With elections looming, let’s freshen up that old evangelicals-and-Trump theme

Time for reporters who cover politics, or religion, or both, to start planning those big-picture election analyses.

If they’re like The Religion Guy, desks and files are all a-clutter with clippings about why oh why so many evangelicals voted for President Donald Trump and why so many still support him.

Pardon The Guy for once again griping about media neglect of why, oh why, non-Hispanic Catholics also helped deliver the states that gave Trump the White House. Exit polling showed Trump was backed by 81 percent of white evangelicals (with 40 percent casting those votes reluctantly), but also 60 percent of white Catholics.

These numbers are very close to both groups’ Republican support in 2012, but increases from white Catholics’ 52 percent and evangelicals’ 74 percent in 2008.

The fresh angle to exploit is accumulating evidence of broad change across America, with today’s Trumpublican Party as a mere symptom. Presumably Nov. 6 will tell us more about alienated white Americans who resent elitists in education, economics and cultural influence. Here’s some material journalists should ponder.

Recall that in 2012 Charles Murray analyzed five decades of data in “Coming Apart: The State of White America” to profile the growing gap in behavior and values between a thriving upper class that he contrasted with an emerging lower class that suffers eroding family and community life, religion included.

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That same year, University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox and colleagues issued a less-noticed but important academic study on the decline of religious and family life for the white working class, under the snappy headline “No Money, No Honey, No Church.”

In April, 2017, pundit Peter Beinart wrote a prescient piece for The Atlantic titled “Breaking Faith.” He contended that a secularized America with so many citizens lacking involvement in religious groups (yes, that much-discussed rise of the “nones”) means many identify the politics of “us” versus “them” in increasingly “primal and irreconcilable ways.”

Another Atlantic opus in August by former MSNBC host Alex Wagner was titled “The Church of Trump” and pursued Wilcox’s sociology. He notes that religious attendance has fallen twice as much among whites without college degrees than with college graduates. For these non-religious Americans, Trumpite identity becomes their de facto church. Though proving cause-and-effect is difficult, he says citizens “disengaged from church” demonstrate “less economics success and more family breakdown” and are “more pessimistic and resentful.”

A Pew Research analysis released August 29 distinguished between “Sunday Stalwarts” (17 percent of Americans) who attend worship weekly and regularly pray and study the Bible, versus “God-and-Country Believers” (12 percent) who are devout but less active religiously. This second group is notably pro-Trump and a hefty two-thirds think immigrants threaten American values.

All of that sets up the news potential in a September blockbuster from Emily Ekins (contact: 202-789-5200), the director of polling at the libertarian Cato Institute. Surveys from 2016, 2017 and 2018 by the Voter Study Group of the Democracy Fund produced an Ekins New York Times op-ed and a Times column by Ross Douthat. But newswriters will want to read Ekins’ full report here.

The cultural Left and the increasingly secularized Democratic coalition often regard active Christian conservatives as intolerant. Ekins’ research tells us, yes, that’s true regarding gay marriage, in which (not surprisingly) they maintain a belief shared with Judaism for nearly 2,000 years.

Here is the key: In comparison with white “non-religious Trump voters,” the Trump voters who regularly attend worship — whether Protestant or Catholic — are notably more tolerant toward Hispanics, Asians, Jews, Muslims and immigrants. They’re also more concerned about poverty issues, are more contented with their family life and towns, and more likely to be community volunteers.

Combine that with the big trend toward unaffiliated religious “nones” and you can imagine what has been developing among the American populace without high social status and affluence. Like Wilcox, Ekins indicates that when religious identity fades away that fosters nationalistic or racial identities.

Some of her numbers are quite striking, e.g.: Among non-religious Trump backers 55 percent are “bothered by interacting with non-English speakers” versus only 29 percent with regular worshipers. And 63 percent of secular Trump voters were “very favorable” toward that candidate but only 49 percent of frequent churchgoers. Meanwhile, as religion-watchers know, Hillary Clinton trounced Trump among all non-religious citizens by 31 points.

Much here for journalists to ponder, not to mention Democratic and Republican strategists looking toward 2020 and 2024.

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