On Saturday, Donald Trump won the South Carolina primary with 32 percent of the votes. Exit polls reported the state was largely evangelical, so news reports and Twitter responded by insinuating that evangelicals are either a faithless bunch of heathens or brainless cult-followers.
Trump is not exactly a model Christian nor has he really professed any faith until politics made it necessary. The truth depends on what the word “evangelical” means, and how much stock you put in the numbers, linguistics, and, of course, the intersect between faith and politics.
Weaknesses of Exit Polling
First and foremost, it’s important to remember exit polling does not include the vast majority of voters. The CNN exit poll that asked voters their race, education, ideology, and religiosity included 2,034 people. More than 4 million people live in South Carolina; of those, 730,000 voted. While this is a record turnout for a primary in South Carolina—only 603,000 voted in 2012—that’s still only 17 percent of the state population.
So the exit polls fueling these reports that South Carolina’s evangelical base voted for Trump are based on less than 1 percent of the entire state. On top of that, while 72 percent identified as “born-again or evangelical Christian” in the exit polling, 33 percent of these voted for Trump but 27 percent voted for Cruz and 22 percent voted for Rubio.
I’m not saying these numbers are meaningless; I’m saying they come from a very tiny population slice and that’s essential to know when analyzing whether evangelicals as a whole adore Trump or Cruz and what that means for the election.
What—and Who—Is An Evangelical?
Remember the days of the so-called Value Voters? Their civic duty combined with their faith-based values drove them to the polls to vote based on life and marriage issues, with fiscal concerns coming in a distant third (at least). Known for their fierce loyalty and zeal, they were a passionate bunch—George W. Bush’s bread and butter—pushing through state-level “Defense of Marriage Acts” and lobbying to ban late-term abortions.
While back then these Values Voters didn’t primarily vote just for a candidate because of his or her religion, if said candidate was quite religious, it secured that person’s vote straight away. For example, in 2006, I worked for the Republican Party of Minnesota at then-state Sen. Michele Bachmann’s office specifically to garner and secure the “social conservative” (or SoCo) vote. This is not uncommon. Every candidate hires people to secure votes to his strengths.
Bachmann attended a Lutheran church then (she has since left, after it became embroiled in controversy unrelated to her) and was a pro-marriage mother of five biological children and of numerous foster children who, as far as it appeared to me, had a sincere, genuine relationship with Jesus Christ. (She was on a campaign call when I, a young, nervous mom-to-be, returned to her office with my first ultrasound picture. She immediately pulled the phone away from her ear and told me congratulations, with tears of joy in her eyes.)
Her denomination aside, religious folks all across her district, whether Catholic, evangelical, Baptist, or Lutheran, loved her for her outspoken faith. Fast-forward 10 years later, and if these people had been asked in an exit poll, as those in Saturday’s CNN poll had been, “Are you a born-again or evangelical Christian?” all would answer in the affirmative.
Being Evangelical Doesn’t Clinch Your Politics
The term evangelical is a broad one, and has grown more so over the last decade, at least to the media and those who remain unaffiliated with religious groups. That means the actual number of those who would identify themselves as evangelical (over another denomination or sect) is small but the media remains rather annoyingly unaware of this. So in an exit poll, rather than asking if an individual is Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish, Lutheran, or evangelical, they ask the latter.
It’s somewhat like asking people if they all like dessert, and when 72 percent said yes, pollsters exclaim that everyone loves chocolate! Kind of, but not exactly, and the distinction matters because evangelicals are known for toeing a certain conservative party line. While they were particularly motivated by social issues—on which Trump is not notoriously conservative, at least consistently (he supports abortion and special protections for gay and transgender people)—they typically were fiscally conservative as well (even though Trump isn’t fiscally conservative either). This of course has changed.
As Napp Nazworth reported in the Christian Post, “When you consider what makes an evangelical, their political diversity makes more sense. Evangelicals have recognized that they are sinners, repented of that sin and made a conscious decision to follow the living Christ rather than a worldly worldview or their own desires. They believe in the virgin birth, trinitarian God and the resurrection. Scripture is authoritative in their lives and they seek to share their faith with others.”
The term itself has proven nearly useless in politics, so it does little to clarify the presumption that follows when a state shows 72 percent are evangelical. But that’s what’s made news most. Certain sects of conservatives, who view Trump as anything but a conservative, are concerned one of the most conservative voting blocs in the country is voting for one of the most liberal politicians in the country—and that is alarming.
What Does This Mean?
What people mean are really inferring when they exclaim All the evangelicals voted for Trump! is more like: If they’re this liberal now, they’ll never vote for Cruz or Rubio! Partly true, partly false—because there are sects of evangelicals. This CNN piece identified everyone from James Dobson to John Piper to Jim Wallis and Rick Warren as evangelicals. If you know anything about theology and church “culture,” you know those men are as different as pound cake and a chocolate soufflé. Sure, they all fit in generally one category but are also completely different.
Some, like millennial evangelicals and those looking for sound government management, are drawn to Trump for his business background. Others who tend to keep politics and faith separate might appreciate Rubio’s approach, while those who take a more hawkish approach and want the United States to remain “Christian” will vote for Cruz. This became clear in Saturday’s polls when the 2,034 polled split nearly in thirds for Trump, Cruz, and Rubio, give or take a few percentage points.
Tim Goeglein, a former special assistant to U. S. President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2008, told me via e-mail what he made of Trump’s impression on evangelicals: “The emergence of the Tea Party, libertarians, and a populist appeal in the base of the party is having an impact. In part, we are seeing their support for Trump. They still say faith in a candidate is important but they are willing to step outside a ‘faith-first’ context. American evangelical voters are not of one piece.”
The South Carolina numbers prove the term itself is opaque and nearly useless, or at least uninformative. The primary did show people of faith voted and were drawn to three different candidates, almost evenly, and that only means each person blends faith and politics somewhat similarly and somewhat differently, depending on their more specific worldview.