Trump Is Losing Support Among White Evangelical Voters

One of Trump’s most supportive demographics is showing signs of stepping away. A larger exodus would severely damage his chance at reelection.
President Donald J. Trump stages a photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church after violently clearing protestors in nearby LaFayette Square Sunday evening, June 1, 2020. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

President Donald J. Trump stages a photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church after violently clearing protestors in nearby LaFayette Square Sunday evening, June 1, 2020. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

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Why do white evangelicals support Trump?

In spite of his actions that conflict with traditional biblical teachings, Donald Trump is still viewed favorably by over 60% of white evangelicals. Here’s why:

  • He’s a Republican: It’s well known that white evangelicals have a history of being tied to the Republican party. As of 2018, one in three Republicans were white evangelicals, and about two-thirds of white evangelicals identified as Republican or Republican-leaning. There is, traditionally, an extreme reticence to vote outside the party, and the pressure to remain politically conservative has been consistent for years.
  • He’s had impressive endorsements: The blessings of prominent evangelicals have boosted Trump’s reputation considerably. The president of Liberty University said Trump “loves all people.” The son of Billy Graham called his election an act of God. Televangelist Paula White said that Christians voting against Trump would be forced to “stand accountable before God.” Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, went so far as to say that Trump received a “mulligan” when he had an affair with porn star Stormy Daniels. The list goes on.
  • He’s influenced the Supreme Court: When Antonin Scalia died in 2016, President Obama was planning on quickly naming Merrick Garland as the new justice before he left office. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that the justice must be decided by the next president. This meant that Republicans who wanted another conservative justice should vote for Donald Trump. Along with that, Trump had promised to appoint pro-life justices in order to drum up support from evangelicals. He made good on these when he appointed Judge Neil Gorsuch in 2017 and Judge Brett Kavanaugh in 2018.
  • He plays to their fears: The threat of censorship and loss of religious freedom is a recurring worry for American evangelicals. From Roe v. Wade to macroevolution in schools to “Happy Holidays”, some are even saying that they’re being persecuted because of their faith. President Trump has actively encouraged this mindset. At the 2020 National Prayer Breakfast, he said that religion was “under siege”. In January, he spoke at the “Evangelicals for Trump” coalition event in Miami, telling supporters that Democrats are “trying to punish religious believers and silence our…pastors.”
  • He’s willing to ‘fight back’: Following this line of thought, many evangelicals are happy to have a more outspoken, aggressive President. While he was running for office, Pastor Mark Burns said that Trump was “fighting for Christianity.” In 2018, Trump himself told CBN, “Nobody’s done more for Christians or evangelicals…than I have.” Tony Perkins put it bluntly: “[Evangelicals] are finally glad that there’s somebody…willing to punch the bully.” He went on to say that Christianity isn’t “a welcome mat which people can just stomp their feet on.”

How important is Trump’s white evangelical support?

White evangelicals were crucial in Trump’s presidential win. 81% who voted in 2016 voted for him. Indeed, without support from people like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr., pillars in their community, it is unlikely Trump would have received such a widespread embrace. Because white evangelicals are so often politically aligned, having the influence of some gave him the votes of many.

Similarly, praise from the demographic gives him greater credibility as a Republican party-member. Trump’s political past is by no means conservative, and the approval of white evangelicals has helped to cement his now determinedly Republican status. This gives him the distinct advantage of support from Americans voting mainly by party.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, being favored by such a large body of people is a powerful political tool. To have the white evangelical vote is a significant boost towards victory. After all, they constituted a third of Trump’s electorate in 2016. This also means that he absolutely needs them in order to win 2020–any kind of significant evangelical loss is an incredibly damaging prospect.

One caveat needs to be made here: At this point, somebody could just say, “Yeah, pretty much all white evangelicals support Trump.” However, it’s more complicated than that. In an effort to remain transparent and unbiased, here are some facts:

  • Even though the majority of the demographic who voted supported Trump, just under half of all evangelicals voted for him.
  • There was also unusually poor turnout in 2016, meaning votes aren’t as reliable to measure the demographic’s general opinion.
  • This in no way discredits the ease that it takes to find a video showing frenzied crowds of evangelicals at Trump rallies. The majority still favor him. However, such a conversation can very quickly devolve into generalizations that ignore the numerous voters who just as fervently oppose him.
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Why are white evangelicals leaving Trump?

Despite his popularity among many white evangelicals, Trump is still visibly losing their support–about 15% since March, according to one PRRI study. There are two primary reasons for this:

His handling of the COVID-19 crisis:

There has been a noticeable backlash from white evangelicals regarding Trump’s failed response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent Pew survey found that their approval of his attempts has been falling since mid-March.

As of May 5, those who said his response was “excellent/good” had dropped from 81% to 75%. Conversely, those who said his response was “fair/poor” went up from 19% to 24%. Even after a more casual reaction to the virus at first, many white evangelicals have made it clear: they’ve lost faith in the President’s ability to discern the right approach to a health crisis.

His photo-op at St. John’s Episcopal Church:

The gradual decline of white evangelical support hit a flashpoint when Trump had the National Guard violently clear peaceful protestors from Lafayette Square in order to hold a photoshoot that he thought would appeal to his evangelical base. The aggressive dispersal for a seemingly trivial event sparked widespread disapproval within his religious base. Despite continued support from his most stubborn heralds–including Franklin Graham–the President’s PR attempt had cost him.

Prominent evangelicals began to speak out, condemning his actions. Televangelist and longtime Trump supporter Pat Robertson was clear in his rejection of Trump’s actions. He spoke of a need to unify and heal division instead: “Now is the time to say, ‘…I want to comfort you, I think it’s time we love each other.’ But the president took a different course.” One Arizona pastor called Trump’s approach “tone-deaf”.

Even the Rev. Gini Gerbasi, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, spoke poorly of him. She accused him of using the Bible as a prop and described him as the opposite of a Christian. “Everything that he has said is antithetical to the teachings of our traditions and what we stand for as a church.” Appropriately, this comes at a time where only one in four voters believe Trump is religious at all.

How will this affect the election?

So, how does all of this factor into Trump’s election chances? Well, it’s currently not clear how impactful this loss in evangelical support will be. If even more white evangelicals turn away from the President, it will spell disaster. Not only does this matter because of their influence in 2016, but because Trump is also losing support outside the demographic, including from older voters and non-college-educated whites. He needs all the help he can get, but now it looks like some of his closest allies are leaving him.

Something else must be taken into account: Hillary Clinton is not running for president this year. That in and of itself means many people have less motivation to vote for Trump. Right before the election in 2016, one Pew survey found that over a third of white evangelical voters were supporting Trump because “He is not Clinton”. Depending on how they feel about Joe Biden, that may have a significant influence on how they vote in 2020.

In short, if this pattern continues, Trump’s future looks bleak. However, if his white evangelical base either bounces back up or at least retains most of its support, he has a much more hopeful chance of victory. Because there is more significant conflict within the community itself, though, it’s likely there will be greater division in votes this year.

The Rantt Rundown

In December 2019, Christianity Today editor-in-chief Mark Galli published an editorial advocating Trump’s removal from office. In response to evangelicals defending Trump, Galli wrote, “None of the president’s positives can balance the…danger we face under a leader of such grossly immoral character.” This sums up what many white evangelicals are now admitting in the face of Trump’s most recent actions. It’s now a question of whether such thoughts will spread to their fellow believers, and if so, whether they will leave a lasting impact on the 2020 election.

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