White Evangelicals Are Still Loyal Trump Fans, But Small Divisions Could Be Brewing: Study

White evangelicals' support for Trump remains as strong as ever, a Pew Research Center analysis has found. But there's been a tiny dip in his approval ratings.
President Donald Trump bows his head in prayer as pastor Paula White leads the room in prayer during a dinner for evangelical leaders in the State Dining Room of the White House, Monday, Aug. 27, 2018, in Washington, D.C.
President Donald Trump bows his head in prayer as pastor Paula White leads the room in prayer during a dinner for evangelical leaders in the State Dining Room of the White House, Monday, Aug. 27, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

White evangelical Protestants ― especially those who attend church frequently ― continue to be strong supporters of President Donald Trump, according to a Pew Research Center analysis published Monday.

About 69 percent of white evangelicals approve of how Trump is handling his job as president, according to data collected in January 2019. This has dipped slightly since February 2017, when about 78 percent of white evangelicals that Pew surveyed approved of his job performance.

Nevertheless, white evangelicals’ approval of Trump is still significantly higher than the rating given by other religious groupings analyzed by Pew ― including other white Christians, Christians of color, and religiously unaffiliated Americans.

More broadly, Pew found that only 37 percent of all American adults who participated in the January survey approved of Trump’s job performance, down from 39 percent in February 2017.

For his part, Trump has repeatedly pledged to protect evangelicals’ interests, and maintains close connections to several prominent evangelical leaders.

Pew Research Center

Daniel Williams, a historian and author of God’s Own Party: The Making Of The Christian Right, told HuffPost he believes it could be significant that Trump’s approval rating is dropping more quickly among white evangelicals than among Americans as a whole. Williams said this suggests that the president’s recent actions could have offended this group to a greater degree than they have other groups.

One possibility is that some white evangelicals have become offended by a particular Trump administration policy, Williams said, such as the policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. Even Franklin Graham, son of the famous evangelist Billy Graham and a staunch Trump supporter, called the practice “disgraceful” after it was adopted last summer ― although Graham ultimately blamed past presidents for the scenario.

Another possible reason for the slight dip is that the voices of several influential evangelical critics of Trump’s policies are beginning to have an impact, Williams said, referring to people like Russell Moore, of the Southern Baptist Convention, who has often criticized the president’s statements on race and immigration.

Williams also pointed to white evangelical women’s growing disillusionment about the president’s sexism and sexual crudity. Southern Baptist and other evangelical churches have recently been reckoning with sexual abuse and the mistreatment of women, resulting in the removal of several prominent male figures. As evangelical women react to sexism in the church, they may also be reconsidering their loyalty to Trump, Williams said.

But even though some white evangelicals’ support appears to be wavering, this demographic’s loyalty to the Republican Party is still strong. Williams said white evangelicals are thrilled by Trump’s efforts to push federal courts to the right. They are also fearful of the alternative, believing that criticizing Trump will only serve to empower a Democratic opposition, he said.

As a result, even though previous Pew surveys have shown that many white evangelicals don’t think Trump sets a high moral standard for the presidency, many are still willing to overlook these flaws.

“It is hard to overstate the importance that the Christian Right places on capturing the Supreme Court,” Williams wrote. “For many conservative white evangelicals, the Supreme Court is their most important priority in every presidential election, because they believe that control of the Supreme Court is the only way that they can overturn Roe v. Wade, prevent the expansion of transgender rights and further assaults on their values, and protect their own religious liberty.”

A sign connecting religious and political themes is seen on back roads near Luverne, Alabama in July 2018.
A sign connecting religious and political themes is seen on back roads near Luverne, Alabama in July 2018.
Michael S. Williamson / The Washington Post via Getty Images

John Fea, a history professor at Messiah College and the author of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, told HuffPost he’s not surprised that white evangelicals’ support has remained firm more than two years into Trump’s presidency. As long as Trump continues to deliver on issues important to white evangelicals ― appointing conservative federal judges, defending religious liberty, and keeping the economy strong ― Fea believes this support will continue.

“While I am sure some white evangelicals have turned away in light of his constant lies, divisive tweets, race-baiting, and national emergency declaration, most white evangelicals are indistinguishable from the Republican Party, which continues to support Trump heavily,” Fea wrote in an email.

“As an evangelical myself, the difference between 78% and 69% is generally meaningless. The number is still too large,” Fea added.

Pew’s recent analysis also suggested that white evangelicals who regularly attend church tend to be more supportive of Trump than less frequent attendees. This was also true of white Catholics. On the other hand, white mainline Protestants tended to have more mixed views about the president.

Pew Research Center

Williams guessed that this has to do with the messages white evangelicals receive when they attend church, whether from the pulpit or from fellow parishioners in the pews. While most white evangelicals won’t hear direct political endorsements from the pulpit, they will likely hear a lot of statements about spiritual warfare, national moral decline, the importance of Christian values, and occasionally, statements about abortion and homosexuality. These indirectly political sermons have the effect of reinforcing conservative political values, Williams said.

In addition, white evangelicals who attend church regularly will often develop close social connections with other church members who are politically conservative.

“In these circles, people may well be critical of the president’s personal morality, but by reminding each other of the importance of the abortion issue or other policy matters, they reinforce Republican voting habits that contribute to the president’s high approval ratings,” Williams said.

On the other hand, mainline American Protestant churches tend to be more liberal and have pastors with progressive views preaching from the pulpit.

“The more that a mainline Protestant Christian goes to church, the more they will likely hear a message of social justice that will make them more likely to support open immigration policies, universal health care, and similar issues that will tend to make them more critical of President Trump and congressional Republicans,” Williams wrote.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, U.S., February 7, 2019.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, U.S., February 7, 2019.
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Race is also an important factor, according to Janelle Wong, an American studies professor at the University of Maryland and author of Immigrants, Evangelicals and Politics in an Era of Demographic Change.

Even though Pew’s data suggests that white evangelicals who attend church less frequently are less likely to support Trump, their support is still stronger than that of other demographic groups. This indicates to Wong that these less frequent attendees share the same fears and anxieties about demographic change.

“Their high levels of support despite a lack of institutional attachment to evangelical churches is quite striking,” Wong told HuffPost. “This only underscores the powerful interplay between white identity and religious identity in my view.”

Polling organizations often have trouble obtaining reliable data about black, Hispanic, Asian, and other evangelicals of color, due to insufficient sample size. However, it’s likely that these Christians will play more important roles in American evangelicalism in the future, as young white evangelicals leave the church and the country as a whole becomes more diverse. Wong said her own research has indicated that Asian-American evangelicals attend church more frequently than white evangelicals on average, but still demonstrate much lower rates of support for Trump.

Fea said that some white evangelicals also subscribe to a Christian version of American exceptionalism, believing that America was founded as a Christian nation and still has God’s special blessing. They are also often fearful about their own declining influence in American culture.

That’s why, when it comes to issues like welcoming immigrants from Mexico and Latin America, white evangelicals tend to unite around race as a more important identity category than the faith they may share with these newcomers.

“In the case of Trump, white evangelicals have turned to the president as a strongman to protect them from the forces of secularization and to defend white Christian America from social and demographic change,” Fea said.

Pew’s analysis of religious groups’ approval rating of Trump’s job performance was drawn from a larger survey of 1,505 U.S. adults conducted between Jan. 9 - 14, 2019 via telephone.

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