Who Are Trump's Christians?
For decades, Republican electoral politics has relied on “the evangelicals”—a vague swath of socially conservative low-church Protestants who would reliably support GOP candidates saying the right things about abortion and family values. Ever since Ronald Reagan told the Moral Majority in 1980 that although “I know that you can’t endorse me. . . I endorse you,” the Republican establishment has had a tenuous but stable relationship with the Christians who made up its most loyal voter base.
Then along came Donald Trump. Far from fracturing the Republican base, his real talent has been to exploit internal rifts that had long lain dormant. It’s no secret that instead of principled conservatives, he appeals viscerally to the losers of the global economy. His staunchest supporters feel vulnerable not just because of declining working-class employment, but also because of a loss of social belonging and binding community norms of all kinds—including church membership—that has hit working-class whites harder than any other group.
In fact, modern American evangelicalism has always been ill defined; part of the problem stems from its lack of an organizational center. Instead of an evangelical Vatican, hundreds of tiny denominations jostle alongside more established churches. There are ecclesial bodies in which some members would call themselves evangelicals, while others do not. And when it comes to politics, “evangelical” is often extreme shorthand for “socially conservative white Protestants.”
How, then, can pollsters and policymakers properly assess the role of evangelical Americans in politics?
Rather than attempting to define the boundaries of evangelicalism, one recent approach has identified four conditions—beliefs about Jesus, the Bible, salvation and spreading the gospel—that correlate strongly with American Christians calling themselves evangelicals. These beliefs also correlate with regular church attendance. This approach, which prioritizes belief and practice over the self-identification of “evangelical,” yields a much more useful and coherent category for pollsters and social scientists to work from—even if it is a category more focused in its definition than what the pundits are used to.
By contrast, a study that set out to find self-described evangelicals concluded that the likeliest Trump supporters are also the least likely to attend regular religious services. (While 88 percent of American evangelicals are "absolutely certain" they believe in God, only 58 percent say they attend weekly services.) At the same time, self-described evangelicals have been key to Trump’s success—at the expense of other candidates, most notably Ted Cruz.
There’s the creeping crack-up of working-class institutions again. As Charles Murray has written, the subset of self-professed “religious” U.S. whites that is least affected by declining church attendance trends is educated and wealthy, seemingly in contradiction of every stereotype about class and religion. The loss of social capital that accompanies detachment from a cohesive church community has very real material costs, and lower-class white communities are far less equipped to withstand it than those who are rich and unchurched.
Leaders in mainstream evangelicalism—the equivalent of the Republican party establishment—have spent months insisting that Christians should have nothing to do with a thrice-married, power-hungry narcissist who openly boasts of his adulterous exploits and became famous for exploiting the weak, from gamblers to widowed homeowners. Russell Moore, the Southern Baptist Convention’s most influential political thinker, has distanced himself from the label “evangelical” itself, after years of seeing it “co-opted by heretics and lunatics.”
But that’s not Trump’s crowd. On Super Tuesday, Trump won his largest share of a primary electorate to date in Massachusetts—which a new Pew report scored dead last in a ranking of states with “highly religious” populations (it was tied with Vermont).