The Rushmore Report: Trump, Evangelicals, and the Elephant in the Room

Do evangelicals support Donald Trump for president, or do they not? It depends on who you ask, and what you ask them. It also depends on who is an evangelical. Or who says, “I’m an evangelical.” It can be rather tricky. There are evangelicals who say, “The only evangelicals who are voting for Donald Trump are inactive evangelicals.” And that’s actually a bit of a myth. I think it’s a way for evangelicals who don’t like Trump to assert that people from their tribe aren’t voting for him.

There’s been a bit of a disappointment among some evangelicals seeing this reported support. Some seem to be coming up with any reason as to why Donald Trump must not really have this kind of support.

The Church Attendance Argument

When you look at it, there is what we call a correlation. The more you go to church as an evangelical, the less likely you  are to vote for Donald Trump. In South Carolina, for instance, much was made over the 34 percent of self-identified evangelicals who voted for Trump. Somehow overlooked is the corresponding fact that 66 percent didn’t vote for him.

Doctoral candidate Matthew MacWilliams has written on the subject of support for Trump among voters he classifies as “authoritarian.” But, among those he might expect to find as Trump supporters there is a clear “soft spot”: Regularly, weekly church attendance – as measured by a standard Pew Research question included in my survey – predicted a statistically significant and substantive opposition to Trump. However, that’s not the whole story.

Trump Leads Among Weekly Church-Going Attendees

In a recent article published in the Washington Post, the title explained, “Where is Trump’s evangelical base? Not in church.” But, according to our surveys, Trump was chosen by more church-going evangelicals than anyone else. In other words, the most frequently chosen candidate of church-going evangelicals was Donald Trump.

Trump’s support declines with church attendance, but he is still the highest among church attendees, which the title of the article might have caused the reader to infer otherwise.

Looking Deeper

Some may assert the exit poll question, “Would you describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian?” is too broad, but that’s what happens when the definition is – for all intents and purposes – undefined or so amorphous as to mean anything. (This lack of clarity is why LifeWay Research and the National Association of Evangelicals sought a more accurate research definition.)

Paul Matzko noted this very thing after the South Carolina primary: “The correlation between church membership and a decreased likelihood of voting for Trump is especially apparent in the Upstate, where people are two or three times more likely to go to church regularly . . . and were half as likely to vote for Trump. There are individual county results that don’t fit the pattern, but there’s a clear line of best fit when you scatter plot the data. Counties with lower church adherence tend to have a higher percentage of Trump supporters.”

So, Which Is It?

There are many self-identified evangelicals who attend church, and another large percentage, also self-identified as evangelical, who don’t. Self-identified evangelicals who don’t go to church regularly are far more likely to vote for Trump than self-identified evangelicals who actually go to church.

There is a both/and here: just as it’s a myth to say all evangelicals are for Trump, it’s also a myth to say that evangelicals are not for Trump. While Trump has often won a plurality of evangelical Republican primary voters, he has not won the majority. On Super Tuesday alone 51 percent of evengelicals voted for either Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio.

So, for those for whom religious faith is important enough (as with regular church goers), Trump does not dominate, but he often leads. Now that we’re down to three candidates in the Republican primary, we could see a shift in which evangelicals go for Cruz (whose faith has been widely mentioned), Trump (whose faith has been questioned), or Kasich (whose faith has just recently received coverage). More exit polling (especially in larger states) may help us see which set of self-identified evangelicals are voting for which candidate.

About the Author

Ed Stetzer is an author, speaker, researcher, pastor, church planter, and Christian missionologist. He is a contributor to the North American discussion on missional church, church planting, and cultural issues.

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