One of the most surprising parts of the 2016 election has been evangelical Christian support for Donald Trump. In the 20 states where primary or caucus exit polls have been conducted so far, Trump has won an average of 36 percent of the vote from white “born-again or evangelical Christians,” good for a plurality in 12 states and only slightly lower than his support (38 percent) among all other Republican voters. Many in the evangelical community have wondered how their religious brethren could possibly back a twice-divorced candidate whose commitment to moral and cultural conservatism appears shaky at best.
The key to understanding Trump’s support among evangelicals is to realize that some evangelicals’ commitment to the faith is shaky, too. Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church. In short, the evangelicals supporting Trump are not the same evangelicals who have traditionally comprised the Christian Right and supported cultural warriors such as Rick Santorum and Ted Cruz.
Recently released data from the 2016 American National Election Studies (ANES) Pilot Study illustrate this. The study was conducted from Jan. 22-28, and here I focus on white respondents who called themselves born-again Christian. I divided evangelicals into people who “seldom or never” attend church services, those who “sometimes” attend (a few times a year, once or twice a month), and those who attend weekly or more often than weekly.
Evangelical support for the “establishment” candidates — Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, John Kasich and Marco Rubio — didn’t depend much on church attendance.
But evangelical support for Cruz and Carson, who are grouped because of their close association with evangelicalism and moral conservatism, was higher among those who attend church more frequently. In contrast, Trump did best among evangelicals who are never, almost never or only occasionally in the pews.
These aren’t the only evangelical Trump supporters. He still attracted a plurality of those who attend at least every Sunday. Nevertheless, Trump performed worse among devout evangelicals than among non-devout evangelicals.
Why is this? A considerable literature on religion and politics suggests that evangelicals who attend worship services irregularly tend to have less formal education and lower incomes than more devout evangelicals. They tend to care less about moral and cultural issues and vote more on the basis of economic concerns. In some cases, they are less tolerant of religious and racial minority groups.
That’s true in this survey. too. Evangelicals who attend church at least weekly (“frequent” attenders) have higher incomes and are more likely to have a college degree, compared with those who attend church infrequently (never, seldom, a few times a year, or once or twice a month).
Infrequent church attenders cared less about the traditional Christian Right policy agenda and more about Trump’s agenda of creating jobs, improving Americans’ economic welfare and stemming the tide on immigration. The graph below shows that infrequent church attenders were less likely to prioritize two “moral and cultural” issues (abortion and “morality and religion in society”) as one of their four most important issues. But they cared much more about jobs and economic welfare.
Similarly, evangelicals who attend church less frequently are also less socially conservative. They are less likely to favor religious exemptions to the federal requirement that employers cover prescription birth control in their health-insurance plans. They also are less enthusiastic about allowing business owners to refuse on religious grounds to provide services for same-sex weddings. Trump’s lack of commitment to social conservatism may not bother these less-observant evangelicals very much.
Meanwhile, Trump’s economic populism and emphasis on border control should appeal to evangelicals who are in church less often. This group is more opposed than frequent church attenders to free trade agreements and to allowing Syrian refugees to come to the United State.
Evangelicals also differ in their feelings about racial, religious and cultural minority groups. While the Christian Right traditionally has focused criticism on groups such as feminists and gays and lesbians, Trump’s targets have been Muslims and racial minority groups. The ANES survey asked respondents to rate a number of different groups on “feeling thermometers,” ranging from 0 for the coldest feelings to 100 for the warmest feelings.
Compared with more devout evangelicals, those evangelicals who attend church infrequently tend to react more negatively to the groups Trump has targeted and display less hostility than the more observant to the Christian Right’s demons. Less devout evangelicals rate gays and lesbians and feminists relatively low, but not as low as more-observant evangelicals do. However, infrequent church attenders give lower ratings to Muslims, Hispanics and blacks.
Many evangelical Christians are distressed that so many of their fellow evangelicals are backing Trump for president. Although Trump receives considerable support from devout evangelicals, his base is among the less devout. It’s these evangelicals who best fit the demographic profile of Trump’s supporters and are more attracted by the blend of economic populism, racial antipathy and anti-Muslim rhetoric that has defined the Trump campaign.
Geoffrey C. Layman is a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame