“Why Evangelicals Worship Trump”; “Trump-ward, Christian Soldiers?”; “Why Do Evangelicals Support Trump?”; “Evangelicals Love Donald Trump: How a thrice-married New York braggart won them over — and why it’s so scary.”
These are real headlines running in major newspapers and well-trafficked blogs. They are representative of inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom. This media meme is 100 percent spot-on except for one minor thing: Evangelicals don’t really like Donald Trump.
Trump Weakest Among Evangelicals
Let’s look at Reuters poll tracker over August 21 to September 4, the last full two weeks available at the time of this writing. Trump led all likely GOP primary voters with 33 percent, and Carson and Bush tied for a distant second place with 12 percent. Everybody else was mired in single digits. This matches up pretty well with other public polls.
Among the 40 percent of GOP primary voters who say they are evangelical or born again, Trump only polls 25 percent compared to his 38 percent support among all other GOP primary voters. Even that overstates the amount of Trump support you would find in an evangelical pew on Sunday morning. Of those evangelical GOP primary voters who go to church at least once a month (80 percent of that subgroup), Trump polls just 21 percent. By contrast, among those attending church less frequently, Trump doubles his support.
Trump polls differently among different religious subgroups more generally, dividing the GOP primary electorate into three segments: churchgoing evangelicals, other churchgoing Christians (mostly Catholics and non-evangelical Protestants), and the unchurched. Again, only 21 percent of churchgoing evangelicals support Trump, while Trump wins 42 percent of the unchurched, and 32 percent of other churchgoing Christians.
There also seems to be a significant age gap in Trump support. Trump polls 38 percent generally among those over 60, and just 28 percent among those under 60. “Younger” evangelicals are the most extreme example of this: only 12 percent of churchgoing evangelicals under 60 support Trump. The Wall Street Journal uncovered at least one member of this 12 percent: Paula White, a Trump supporter best known for maybe having an affair with Benny Hinn and then marrying the keyboardist from Journey.
But let’s not get lost in the weeds. Even including older voters, Trump is supported by just 21 percent of churchgoing evangelicals and 39 percent of everybody else. Trump is simply not an evangelical darling. To the contrary, evangelicals are the GOP demographic most skeptical about his appeal. Why don’t we get headlines like “Why Non-believers Worship Trump” or “Trump: A Savior for the Unchurched”? How do we explain the actual headlines quoted above?
I think the Evangelicals Heart Trump meme is explained by a simple (but erroneous) syllogism many mainstream journalists unconsciously believe:
(1) Donald Trump is a populist threat to the GOP establishment.
(2) Evangelical voters are a populist threat to the GOP establishment.
(3) Therefore, Donald Trump’s rise to the top of the polls must be on the strength of his support among conservative evangelical voters.
While the first two propositions are largely true, it doesn’t take a skilled logician to spot the fallacy. There is more than one kind of populism. Trump’s populism and the populism espoused by evangelical voters are two very different things.
Evangelical populists, the bloc once labeled the Religious Right, are frustrated by a GOP establishment that has frittered away this summer’s anti-Planned Parenthood moment. They are frustrated that party bigwigs spent much of the past few years calling for the party to “rebrand” and downplay social issues. They are frustrated by a Supreme Court that redefines marriage, lets Obamacare survive, and reigned by Justice Kennedy’s Humpty Dumpty jurisprudence. Evangelical populists are not just animated by social issues, but by generalized frustration with the ever-expanding, unconstitutional reach of big government. In Pew’s Political Typology, evangelical populists are “Steadfast Conservatives.”
Trumpian populists, in contrast, are frustrated by China “killing us in trade,” by hedge-fund managers who “pay no tax,” and, of course, by the bipartisan collusion of the Washington elite on immigration. In many ways, these sorts of complaints traditionally resonated with the white, working-class voters of the Democrat Party. Many of the same themes animate Bernie Sanders’ insurgent candidacy. Per Pew, Trumpian populists are “Hard-Pressed Skeptics.”
But while evangelical and Trumpian populism are distinct, there is obviously the potential for some overlap. For instance, despite Russell Moore’s efforts, I think a majority of evangelical populists are immigration hawks. Still, the overall thrust and tenor of these two groups differs widely.
Whacking the Evangelical Piñata
So if evangelicals do not form the backbone of Trump’s support and are instead the religious subgroup least excited about him, how can we explain the media’s behavior over the past two weeks?
Some of it is the fault of our reliance on polls that don’t differentiate between evangelicals who go to church and “evangelicals” who never go to church. It’s a garbage in, garbage out process when pundits premise their analysis on fundamentally defective statistics. Public Policy Polling’s latest national poll found that 53 percent of GOP primary voters were evangelical Christians. That’s a pretty dramatic overstatement.
But I think there’s something more systematic going on. Many of these pundits are merely looking for any way to bash the evangelical piñata, and associating this disfavored demographic with the Donald’s degeneracy is simply too tempting to pass up.
For one journalist, supporting the twice-divorced Trump might prove the rank hypocrisy of evangelical voters. Frank Bruni’s column laid this charge on particularly thick:
If I want the admiration and blessings of the most flamboyant, judgmental Christians in America, I should marry three times, do a queasy-making amount of sexual boasting, verbally degrade women, talk trash about pretty much everyone else while I’m at it, encourage gamblers to hemorrhage their savings in casinos bearing my name and crow incessantly about how much money I’ve amassed?
Seems to work for Donald Trump… proving, yet again, how selective and incoherent the religiosity of many in the party’s God squad is.
But the great thing about Trump support is that it can apparently prove whatever the journalist wants it to. Jonathan Merritt believes it shows “the growing anti-establishment sentiments held by many evangelical Christians.” Kristen Powers writes that it shows evangelicals are being duped. Betsy Woodruff argues Trump has earned his good favor the old-fashioned way: by buying off evangelical leaders. Elizabeth Bruenig can’t resist using this moment to ride her hobby-horse, insisting “[t]he evangelical-Republican alliance has always been a marriage of convenience.”
Maybe all of these journalists are correct about the ills that beset conservative evangelical voters, maybe not. But their eagerness to upbraid religious voters has apparently blinded them to the simple fact that Trump isn’t strong with, as he would put it, “the evangelicals.”