NEW YORK, NY – White evangelical support for President Donald Trump has sparked debate for years -- particularly this winter, with his impeachment trial looming. But for all the focus it commands, uncertainty continues to surround Trump’s bond with a religious constituency that has long leaned GOP.
Trump won a clear majority of white evangelical Protestant votes in 2016, and about 8 in 10 of that group approved of his job performance in an AP-NORC poll conducted last month. But those evangelicals’ alignment with the Republican Party predated Trump and has risen steadily since 2009, according to data from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
Given that Trump has not greatly outperformed his GOP predecessors with white evangelicals, why has his presidency drawn outsize attention to a relatively small religious bloc? It's partly because conservative evangelical leaders have amassed notable influence in Trump's administration. But another reason the relationship is scrutinized is that Trump's political vulnerability could grow if more white evangelicals sour on him over perceived moral missteps.
“Their support for Trump just doesn’t match the story they’ve been telling about themselves since their evolution as a kind of active political group among conservatives,” said Robert Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, an independent Washington-based nonprofit.
The prospect of white evangelicals defecting from Trump in greater numbers is an appealing one to his critics, including the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump Republican group that last week tried to undercut his evangelical appeal in a video that asked whether he is “the best American Christians can do.” Democrats also have grounded some arguments against Trump in moral values as they court voters of faith, including evangelicals.
Mike Madrid, a California-based adviser to the Lincoln Project, said that white evangelicals have been the strongest element of Trump’s base but are starting to show signs of weakness.
“That’s literally the only voter segment that he is holding onto,” Madrid said. “We’re going right at it.”
But challenging Trump’s hold on white evangelicals who have proven stalwart conservatives since the Reagan era may require flawed assumptions about their decision-making.
Evangelicals are generally defined by several traits, including a “born again” connection to their faith, an emphasis on sharing the gospel through evangelism or other activity, a view of the Bible as an essentially authoritative text, and a belief in the centrality of Jesus Christ's sacrifice through crucifixion. A majority of self-described white evangelicals have leaned GOP since Pew began its surveys in 1994, with about 6 in 10 identifying with or leaning toward the Republican Party starting with President Bill Clinton's administration. That proportion grew from 63% in 2009 to 77% in 2017.
Some who have bolstered the twice-divorced, occasionally profane Trump's credentials with white evangelicals warn against underestimating the current president's connection with those born-again Christian voters.
Conservative strategist Ralph Reed, among Trump’s most prominent evangelical allies, said those who argue “erroneously and unconvincingly” that the president’s support from that bloc “somehow represents a contradiction and hypocrisy” are missing the keys to his appeal.
Evangelical voters look for a candidate who aligns with their approach to key policies, Reed said, noting that “Trump was solid on the issues and remains so.” Reed also singled out one quality that might appear to be a liability with religious voters -- Trump’s “counter-puncher” persona -- as valuable in a bitterly partisan political environment.
“Does he occasionally say or tweet something evangelicals prefer he would not? Yes, he does,” Reed said. “But in an overarching way, they believed many of the other people who ran against him weren’t tough enough to withstand what they were going to get from the media and the Democrats.”
Andrew Whitehead, an associate professor at Clemson University who studies Christian nationalism, said that Trump has achieved “a lot of” evangelical priorities, “no matter what he’s done personally or whether he fits in line with their religious beliefs. He’s privileged Christ in the public sphere and provided them access to those levers of power they’ve sought for decades.”
Trump is already reminding his evangelical supporters of his record ahead of his reelection bid, an effort that took on new urgency following last month’s Christianity Today editorial calling for his removal. At this month’s launch of an “Evangelicals for Trump” coalition, the president cast himself as a peacemaker in “the federal government’s war on religion.”
What’s harder to gauge, though, is whether the same criticisms of Trump's moral compass that have shown scant signs of fraying his popularity among self-described white evangelicals could bear fruit with other devout voters.
White evangelical Protestants account for just 16% of U.S. adults, according to Pew’s data. But as that group’s affinity for Trump propels more activism on the religious left -- and makes the evangelical label itself more politically polarizing -- some other voters of faith may be receptive to a case that Trump-era conservatives are not governing in accordance with Christian values.
“Are we evangelistic? Yes. Are we motivated by a political agenda that has come to define the word evangelical? No,” said Mark Wingfield, associate pastor at the Dallas-area Wilshire Baptist Church, which made news in November 2016 by voting to allow full membership by LGBTQ people.
“What we’re all casting about now is, what’s a new word for those of us who want to call people into a saved relationship with God but don’t want that to be associated with a political agenda,” Wingfield added.
Christianity Today's president said the evangelical magazine saw a “significant net gain” in subscribers following its anti-Trump editorial, which focused on his impeachment by the House of Representatives last month.
The anti-Trump Lincoln Project also sees room for its new religion-focused digital ad to pick off more than just evangelical voters. Madrid, the group's adviser, said that the ad's messaging can also move college-educated white suburban women who helped Democrats take back the House in the 2018 midterm elections.
Pew’s study shows that while evangelicals continue to comprise a majority of white Protestants, their share of the nation’s total population has fallen amid lower affiliation with Christianity in general. Black evangelicals have typically leaned heavily toward the Democratic Party, while Latino evangelicals -- whom Trump’s team is courting ahead of the general election -- made up about one-quarter of the total Latino vote in 2018, according to AP’s VoteCast data, and have split between the parties.
Associated Press writer Kathleen Ronayne contributed from Sacramento, Calif., and Associated Press writer Hannah Fingerhut contributed from Washington.
Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this content.