What’s Behind Evangelical Support for Trump?

Donald Trump speaks at Great Faith Ministries in Detroit last month. (Evan Vucci / AP)
Donald Trump speaks at Great Faith Ministries in Detroit last month. (Evan Vucci / AP)

When Jimmy Carter was elected president, a famous Newsweek cover story proclaimed 1976 to be “the year of the evangelical.”

Almost exactly 40 years later, many Americans are struggling to understand how twice-divorced casino owner Donald Trump could end up as the evangelical of the year.

Nearly two-thirds of likely evangelical voters, 65 percent, said they support Trump in a nationwide survey released Tuesday by the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute — this after the airing of an 11-year-old video in which he was recorded lewdly bragging about having made sexually inappropriate advances to married women.

Likewise, a survey released Monday by the religious polling group Barna reported that Trump leads Hillary Clinton by 55 percent to 2 percent among likely evangelical voters in next month’s general election.

Such support has been remarkably consistent since Trump emerged as the Republican nominee — hitting a high of 78 percent in a July survey by the nonprofit Pew Research Center’s Project on Religion & Public Life.

And widely known evangelical leaders remain committed to Trump, including:

  • James Dobson, founder of Family Talk Radio and the advocacy group Focus on the Family
  • Tony Perkins, president of the Christian conservative Family Research Council
  • Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and former executive director of evangelist Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition
  • Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., and son of Jerry Falwell Sr., co-founder of the Moral Majority

You might ask, “How can that be?”

But in the context of how modern candidates, operatives and pollsters define evangelical Christianity as a political constituency, a better question might be: “How could it be otherwise?”

Take a closer look at the polls.

Historically, major polling organizations have categorized Christian respondents’ faith into a few main groups: Catholics, mainline Protestants, white evangelicals, African-American Protestants and those with no religious identity.

Notice the subset “white evangelicals.”

Where are all the non-white evangelicals?

Almost three-quarters of non-Catholic African-American worshipers could be classified as evangelicals, according to Pew’s massive 2015 U.S. Religious Landscape Study — but they’re lumped in with the rest of the African-American Protestants.

Pollsters say there’s a good reason for that: The influence of the black church is so potent and so consistently Democratic that to measure black voters as a whole is a better predictor of election results than to examine them by their differences in religious beliefs.

But there’s a big down side: “You never hear about black evangelicals,” Anthea Butler, graduate chairwoman of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a lecture last year at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.

“Watch the 2016 election,” she predicted. “When they talk about evangelicals again, they won’t go to Bible-believing black evangelicals. They’re going to talk to white people.”

And that’s particularly problematic depending on how “evangelical” is defined — and who’s doing the defining.

Historically, pollsters asked people about their religious beliefs, including whether they considered themselves to be evangelical. But “asking for religious self-identification isn’t enough,” according to Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Ed Stetzer, the new executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College in Illinois.

“Many Christians hold evangelical beliefs but don’t call themselves evangelical; many Christians call themselves evangelical yet don’t hold evangelical beliefs,” Anderson and Stetzer wrote in a March essay for Christianity Today, a leading publication in the evangelical community.

LifeWay Christian Services, a religious research institution in Nashville, Tenn., found last year (PDF) that only 25 percent of African Americans who hold clearly evangelical beliefs actually self-identify as evangelicals — compared to 62 percent of whites who hold such beliefs and 79 percent of similarly thinking Hispanic Americans.

As a result, Anderson and Stetzer said, “many pollsters and journalists assume that evangelicals are white, suburban, American, Southern and Republican, when millions of self-identifying evangelicals fit none of these descriptions.”

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Alex Johnson

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