Evangelicals and Trump, again: Alan Cooperman says journalists should ponder four myths

This just in: It appears that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump and, thus, totally embrace his agenda to destroy all of humanity.

Or something like that. Also, it doesn’t matter that evangelical voters aren’t all that powerful in several of the key purple or blue states in which Hillary Clinton received way fewer votes than Barack Obama, thus costing her the election.

But let’s return to the great 81 percent monolith again, a number that hides complex realities among morally and culturally conservative voters. For more information on that, check out this survey by LifeWay Research and the Billy Graham Institute at Wheaton College. Also, click here for a GetReligion podcast on that topic or here for a “On Religion” column I wrote on this topic.

I bring this up because of interesting remarks made during a recent Faith Angle seminar, an ongoing religion-news education project organized by the Ethics & Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

The topic this time: “America’s Religious Vote: Midterms and New Trends.” Clicking that link will take you to a website containing a video of the event and, eventually, a transcript. I heard about this through Acts of Faith at The Washington Post, specifically its must-get online newsletter. In a recent edition, religion-beat veteran Michelle Boorstein pointed readers to remarks at that event by Alan Cooperman, director of religion surveys at the Pew Research Center (and a former Post reporter). The Christian Post offered a summary of what Cooperman had to say — focusing on four myths about evangelical voters.

This is interesting stuff, although it doesn’t really explore key fault lines and mixed motives inside that massive white evangelical Trump vote (click here for tmatt’s typology of six different kinds of evangelical voters in 2016 election).

… Cooperman outlined what he says are “straw men” arguments, or “myths,” that he hears being asserted in political discussions today. Four of those myths involve some common misconceptions about white evangelical voters.

Myth 1: Evangelicals are turning liberal or turning against Trump

While there certainly are some white evangelicals who are staunch in their opposition to President Donald Trump, he doesn't see any rise in their numbers in Pew data.

Citing aggregated Pew Research Center data compiled from 2017 to 2018, Cooperman stated that there is “a lot of stability” when it comes to Trump’s approval ratings among self-identified white evangelical or born-again Protestants.

“Right up before the election, aggregated data from our polls over the last several months [showed] 71 percent approval rating for the president [among white evangelicals],” Cooperman said. “If anything, party ID among white evangelical Protestants is trending more Republican. This notion that white evangelical Protestants are turning liberal, I don’t see. … I don’t see it anywhere.”

Now, here is the crucial question: Is saying that “party ID among white evangelical Protestants is trending more Republican” the same thing as saying that all of those white evangelical Protestants wholeheartedly support Trump? Some of those voters may be more conservative than Trump on moral issues. Some may have voted for him out of GOP loyalty, even though he wasn’t their choice and they simply could not vote for Clinton.

You get the picture. It’s the whole “lesser of two evils” reality — again.

Let’s move on to Cooperman’s second myth:

Myth 2: Younger evangelicals are more liberal and are turning Democratic

Within this notion that evangelicals are becoming more liberal, he said, is the notion that “it is not evangelicals as a whole that is turning liberal, it's the young ones.”

“They are [saying] the youth and young evangelical Protestants are much more liberal than their elders,” he continued. “That is true on some issues. It is especially true for homosexuality and same-sex marriage. [But] it’s not true on abortion, and it is not true in terms of party identification.”

Citing data from the 2014 Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Study, Cooperman stated that 66 percent of millennial white evangelicals identified as Republican or said that they "leaned Republican," while 65 percent of older white evangelical Protestants said the same.

There is much to unpack in that item, so read it all, including this:

Citing Pew data that breaks down each religious group in the U.S. by generation, Cooperman said that he doesn’t see a “clear line in which the younger generations are more Democratic-leaning than the older generations.”

“It is not true among white evangelicals. … It is not true among white mainline. It’s not true among black Protestants. It’s not true among white Catholics. It’s not especially true among Hispanic Catholics,” he stated.

The one major group in which millennials are clearly more Democratic-leaning than older generations is the religiously unaffiliated — a rapidly growing category.

Religion angles galore, to say the least. And here are Cooperman’s final two myths:

Myth 3: “Real evangelicals” are not supportive of Trump

“You especially hear this from more moderate, left-leaning evangelicals themselves — you all know the names — who said that ‘the real evangelicals, the ones who are really in the pews and the ones who are really walking the walk religiously, they are not so supportive of Trump,’” Cooperman told the journalists. “I am looking at the data, and I can’t find that to be the case.”

“Moderate, left-leaning” evangelicals? You mean, like journalist Marvin Olasky of World magazine or Southern Baptist Seminary President Al Mohler, just to name two?

Perhaps political language is not the best way to go, in this case. Are we talking doctrinal “moderates”? No way. Many of the people who have rejected Trump — or those who reluctantly voted for him — are just as doctrinally conservative as the president’s early, core evangelical supporters.

Myth 4: White evangelicals are abandoning the ‘evangelical’ label

“I can find people who will tell me that. But I don’t see it in the [national] data,” Cooperman said. He noted that while it is “absolutely true” that the share of U.S. adults who identify as white evangelicals has been declining, this is because the share of all U.S. adults who are white, as well as the share of whites who are Christian, has been going down.

Among Christians who are white, the percentage who self-identify as evangelical is stable, he said.

By all means, check out the Faith Angle video and bookmark the site, since the transcript will be must-reading, as well.

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