White evangelical Protestants have long been some of President Donald Trump’s most reliable supporters. They’ve remained loyal to him through allegations of sexual assault, racism and corruption ― driven in large part by his appointment of conservative judges and his defense of religious liberty issues that evangelicals hold dear. But a new survey shows small fissures in what is otherwise a rock-solid, symbiotic relationship.
A survey published by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research on Thursday affirmed what other researchers have long observed about white evangelicals: that they are unique among America’s religious groups because of how strongly they support Trump.
However, the poll also suggested that there are a few policy areas ― taxing the wealthy, helping the poor, regulating carbon dioxide emissions and separating children from their parents at the border ― where white evangelicals’ support for the Trump administration’s goals appears to be tepid at best.
For example, the survey found that 59% of white evangelicals favored regulating the amount of carbon dioxide that power and industrial plants can emit. This is far lower than the number of Americans in general who support regulating carbon dioxide emissions (70%). But it’s still a significant percentage for this particular religious group ― especially given the fact that the Trump administration has rolled back Obama-era federal regulations that sought to push energy companies toward renewable sources. Trump is also withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, an international treaty that seeks to fight climate change by curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
Over half of white evangelical Christians (56%) supported increasing taxes on wealthy Americans. Trump’s 2017 tax overhaul gave middle-class taxpayers a small tax cut, but wealthier households were the prime beneficiaries.
A majority of white evangelicals also favored increasing government assistance for poor Americans, such as unemployment benefits, health insurance and food assistance (50%). About 62% of all the adults surveyed said the same. However, the Trump administration has proposed greater eligibility restrictions for a range of public benefits, including food stamps and Medicaid.
Most white evangelicals opposed policies that separate children from their parents when the parents are detained for entering the country illegally (54%). About 67% of all Americans surveyed said the same. The Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” border enforcement policy, implemented during the spring of 2018, attracted criticism from prominent evangelical voices, including Franklin Graham, one of Trump’s top evangelical allies. The American Civil Liberties Union has claimed that family separations have taken place even after Trump signed an executive order to end the policy in June 2018.
Ultimately, it doesn’t appear that these disagreements over policy goals are strong enough to sway white evangelicals’ support for Trump. About 79% of white evangelicals approved of his job performance, while 60% of all Americans disapproved.
Due to an insufficient sample size, the AP-NORC survey was not able to separate out the views of non-white evangelicals. But among non-white Protestants in general, about 75% said they disapproved of Trump’s job performance.
Last month, a popular evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, published an editorial calling for Trump to be removed from office, claiming that the House impeachment hearings “illuminated the president’s moral deficiencies for all to see.” Its writer, the magazine’s retiring editor-in-chief, Mark Galli, told The New York Times that he’s received a positive response from evangelicals who felt alone in their disapproval of Trump.
But the viral piece also sparked strong backlash from Trump’s evangelical allies. In a letter, a group of nearly 200 evangelical leaders condemned the editorial as offensive.
After its publication, the Trump campaign announced that it was starting a new coalition, Evangelicals for Trump, to unite evangelical supporters of the president. Trump is scheduled to speak at a South Florida megachurch on Friday afternoon to launch the coalition.
The AP-NORC poll was based on web, landline and cellphone interviews in early December with 1,053 participants across the country. The overall margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
This report has been updated with additional data about non-white Protestants.