Everyone knows that 81 percent of self-identified white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the November 2016 presidential election. For almost two years, pundits, historians and political scientists have been working toward an explanation of that most surprising of electoral statistics. But we’re no closer to an answer, and, as we move out of the midterms and into the long presidential campaign season to come, the religious vote remains as important as ever. But what if that widely circulating statistic is actually misleading?
The problem is in the polling. Polling results during the 2016 election indicate a gross conflation between conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, and another group that might best be described as “conservative folk Christians.” In a nation of high religiosity, the social desirability to fit into at least one religious category can be an influential factor. Hence, when exit pollsters ask for religious affiliation, evangelicals get lumped in with all the miscellaneous varieties and flavors of American Christianity. On the one hand, this conflation explains the “white evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Trump” narrative, which has made many rational people wonder how on earth so many self-identifying moral conservatives could support such an unlikely representative. On the other hand, this approach among pollsters stands in stark contrast to the experiences of many progressive evangelicals who have vigorously opposed Trump. Make no mistake, plenty of evangelicals voted for Trump—but their numbers are nowhere near the margins we’ve been led to believe.
There are striking differences between evangelicals and those who might best be described as “folk Christians.” While evangelicals are known for their “Biblicism,” according to their foremost historian David Bebbington, folk Christians are almost always biblically illiterate, and have very little structured religious background beyond understanding a religious ethos as a moral norm. Across and beyond their most familiar denominations, evangelicals have constructed a highly distinctive religious discourse. This discourse is easily parodied, which perhaps explains why Ned Flanders became America’s best-known evangelical. It is also easily appropriated, which is why folk Christians can know which evangelical behaviors to perform when they choose to do so. For these voters, self-identifying as “Christian” is about obtaining membership in a “tribe” that marks them out as “good people,” and they continue to participate in this tribe as long as it is socially advantageous to do so.
We have known for some time that Americans over-report their religious behavior. While Gallup polls have consistently found that around 40 percent claim to regularly attend religious services, studies have shown the actual rate to be nearer to 22 percent. This is precisely what we should expect to observe in a nation with high religiosity, or perhaps better put, a nation in which religiosity has a high social status in many places—a social desirability bias to be perceived as more religious than the average person. It logically follows that if Americans are over-reporting their religious behavior (such as church attendance and belonging in a religious community), they are just as likely to over-report their religious beliefs and, as a consequence for the aforementioned pollsters, their affiliation.
The problem is further compounded by the way that the term “evangelical” is largely used as a catch-all device. Identifiers such as “evangelical,” “born-again,” “Bible-believing,” and “nondenominational” all tend to be used interchangeably, or at least sloppily. Compare the definition of “evangelical” used by two major American religious polls:
- The Pew Religious Landscape Study lists under its “Evangelical Protestant” category every Protestant denomination with an evangelical wing (which, to its credit, is far more nuanced than most polls), but also lists “Nondenominational,” “Other evangelical/fundamentalist,” and “Nonspecific Protestant.”
- The American Religious Identity Survey, which makes distinctions between belief, belonging, and behaviour (again, more nuanced), does not even include evangelicals as a major category. The designation falls under the banner of “Christian Generic” which includes “Christian Unspecified,” “Non-Denominational Christian,” “Protestant Unspecified,” and “Evangelical/Born Again.”
Americans identify as “Christian” to the tune of 70 percent, based on the Pew study, with the largest group of “Christians” being evangelicals. What we would expect to see, then, from exit polls on any given election night are:
- An over-reporting of religious affiliation
- An over-reporting that would skew toward Christianity as the largest religious group
- An over-reporting, as regards to denominational affiliation, that would skew toward the largest denomination, “evangelical” (which we’ve already established as a problematic catch-all for miscellaneous forms of Christianity).
For those still unconvinced that American evangelicals were not the reliable monolithic base for Trump that they are credited with being, rest assured the statistical evidence tells the same story.
In the 2016 election, there were an estimated 231 million eligible voters. If participation in voting reflected national religious averages, we should expect roughly 58.6 million of these voters to be classified as “evangelical” by exit pollsters, since they make up 25.4 percent of the population according to the Pew study.
However, if we assume from our earlier work that only about 22 percent of all eligible voters are active participants in a faith community, we arrive at 50.8 million as an estimate for religiously observant eligible voters of all faiths. From this number, we must still take our evangelical share (25.4 percent according to Pew), which leaves us with a pool of roughly 12.9 million. From this, we take the percentage of white “evangelicals” (76 percent according to the Pew study), and arrive at just over 9.8 million. Lastly, even if every eligible evangelical voter exercised their right to vote, and we grant the conservatively high estimate of that now-infamous 81 percent rate favoring Trump, we arrive at just over 7.9 million. Of the roughly 63 million who voted for Trump, white evangelicals account for just over 12.6 percent—and that marks the extreme upper end for the percentage of Trump votes stemming from evangelicals.
If, however, we ignore everything that decades of study have taught us about evangelicals, we can take the pollsters’ numbers at face value, to show the problematic result of using the 81 percent rate of support:
- First, we begin with our earlier pool of 58.6 million self-identified evangelical eligible voters;
- Second, we multiply by the percentage of white self-identified evangelical voters (76 percent, according to the Pew study);
- Third, we multiply by the percentage of white voters turnout in 2016 (65.3 percent);
- Lastly, we multiply by the 81 percent Trump favorability rating among white self-identified evangelical voters, to arrive at just over 23.5 million.
This brings us much closer to the media’s alleged “white evangelical base,” at over 37 percent—about three times the size of our earlier estimate of Trump’s support from white evangelicals. With poll numbers indicating that white evangelical voters accounted for more than a third of Trump’s popular vote totals, it is easier to understand how the media has run with this narrative.
To those who would object to using church attendance as a way to filter out evangelicals from “folk Christians,” it is paramount to remember the importance of faith communities in evangelicalism. “Lone-wolfing it” is not and has never been a feature of the evangelical tradition. This is not a commentary on the sincerity of belief of those here classed as “folk Christians.” It is simply a point of accuracy: If by “evangelical” we mean anybody who self-identifies with the term (or has the misfortune of unwittingly being so identified by exit polls), then we hardly mean anything by it at all.
It is tempting to put “folk Christians” in the same category as those who have, for almost a hundred years, eschewed mainline Protestantism in favor of their own convictions, decentralized from institutional mandates. But although sincerity of belief may very well mark someone as a Christian, this point of orthodoxy is wholly irrelevant regarding whether one is best classified as an evangelical. Consider the Boy Scouts. One could very well own the Boy Scout Handbook, adhere to its guidance, and even as a matter of sincere belief be convinced of one’s mastery over its contents. But without membership (or at least participation) in a scout troop, would other scouts recognize this individual as a fellow scout? Or just a like-minded enthusiast for the great outdoors? Likewise, evangelicals might very well be happy to recognize these outsiders as genuine Christians, and welcome them to their church services. But evangelicalism proper has a tradition of community that gets missed in exit polls. Even in non-denominational churches, membership requires participation.
White evangelicals may well have supported Trump to the tune of 81 percent, but they hardly have the numbers to warrant their recognition as his reliable base. The 81 percent figure only makes sense if we think of evangelicals as being at the core of an evangelical “market,” in which “folk Christians” (among others) participate in the consumption of evangelical ideas, and where these ideas compete for dominance in the marketplace.
An alliance with Trump will likely have profound effects on evangelicalism for decades to come, but the idea of Trump’s dependence upon evangelicals is probably unfounded. A recent study measuring the 41 percent of white millennials who voted for Trump is more revealing, finding that such voters were motivated primarily by sentiments of “white vulnerability” and racial resentment. This indicates that Trump’s true “base” lies not with white evangelicals but with white people, who happen to be well represented within the evangelical market. Black and Hispanic evangelicals certainly did not come out for Trump, and Hispanics are the largest growing segment within evangelicalism, according to the Pew study. If white evangelicals have indeed hitched themselves to Trump’s wagon, I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes when Trump discovers that he doesn’t really need them.