An August Fox News poll found support for Joe Biden among White evangelicals at 28 percent — significantly higher than the 16 percent who supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 exit polls. A recent Vote Common Good survey indicated an 11 percentage point shift toward Biden among evangelicals and Catholics who supported Donald Trump in 2016. These surveys are not evidence of collapsing approval for Trump among these groups, but they may signal an erosion of support. And Trump can’t afford to lose any ground among the base of his base.
I suspect that some of this shift is coming not because these are religious voters, but because they are voters. Like everyone else, they see the disastrous incompetence of an administration that never gained its footing in the fight against covid-19. They see the economic suffering caused by Trump’s delay, denial and tenacious stupidity. They see the packed Trump rallies that amount to negligent homicide. They see the heartless claims of success while the ill and elderly continue to die.
It is also true that Biden simply does not provoke the same level of partisan fear and loathing that Hillary Clinton did in 2016. The Republican charge of radicalism against Biden did not stick. And the charge that he will be manipulated by radicals lacks both credibility and political urgency. Whatever his limits and faults, Biden exudes decency and normality.
Having generally avoided giving offense to religious conservatives in the primaries (other than his cynical abandonment of the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funding for abortion in most instances), Biden has the opportunity to do some outreach. Even minimal assurances about how his administration would respect institutional religious liberty might go a long way toward confirming the comfort of some evangelicals with the Democratic ticket.
I would like to think that White evangelical and Catholic support for Trump might also be cooling because of the divisive and disturbing moral choices being made by the Trump campaign. In the 2018 midterm election, Republicans lost control of the House largely because they got blasted in the suburbs. A similar performance in 2020 would dramatically weaken Trump’s reelection chances. Any of the pre-Trump, Republican presidential candidates would have responded to this challenge by talking more about education, health care or transportation. For Trump, it is an opportunity to warn against Black people invading suburban neighborhoods.
This is not an exaggeration. “If I don’t win,” Trump alleges, “America’s Suburbs will be OVERRUN with Low Income Projects, Anarchists, Agitators, Looters and, of course, ‘Friendly Protesters.’ ” There is no possible interpretation of “Low Income Projects” in this context that does not involve the incitement of racism. The same might be said for the use of “Looters” and “Protesters.” Trump is conflating protests against racial injustice with criminal activity and warning that angry faces are coming to suburbia if Biden wins.
Elsewhere, Trump has warned that “low income housing and projects” will undermine the “American Dream.” Note Trump’s consistent use of the word “projects,” which evokes images of decaying and dangerous apartment buildings filled with minorities. Trump’s twisted definition of the American Dream is White flight from urban poverty and decay.
Trump has claimed that the “suburban housewife” will support him for a particular reason. “They want safety & are thrilled that I ended the long running program where low income housing would invade their neighborhood. Biden would reinstall it, in a bigger form, with Corey Booker in charge!” (Cory, not Corey, Booker is an African American Democratic senator from New Jersey.)
Cultivating fear of the coming melanin invasion is now the defining theme of the Trump campaign. It is also the rawest recourse to bigotry on the national stage since Alabama Gov. George Wallace in the 1960s and ’70s.
And it puts White evangelicals and Catholics in a bind. The protection of nascent life remains a deep commitment of most moral conservatives, and Trump has been an antiabortion president. Yet supporting Trump involves the affirmation that blatant racial prejudice is not disqualifying in an American president. Publicly identifying with the Trump campaign scandalously associates the Christian faith itself with brazen bigotry.
This creates soul-rending ethical complexities (which I fully intend to address). But if a racist campaign does not shake Christian support, what possible difference is that faith making?