Why do so many churchgoers support President Trump even though his personal history, harsh rhetoric and antagonistic attitudes toward much of the world seem to be at odds with most religious teachings?
In a recent report that made a bit of a splash, Emily Ekins of the Cato Institute suggested a different perspective. Instead of having “compromised [their] Christian values in order to attain political power for Republicans,” she wrote in the New York Times, religious Trump voters feel more warmly toward minority groups, support international trade and immigration, and are more concerned about poverty than Trump voters who don’t attend church. “Religion appears to actually be moderating conservative attitudes,” Ekins argues, suggesting that churches may help bridge social conflict over some of the Trump administration’s most controversial policies.
But is that true? We analyzed the same survey data from the Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group. While conservatives who attend church do express more liberal attitudes on these issues, they support the president just as strongly as secular Trump voters — in fact, more so. What we found is consistent with the perspectives in the newly published “The Evangelical Crackup: The Future of the Evangelical-Republican Coalition,” which one of us co-edited and which primarily concludes that by 2016 white evangelical Christians were Republicans first.
In sum, conservative churchgoers’ more moderate views on race, immigration and identity probably won’t lead them to push back against the administration.
Here’s what we found
As you can see in the figure below, more respondents who voted for Trump in 2016 and say they are frequent churchgoers strongly approved of Trump and were very favorable toward Trump in 2017 than those who rarely or never attend worship services. The size of the difference is just over 20 percent.
Even when we look at the attitudes toward minorities that Ekins emphasizes, we find something far short of liberalism. Here, we draw on questions in the survey that asked people to rate their feelings toward two groups: blacks and Muslims (the results for Hispanics and Asians show the same pattern). We’d expect people with more favorable attitudes toward these groups to oppose much of Trump’s rhetoric and many of the administration’s policies — and, presumably, see the president less favorably.
But we don’t find that relationship at all. In the figures below, we divide Trump voters into those who say they never attend church and those who say they attend once a week or more. Look at those who never attend church: The more positive their feelings toward minorities, the lower their ratings of the president are, as you’d expect. But we find the opposite relationship for frequent church attendees. The more favorably they feel toward minorities, the more they approve of Trump.
Similarly, between July 13 and 24, 2017, the survey asked respondents whether they had any regrets about their 2016 vote for president. About 5 percent of Trump voters said they did. Among those who don’t attend church, warmer feelings toward minorities were associated with more regret about voting for Trump. Not among the regular churchgoers, though. The more warmly they felt toward minority groups, the less regret they felt about their vote.
Why the paradox?
Why do religious Trump voters support him more when they hold more liberal attitudes? We see two possible explanations.
The first explanation is that partisanship is so central to their values that all else is secondary, including their religion. This is (loosely) the argument in political scientist Michele Margolis’s new book and in several other academics’ work, as well. But the paradoxical relationship that we’re seeing here among Trump voters suggests that churchgoers are linking their views with their politics in ways quite different from those who don’t attend church. Something else must be happening.
So here’s another possible explanation. We suspect that people are responding to these surveys with the responses they think are more socially desirable — not with their actual feelings. Religious congregations expect their members to conform to a set of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. Religious voters are likely to be highly tuned to social norms — like racial inclusion and support for the refugee — that leads them to say they support minority groups and immigrants. At the same time, many American congregations strongly support Trump and expect members to view him loyally. That powerful social norm is what we’re seeing expressed in these surveys.
Whatever the reason, our findings don’t support Ekins’s conclusion that “private institutions in civil society may have a positive impact on social conflict and reduce polarization.” A lot of research, including much of our own, does support that positive view of religious institutions. But religion doesn’t seem to be softening and moderating politics in Trump’s United States.
Paul A. Djupe (@PaulDjupe) is an associate professor in political science at Denison University, an affiliated scholar with the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), the series editor of Temple University Press’s Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics, and co-creator of religioninpublic.blog.