President Donald Trump’s favorability ratings have recently dipped among two religious groups that make up a core part of his religious base: white Catholics and white evangelicals.
Only 37% of white Catholics held a favorable view of Trump in May, down from a peak of 60% in March, according to a Public Religion Research Institute survey published Friday.
The low rating is even starker when compared to the fact that Trump managed to maintain an average favorability of 49% among white Catholics throughout 2019.
The president’s approval rating among white evangelical Protestants, a key constituency, also dropped, from March’s peak of 77% to 62% in May. This is about the same as his average favorability among this group throughout 2019, which was 64%.
March’s bump in favorability among white Catholics and white evangelicals was prompted by a patriotic “rally ’round the flag” effect brought on by the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, according to PRRI.
But as the pandemic continued and protests over police brutality toward Black Americans erupted around the country, that wave of support began to recede.
The PRRI survey was conducted via telephone from May 26 through May 31 as the country reacted to the May 25 police killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes. PRRI recorded a shift in opinion among all white Christians within the time that the survey was conducted. During the first half of the survey period, Trump’s favorability was 57% among white Christians. By the second half, as Trump pushed a militaristic response to protests, it had slipped down to 46%.
These drops in favorability are happening at the same time that the Republican Party’s white evangelical base is shrinking. The religious group was 21% of the U.S. population in 2008; today it makes up just 15% of the country, according to PRRI. Catholics made up 17% of the electorate in 2008 and are just 12% today, according to the Jesuit magazine America.
Trump needs both white Catholics and white evangelicals to show up for him in November if he’s to win reelection. These two groups were more supportive of him in the 2016 election than any other religious groups, according to the Pew Research Center. White Catholics, in particular, tend to be swing voters. Many live in Rust Belt states that are key for the president.
Trump made a nod to both these groups during controversial photo-ops at two Washington, D.C., churches this week.
On Monday, Trump posed with a Bible in front of an Episcopal church near the White House after federal law enforcement officers aggressively cleared the area of peaceful protesters. On Tuesday, the president and his wife, Melania Trump, who identifies as Catholic, visited an important Roman Catholic shrine in the city.
The visits were harshly criticized by both the Episcopal and Roman Catholic prelates of Washington. But Trump’s closest evangelical allies have stuck by his side, praising him for his “law and order” approach to the civil unrest across the country.
Notably, the PRRI survey concluded before these visits took place and don’t measure the effect they had on Trump’s favorability among white evangelicals and white Catholics.
In addition, favorability ratings may not necessarily indicate how these groups will vote on Election Day, given their longstanding ties to the GOP. Over the course of his tenure at the White House, Trump has delivered on issues that are important to both of these groups.
John Fea, a historian of American evangelicalism at Messiah College, told HuffPost on Thursday that he believes even though some rank-and-file white evangelicals are disgusted by Trump’s photo-op in front of the Episcopal church, many will still vote for him in November because he shared their views on social issues that they believe are non-negotiable ― such as abortion and the appointment of conservative judges.
Since the turn of the 20th century, conservative evangelicals have believed that converting people through evangelism and winning the culture wars are more important than questions of social justice, Fea said.
“Trump holds them captive. They must support Trump because they need him to win in November so that their more important social issues such as abortion and religious liberty can be advanced in an attempt to ‘make America great again,’ code for ‘make America a Christian nation again.’”