Political reporters, pundits, and party strategists trying to understand U.S. evangelicals sometimes seem like David Livingstone or Margaret Mead scrutinizing an exotic jungle tribe they’ve stumbled upon. Analysts especially scratch heads on how those nice churchgoing Protestant folks could ever vote for a dissolute guy like Donald Trump.
(Standard terminology note: In American political-speak, “Evangelicals” almost always means white evangelicals, because African-American Protestants, though often similar in faith, are so distinct culturally and politically.)
That Trump conundrum is taken up yet again by a self-described “friendly observer/participant” with evangelicalism, Regent University political scientist A.J. Nolte. His school’s CEO, Pat Robertson, proclaimed candidate Trump “God’s man for the job.” Yet Nolte posted his point of view on Charlie Sykes’s thebulwark.com. This young site brands Trump “a serial liar, a narcissist and a bully, a con man who mocks the disabled and women, a man with no fixed principles who has the vocabulary of an emotionally insecure 9-year-old.” Don’t hold back, #NeverTrump folks.
Nolte, a Catholic University Ph.D. who belongs on your source list, did not vote for the president and remains “deeply Trump-skeptical.” He considers evangelicals’ bond with Trump “unwise” in the long term and “almost certain to do more harm than good.” He thinks believers’ Trump support “is shallower and more conditional than it appears” and even muses about a serious primary challenge. The Religion Guy disputes that, but agrees with Nolte that evangelical women under 45 are the most likely to spurn the president next year.
Nolte offers a nicely nuanced version of outsiders’ scenario that “existential fear” on religious-liberty issues drove Trump support in 2016 and still does.
Is this irrational?
Nolte says evangelicals have “a valid concern that religion and religious arguments will be pushed out of the public square altogether.” The 2015 Supreme Court edict legalizing same-sex marriage was a particular shock that replaced their socio-political optimism with defensiveness. (An astute side observation says evangelical Millennials raised amid the ravages of no-fault divorce can see no “threat to the sanctity of marriage” from gays.)
Given the “evangelical nice” code, believers had no rude champion within their own ranks and welcomed defense from the “bellicose, bombastic, insulting” Trump. As others have observed, Trump enthusiasm is especially strong among voters who identify as evangelicals, but are not active in churches. Lacking the calm assurance and general well-being that worship and communities provide, these voters are angry, alienated, anxious and socially isolated.
Important stuff to contemplate by politicians of all stripes, leaders of all religious creeds, and (yes) fellow reporters. However, the Nolte hypothesis isn’t the whole story because — News Flash! Evangelicals automatically bestow lopsided margins upon Republican nominees.
Let’s crunch some numbers. National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru proposes that Trump defeated Hillary Clinton because evangelicals gave her a bit less support in Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin than President Barack Obama managed in winning there in 2012. With those 55 electoral votes, Clinton would have slipped into the White House. Problem is, Trump’s tiny margins in those and other states mean we can cite various factors that made the difference. For one, Clinton also did slightly worse than Obama among Catholics.
Looking at the evangelical vote nationally, born-againer George W. Bush won 78 percent in 2004. John McCain, who had aimed barbs at the “religious right” and was saddled with the economic crash, slipped to 74 percent. Mitt Romney, a devout Latter-day Saint (evangelicals really dislike the doctrines of his religion) got 79 percent, and then the morally problematic Trump (in an endlessly cited statistic) a virtually identical 81 per cent.
The Religion Guy for the umpteenth time advises reporters that evangelicals’ knee-jerk Republicanism is usually less significant than voting by non-Hispanic white Catholics — once loyally Democratic but now a key swing vote.
Pew Research, reporters’ top spot for data on religion and politics, says they went 56 percent for Bush and 52 percent for McCain, then an impressive 59 percent for Romney and a nearly identical 60 percent for Trump. With numbers like that, it’s tough for a Democrat to win. But Pew’s latest poll shows white Catholics’ job approval rating for the president has slipped to 44 percent, alongside a 9 percent drop among evangelicals since he took office.
Another voting factor is signaled in the headline for Peter Beinart’s analysis: “Secular Democrats are the New Normal.” Americans without religious affiliations (“nones”) faithfully (so to speak) hand Democrats a commanding two-thirds to three-fourths of their votes.
So, in the 2020 scramble, will Democratic strategists continue to neglect evangelicals and white Catholics, blocs that each claim roughly a fourth of the electorate? For that matter, will Republicans be defeatist, or make some effort to loosen Democrats’ grip on African-American Protestants and Latino Catholics?