Although Donald Trump is doing less well among evangelicals than George W. Bush, John McCain or Mitt Romney did, analysts have suggested that many evangelicals support the Republican nominee because of long-standing “culture war” issues such as abortion and gay rights. Trump has said he is antiabortion and promised to appoint conservative justices to the Supreme Court, so evangelicals are willing to set aside concerns about his moral character. It may also be that they support Trump simply because he’s not Hillary Clinton. Partisanship is powerful.
Our research points to another factor. Even though messages from religious leaders — such as the magazine Christianity Today’s call for evangelicals to speak up about Trump’s “blatant immorality” — could weaken support for Trump, few Americans are hearing about the presidential candidates from their clergies.
We draw that conclusion from an online national survey we conducted in September of 2,572 American adults through Qualtrics Panels. Although the sample is not a probability sample, it closely resembles the demographic makeup of the U.S. public.
We first asked respondents whether they had heard their clergies talk about Trump, Clinton and several issues. We emphasized that their responses were anonymous and would not threaten their churches’ tax-exempt status.
Among white evangelicals who reported attending worship services (21 percent of our sample), very few reported hearing about the presidential nominees in their houses of worship. For instance, just 9 percent said they had heard their clergies speak about Trump and just 6 percent about Clinton. When we asked respondents about their perceptions of their clergies’ support for Trump, there were no differences between those who said their clergies spoke about him and those who didn’t.
On the other hand, a larger share of white evangelicals said their church leaders had spoken about immigration (12 percent). And 31 percent said they had heard messages about the importance of participating in the electoral process.
By comparison, about twice as many black Protestants and Muslims in our survey reported hearing about Trump from their clergies.
This suggests that support for Trump remains high among evangelicals in part because local religious elites are not regularly talking about his candidacy. Were those discussions to occur, it’s possible that they would highlight concerns that many evangelical leaders might have about his moral character.
So what would happen if churchgoers heard critical messages about Trump connected to the values that many evangelicals embrace? To answer that question, we embedded an experiment in our survey.
One version read in part that Trump’s appeal is “dangerously close to Satan’s offer to Jesus in Luke 4:9: ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’ ” A second version said that “Trump’s reasoning runs directly against Matthew 25:40.” This is the oft-cited verse about how treatment of “the least of these” is equivalent to the way one treats Jesus. The last version offered an argument about pragmatism, suggesting that Trump is outside the acceptable bounds of a compromise candidate.
After reading the editorial, respondents were asked to rate Trump on a “feeling thermometer,” a scale ranging from 0 (very cool) to 100 (very warm).
The figure below shows that the “Satan” condition significantly reduced Trump’s rating. Compared with a control group (that did not read an editorial), white evangelicals in the Satan treatment rated Trump nine points lower. Nonwhite evangelicals — who are cooler to Trump across the board — moved similarly, lowering their rating 11 points on average. (The treatments had no effect on feelings toward Clinton.)
Neither the “least of these” treatment nor the argument that Trump was not an acceptable pragmatic compromise had an effect. The unique effects of the Satan treatment are consistent with an understanding of evangelicals placing a high priority on individual sanctity by avoiding sin.
Ultimately, Trump’s support among evangelicals is certainly due in part to the power of partisanship and the Republican Party’s conservative stance on social issues. But our findings suggest that it is also due to the fact that evangelicals are hearing little about the presidential race from their local religious leaders.
Paul A. Djupe teaches political science at Denison University and is an affiliated scholar with PRRI.
Anand Edward Sokhey is an associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Amanda Friesen is an assistant professor of political science at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis.
Andrew R. Lewis is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati.