What is the ‘Trump effect’ on evangelicals

The significant evangelical support for Donald Trump has thrown pollsters, pundits, professors, and professing evangelicals themselves into spasms of introspection and bewilderment. Trump’s significant lead among evangelicals compared with more sympathetic candidates, such as Ted Cruz and John Kasich, has been the most puzzling. Writing in Politico magazine (March 13), Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero offers the bluntest diagnosis: “America’s evangelicals just aren’t all that evangelical anymore.” He argues that prominent evangelicals, such as Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, are themselves making that case as they try to draw a clear line between voting for Trump and espousing evangelical beliefs and values. In a recent interview, Moore lamented how so many of his coreligionists “have been willing to look the other way when the word `evangelical’ has been co-opted by heretics and lunatics…as long as they were on the right side of the culture war.” Prothero sees the movement toward Trump emerging from the rise of evangelical partisanship in the 1980s, only now the patriotic element is overshadowing the part about biblical values.

Meanwhile, in the conservative ecumenical magazine First Things (April), R. R. Reno views the evangelical defection to Trump as a protest vote over the failure of the Republican Party and the leadership class in general to support their values, such as religious liberty: “This parallels the experience of the working class. Our leadership class regards them as economic (and political) dead weight as well, though for different reasons.” Other analysts have been careful to parse the evangelical support for Trump. For instance, in the New Christian Right bastion of Lynchburg, Va., Trump came in fourth during Super Tuesday (although he did win a large portion of the white evangelical vote in South Carolina). In a blog of First Things magazine (March 5), Darren Patrick Guerra writes that when looking at exit polls on Super Tuesday, 64 percent of evangelicals in all southern states voted for someone other than Trump: “Indeed, a majority (51 percent) voted collectively for either Rubio or Cruz instead of Trump.” When evangelical voters are asked questions about the importance of religious faith or “shared values” of their preferred candidates, Trump tends to rate very low, and Ted Cruz rates highest.

Meanwhile, in his Religion News Service blog Spiritual Politics (March 29), Mark Silk boils down the appeal of Trump to evangelicals to one word: immigration: “On Trump’s signature issue, evangelicals stand out as the only religious grouping in America of which a majority (53 percent) believe that immigrants ‘threaten traditional American customs and values.’ Just 32 percent of them believe that ‘newcomers from other countries benefit the U.S.’” The Public Religion Research Institute survey Silk cites differentiates younger evangelicals from older ones: The former splits on immigrants 55 percent (benefit) to 33 percent (threat) while the latter tilts 57 percent (threat) to 23 percent (benefit). “This sheds significant light on why Trump does better among older than younger Republicans generally,” Silk concludes. In his blog Corner of Church and State (March 24), political scientist Tobin Grant agrees with Silk but goes one step further to argue that surveys show that much of the evangelical support for Trump is based on shared racist views. But he concludes, “The good news for evangelical leaders is that there is a major difference between those who attend church and those who don’t. Evangelicals who rarely or never attend church are bully on Trump, giving Trump 22 points higher than those who attend frequently and 26 percent points more than those who attend weekly.”

(Politico, http://www.politico.com; First Things, http://www.firstthings.com; Spiritual Politics, http://marksilk.religionnews.com; Corner of Church and State, http://tobingrant.religionnews.com)