Are we seeing younger white evangelicals who are thinking differently than their older counterparts?
Tara: Absolutely. On a lot of hot button issues, particularly things like gay marriage, we find that evangelical millennials and zoomers for that matter are markedly more socially progressive. At the same time, we're also seeing more broadly that many millennials and members of Generation Z are leaving organized religion behind altogether. 36% of people born after I believe it's 1985, call themselves religiously unaffiliated.
We've got this double whammy of people saying, "All right, I'm still evangelical, but I don't agree with my church on these things." And also people walking away altogether.
Tanzina: Do you think that that could have an effect on the electorate in the next couple of weeks?
Tara: Absolutely. I think that so much depends as well on turnout and I think that if there are people who are either feel like if they do vote, they should vote for Trump and they're not going to vote at all or whether that they're no longer feel constrained to vote with their community by voting for Trump. I think we will see younger voters, assuming they show up in particular ways as a potentially a deciding factor.
Tanzina: John, I want to broaden this out a little bit to talk about Christianity more broadly and where a lot of Christians stand right now. Are there deep ideological differences between white evangelicals and other groups of Christians in terms of how they view the President?
John: Sure, I think they definitely are. I think for instance, if you look at main line Protestants, non-evangelical Protestants, I think you'll see a much more divided group on the election. I would think you would have a majority. I think most polls show the majority are leaning more towards Biden. Mainline Protestant Christianity has much more of social justice left-leaning kind of politics.
Again, not everybody within mainline evangelicals. You also have a lot of God and country kind of thing that could lead towards Trumpism. I think within mainline Protestantism you get a much more diverse correlation than say the 81% of white evangelicals who voted for Trump. I think among Catholics, Catholic social teaching, Catholic moral teaching, Catholic political teaching cuts both ways.
Catholics are of course concerned about poverty, they're concerned about the stranger immigration. In other words, they're concerned about the environment, these kinds of things. They're also very conservative on sexual ethics, marriage, and especially abortion.
I think within the Catholic community, you could find people leaning emphasizing one side of Catholic social teaching and voting for a more liberal candidate like Biden and then you could also find conservative Catholics who will support Trump because of his views on abortion. I would argue that both Catholics and mainline Protestants are going to be much more of a diverse coalition than white evangelicals.
Tanzina: Let's talk a little bit about that Tara, because Vice President, Joe Biden's Catholicism, hasn't been at least yet central to his election prospects and yet it has been for Amy Coney Barrett. How do you break that down for us?
Tara: I think particularly in the United States, discourse about the ways in which Catholicism might alter a candidate's perspective, tend to fall naturally along the religious, not religious Christian or other false dichotomy that often dominates discussions of the American political life.
On the one hand, when we're talking about what's going on in the wider Catholic intellectual community, where we have Pope Francis putting out an in cyclical condemning basically global capitalism and wealth inequality, and the fact that these are not front and center as Catholic voting issues, I think speaks to the way in which religion in America has been reduced to a narrative increasingly set by white evangelicals and in particular, the Alliance, which we've seen since the days of Jerry Falwell and the moral majority between a certain kind of white evangelical inflected vision of theology and politics that sets the tone for the debate.
Biden's Catholicism, while he certainly refers to his faith. Well, that's as indeed has pretty much every single presidential candidate in any election. It hasn't gotten attention precisely because the issues he's talking about, including things like wealth inequality, don't have the same cultural valence as abortion, which is the point on which I think Amy Coney Barrett's Catholicism.
Abortion and gay marriage or gay rights more broadly are these issues that dominate what it means to be religious and voting religiously, which I think is a real mistake and a sign of the way in which this country has often collapsed religious discourse into something rather simplistic and based only on certain political shibboleths shall we say.
Tanzina: Chris, I think that's a really interesting point because we know that as was mentioned earlier in the conversation, less Americans are following organized or traditional religion today and I wonder if as that continues to happen, whether political parties will spend less time courting those voters overall on both sides of the political divide. There was just an article in the Times about how the Mormon Community in Arizona is fed up with the President. How important will these groups continue to be as we move forward?
Chris: I think that's a great question. I think Tara maps it really well. I think the answer that I would have based on the denominations I'm a part of and affiliated with and the church planting networks that I'm a part of, is it will become less obvious what the evangelical block is. It will be less concentrated in held together because as we see membership decline across all evangelical denominations or networks and by and large church attendance go way down, church giving go way down and church distrust go way up.
What we're noticing is that you can't really point as much directly to an evangelical voting block because less people are participating in evangelicalism on a whole and Christianity as a whole. I think it will be harder and harder for a political party to try to gain entry into the block at large and speak for all of them and I think that's good news, both for the attendee, the evangelical, and for political parties so that people can't be co-opted.
Tanzina: I wonder if that's going to mean that ultimately the Republican conservatives will have to find other groups with which to align their message going forward.
Chris: Yes, I think especially as we see the Pew research that shows that younger folks 40 and under are not attending churches and that churches like mine that are just getting started now are starting to use this post-evangelical language. I think what we're seeing is that it's just not going to work in five years from now, that some of the messages are losing messages for these parties for this party, in particular, today's GOP.
Tanzina: Lots to stay focused on Chris Romine is an ordained minister, a common ground. John Fea is a history professor at Messiah University and Tara Isabella Burton is a journalist. Thanks so much to you all.
John: Thank you.
Tara: Thank you so much for having me.
Chris: Thanks for having me.
Participant 1: I'm a Christian and I go to church every Sunday and I believe in the sanctity of [unintelligible 00:19:22] and I voted for Trump the last time, but I don't see him as a Christian. The things he does and the things he says are the antithesis of my Christianity and I will not vote for him this time.
Participant 2: I'm from Dallas, Texas. My relationship with voting for President and my evangelical faith goes back to the last election when after most of my evangelical community supported Donald Trump and I did not. After that, I actually left my evangelical faith and I'm left hanging in the balance of what to do with how I feel about my spirituality, given that the faith that I identified with, support someone that I find to be the antithesis of everything that I grew to love about the faith. I will be supporting Joe Biden. I still haven't decided where my faith lands today.
Don Smith: My name is Don Smith. I'm from Murray, Utah. In regards to being a white evangelical, I have come to the point where I reject the title, even though I am an evangelical, even though I am white. I am completely out of step. The term has become political party, in my opinion.
Martin: Hi. My name's Martin. I'm calling from Oregon City. From a faith-based perspective, I'm an evangelical. From a constrained government fiscal responsibility, I'm a Republican. I value life, but I feel like life, at all stages and I feel the way our current President does not respect life at all stages, I cannot vote for him and I will be voting for Joe Biden.
Jay: Hi. My name is Jay. I'm calling from San Jose, California. Regarding being a person with evangelical values, but that does not want to vote for Trump, even though he checks the boxes ideologically, on many things that I agree with, I just cannot trust him. I would prefer to vote somewhat for someone that I have more confidence in their integrity, in their honesty, in their accountability, and their transparency. Another good thing, it would be nice if they had a little bit of decorum.
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