It is fitting that Donald Trump was inaugurated as president in the 500th anniversary of the year that Martin Luther posted his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The religious divide between Catholics and Protestants in the West touches not only their practice but also their politics. In 2016, white evangelical Protestants were nearly united in their support for Trump (81 percent) and the Republican Party, while white Catholics were divided between him (60 percent) and Hillary Clinton (37 percent).
This evangelical support was not unusual: The group regularly delivers more than 70 percent of its votes to Republicans. But it was surprising that Trump did even better with white evangelicals than George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney — three candidates who were better aligned with evangelical moral beliefs. In past elections, conservative evangelical leaders praised these people as “godly men” whose moral character was superior to that of their Democratic rivals. Bush spoke passionately about his Methodist faith, McCain called himself a regularly attending Baptist, and Romney was an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. By contrast, Trump was a seemingly irreligious man who said he had no sins that needed God’s forgiveness, though he had flaunted his extramarital affairs, divorced twice and appeared in a pornographic film . Trump violated every standard of evangelical moral character: He boasted about sexual assault, swore at campaign events, scapegoated refugees and immigrants, and mocked the disabled.
Trump’s vulgarity did not hurt him with white Catholics, either. While the candidate did not significantly outperform Romney among white Catholics, he also didn’t lose support, which was surprising, since Pope Francis had declared that “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.” (Trump hit back by calling the pope “disgraceful” and stating that no religious leader had the right to judge his faith.)
The reason Trump did so well with both groups is that laypeople were not looking to theologically trained religious elites to tell them how to vote. For many white evangelical and Catholic parishioners, their partisan map of “us vs. them” had already reshaped their religious identity. They struggled to make sense of a candidate like Trump, who swore fealty to their party while flouting the values of their creed. When the pope or their pastor clashed with their party’s nominee, they looked to partisan sources to justify their political biases in faith-based language — to tell them that their party was right and the pope was wrong.
Trump’s performance reflects an important legacy of the Reformation: the empowerment of untrained laypeople and the weak authority of theologically trained clergy.
To understand hyperpartisanship among white Catholics, it is helpful to look at how partisan and religious identities became fused for white evangelicals. Evangelicalism is a Protestant movement that emphasizes four things: the authority of the Bible, Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross, the need for a personal commitment to Christ and the need for all believers, not just ordained clergy, to participate actively in the religious mission. The cornerstone of evangelical life is the local congregation, which typically expects more participation than Catholic parishes.
Observers often assume that evangelical churches are more politically homogeneous than Catholic parishes because their clergy command more authority over their members’ political beliefs. It’s easy to imagine an evangelical pastor preaching politically tinged sermons to laypeople who nod and agree. By contrast, Catholics are thought to be more politically diverse, because they can choose from a buffet of Catholic social doctrines.
Yet evangelicals rallied behind Trump because theologically trained clergy and elites have so little authority over their laypeople’s politics. Very few churches hear explicit political preaching from their pastors; instead, churches are almost entirely focused on discipleship, personal challenges and family life. And when evangelical pastors take public stances that differ from those of their churches’ prominent lay leaders, they are at risk of being fired, unlike in the Catholic Church, where bishops assign parish priests. As a result, few evangelical laypeople heard any message about Trump’s candidacy at church, either positive or negative. In a September 2016 study, Paul Djupe and his colleagues found that among white evangelicals who regularly attended church, only 9 percent had heard their pastors refer to Trump in a sermon; only 6 percent had heard their pastors talk about Clinton.
In researching my 2014 book, “The Politics of Evangelical Identity,” I found that evangelical laypeople received little explicit guidance from their churches on how to apply Christian values to politics. Most laypeople received only implicit cues that good Christians voted Republican on the basis of moral issues, and that liberals and Democrats were threatening outsiders. Prominent congregational leaders — Sunday school teachers, volunteers who run ministries — signaled the “right” party identification: which party “we” support and which party “we” oppose. Few worshipers were able to articulate how their faith informed their political choices in ways that went deeper than this basic identity map of us vs. them.
This fusion of religion and partisanship silences political minorities within white evangelical churches and networks, because voting Republican has become a litmus test for “true” evangelical identity. Expressing sympathy for Democratic or liberal politics puts one’s credentials in question. Since the early 2000s, there has been a renaissance of alternative evangelical voices in politics, advocating for a wider set of moral issues that include environmentalism (“creation care”), economic inequality and racial justice. Yet it is difficult for laypeople to express these alternate ideas in the context of a local congregation. Certain viewpoints can’t be voiced without undermining the religious standing of the person who voices them.
But while evangelical churches are good at silencing Democratic views, they are powerless to set boundaries when Republicans violate evangelical norms. Myriam Renaud points to a large gap between how evangelical pastors and congregants framed the 2016 presidential election. Last November, a LifeWay Research poll asked both groups what issue they considered most important when voting. Among pastors, the top answers were the personal character of the candidate (27 percent) and Supreme Court nominees (20 percent). These responses suggest that clergy were either opposed to voting for Trump on character grounds or reluctantly voted for him to advance moral issues in the judicial system. By contrast, the most decisive issues named by rank-and-file evangelicals were improving the economy (26 percent) and national security (22 percent). Supreme Court nominees, religious freedom and abortion were named as top priorities by only 10 percent, 7 percent and 4 percent of evangelicals, respectively.
It appears, then, that few white evangelicals evaluated Trump through the lens of their faith and decided that he was the lesser of two evils. Instead, most voted for him because they agreed with his economic nationalism and his pledge to “make America great again” by excluding Muslims and Hispanic immigrants. They did not experience the same crisis of conscience as Christian right elites such as Albert Mohler, a leading conservative voice in the Southern Baptist Convention who publicly refused to vote for Trump. This reflects the weak moral authority of evangelical leaders to shape the political preferences of their rank and file. Most evangelicals look to partisan sources and their social networks to tell them how to vote as a Christian. They don’t look to religious authorities to help them deliberate about politics through the eyes of faith.
Before 2008, partisanship was not so tightly fused with religious identity for white Catholics. That year, they split down the middle between Barack Obama and John McCain, and only 41 percent identified or leaned Republican. But between 2008 and 2012, Republican identification of white Catholics jumped eight points. By 2016, 58 percent of white Catholics identified or leaned Republican.
What happened? Before 2008, white Catholics worshiped in environments where the most active lay leaders were both Republicans and Democrats. In a 2014 study, Brandon Martinez and I found that in the white evangelical, Catholic and mainline traditions, laypeople who took on volunteer leadership roles were more politically active than other observant members of their faith. But in evangelical churches, lay leaders were also more politically conservative than other active evangelicals. By contrast, Catholic and mainline lay leaders were far more politically diverse. This finding was consistent with the idea that lay leaders were also important opinion leaders who signaled how “good” members of their faith should identify politically. But the survey took place in 2005 — before white Catholics began trending toward the Republican Party.
These trends tell us something important about the shifting relationship between religion and politics since 2008. Two competing theories could explain why white Catholics have trended toward Republicans and why Trump outperformed past Republicans among white evangelicals.
One possibility is that Democrats came to be seen as an anti-faith party during Obama’s presidency, either because they shifted culturally to the left or because conservatives said they did. Trump may not exemplify evangelical character, but he promised to protect Christian interests and appoint antiabortion judges to the Supreme Court, while Clinton embraced the most unapologetically pro-abortion-rights platform of any Democratic candidate in U.S. history. Perhaps moderate, Democratic-leaning Christians saw Clinton as hostile to people like them, as Obama’s faith-outreach director Michael Wear argues. This theory assumes that people took their church’s authority seriously and that the Democratic Party offered them no middle ground.
A different explanation involves the decline of religious authority among voters of faith. As Peter Beinart has observed, falling church attendance can actually worsen partisan polarization: When working-class white evangelicals and Catholics stop going to church, they become more tolerant on issues such as same-sex marriage, but also more open to extreme white-nationalist ideologies that violate religious norms. Some white evangelicals seem to have preferred Trump’s explicitly white-nationalist message to the colorblind moral traditionalism of the 21st-century Christian right. Trump got to have his cake and eat it too: He maintained support from traditional “values voters” while offering something new to working-class evangelicals who didn’t much care about abortion, religious liberty or free-market economics.
Perhaps, in the end, this Republican shift among Catholics was more white than Catholic. These voters were searching for ways to make sense of anxiety triggered by living under a black president, economic uncertainty, the growing visibility of immigrants and non-Christians, or a mix of all three. In any case, the key point is that they didn’t look to their faith traditions to help with this anxiety — they looked to hyperpartisan sources that justified their votes for Trump.
I fear that the second explanation is more consistent with the evidence. Last year’s election showed the dark side of weak religious authority, the failure to form laypeople’s consciences for faithful citizenship. No wonder evangelical clergy and national elites were powerless to draw boundaries against Trump: The priesthood of all believers left them vulnerable.