The media have been obsessed with white evangelicals’ unmovable support for Donald Trump. As a new poll from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) shows, white evangelicals continue to be dedicated to Trump. His support among this group is at the highest levels ever, despite his alleged moral trespasses and lack of religious orientation.
My new book, “Immigrants, Evangelicals and Politics in an Era of Demographic Change,” shows white evangelicals are more conservative than other whites on policy issues including welfare, climate change and immigration. Their conservative reaction to demographic change is at the heart of their political agenda and perhaps a response to increasing racial diversity within their own religious community.
Here’s how I did my research
In the months after the 2016 presidential election, I collaborated with other social scientists at the University of California at Los Angeles, Baylor University and Arizona State University to conduct an Internet-based national public opinion study called the 2016 Collaborative Multiracial Post-Election Survey. We detail the methodology in a recent journal article.
We surveyed more than 10,000 respondents via English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese questionnaires, including 3,003 Latinos, 3,102 blacks, 3,006 Asian Americans and 1,034 whites. While we did not “oversample” evangelicals, more than 2,000 respondents self-identified as “born-again” or “evangelical,” making it possible to examine differences in the attitudes of evangelicals from different racial and ethnic groups.
White evangelicals are uniquely conservative politically
Many news outlets have reported that whites were the only racial group in which a majority voted for Trump in 2016. But polling data shows us just how different evangelicals are from other whites. For instance, according to Election Day exit polls, 80 percent of white evangelicals supported Donald Trump. Among all other – nonevangelical — whites, 59 percent voted for Hillary Clinton.
That is true in part because white evangelicals are more conservative on a range of issues. According to our survey, for example, 27 percent of white evangelicals don’t believe the federal government should pass laws to combat climate change – while 20 percent of other whites hold that position. More than 25 percent of white evangelicals oppose more federal spending on the poor, while that is true for about 14 percent of all nonevangelical whites. And about 50 percent of all white evangelicals believe immigration is bad for the economy, compared with about 33 percent of other, nonevangelical whites.
White evangelicals are much more conservative than Latino, Asian American and black evangelicals
Even among evangelicals, there are wide racial divides on political positions. It is true evangelicals of all racial backgrounds hold more conservative views on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage than does the general U.S. population.
Aside from these issues, evangelicals are very politically different by race. White evangelicals are markedly more conservative than Latino, Asian American and, perhaps not surprisingly, black evangelicals on climate change, federal funding to aid the poor and taxing the wealthy.
White evangelicals are more than twice as likely as any other group of evangelicals to oppose government funding to combat climate change or policies to tax the wealthy. No more than 10 percent of black, Asian American or Latino evangelicals oppose government regulation to combat climate change. Less than 15 percent of any of these groups oppose a tax increase on the wealthy, compared with about 30 percent of white evangelicals. White evangelicals are also more conservative on racial issues, whether those are attitudes about Black Lives Matter or the U.S. apologizing for slavery.
White evangelicals are much more conservative on immigration than nonwhite evangelicals. Fully 50 percent of white evangelicals in our survey agree that “immigrants hurt the economy,” compared with 22 percent of black evangelicals, 25 percent of Latino evangelicals and 21 percent of Asian American evangelicals.
I find these patterns from other surveys at various times since 2008. These patterns show up no matter what else changes in our approach or what other demographic factors we consider: different survey methods (phone vs. online), as well as factors like socioeconomic class, party identification and general beliefs about the role of government.
What’s behind political conservatism among white evangelicals?
The findings might be somewhat surprising, given the growing diversity of the evangelical community. For instance, Latino and Asian American evangelicals now make up about 13 percent of all evangelicals. Perhaps more important, they are one of the only sources of evangelical growth — given that white evangelicals are declining steeply as a proportion of the population.
But this demographic change appears to be fueling racial and religious anxieties among white evangelicals. Rank-and-file white evangelicals have the most negative attitudes toward immigrants of all U.S. religious groups. That’s true despite the fact that conservative white evangelical leaders strongly favor a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
My research indicates white evangelical conservatism correlates strongly with their perceptions anti-white discrimination, even after taking into account economic status, party, age and region. Fully 50 percent of white evangelical respondents to our 2016 survey reported feeling they face discrimination that’s comparable to, or even higher than, the discrimination they believe Muslim Americans face. Those who hold this perception are more likely to hold conservative attitudes on issues as wide-ranging as climate change, tax policy and health-care reform.
Here’s what is not behind these beliefs: economic anxiety. Like PRRI and political scientist Diana Mutz, I find economic anxiety isn’t a primary reason for supporting Trump. Rather, white evangelicals fear losing racial status. White evangelicals’ perceptions they’re the targets of discrimination – more so than other groups — influence far more than simply their votes for Trump.
Yes, 80 percent of white evangelicals supported Donald Trump in 2016. And the racial fears and anxieties that underlie their support for the president will probably remain the driver in their political views long after he leaves office.
Janelle Wong is professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, and author of “Immigrants, Evangelicals and Politics in an Era of Demographic Change” (Russell Sage, 2018)