In 2020, will white evangelical Christians stick with the Republican Party, where they’ve long been a reliable voting bloc? Evangelicals made up just over one-third of President Trump’s 2016 coalition, and have been among his most loyal supporters. At the same time, researchers and observers have been debating whether the evangelical-Republican coalition can last. In a recent piece for FiveThirtyEight, researcher Dan Cox reports that young white evangelicals are less favorable toward Trump than older evangelicals, due at least in part to differences on immigration, and speculates that generational differences may push young evangelicals out of the GOP. We disagree. Young evangelical whites are likely to remain reliably Republican. Here’s why.
Yes, young evangelicals do have some different opinions than their elders do. But does it influence their votes?
The crux of Cox’s argument is that young evangelicals show signs of discomfort with Trump. Cox finds that just 61 percent of white evangelicals ages 18 to 44 have a favorable opinion toward Trump, compared to about 80 percent of white evangelicals 45 and older. Cox argues that an emerging generational divide between evangelicals on immigration is key to understanding young evangelicals’ relative lack of enthusiasm for Trump.
However, when we look at the trends in survey data, it’s not clear whether young evangelicals’ views on immigration are different from their elders’. The General Social Survey began asking about immigration regularly only in the 2000s. In 2004, 45 percent of white evangelicals ages 18 to 29 said we should reduce the number of immigrants to the United States. That spiked to nearly 62 percent in 2008 during the Great Recession, and declined back to about 45 percent in 2018.
Even if young evangelical whites are trending liberal on immigration, that might not affect their votes. As two of us — Djupe and Burge — have shown elsewhere, white evangelicals who hold warmer feelings toward racial and ethnic minorities do not oppose Trump any more than white evangelicals with comparatively colder feelings. Support for Trump appears to have a life of its own.
The most notable area where young evangelicals are more liberal than their elders is LGBT rights. In the 1970s and 1980s, only about 10 percent of white evangelicals ages 18 to 29 agreed that homosexual sex was not wrong at all. By 2016, that number was 58 percent. The trend is similar for same-sex marriage: in 1988 just 5 percent of white evangelicals ages 18 to 29 supported same-sex marriage, but by 2016 that number had increased to 50 percent. However, as one of us, Jeremiah J. Castle, shows in his new book, “Rock of Ages: Subcultural Religious Identity and Public Opinion among Young Evangelicals,” the increasing support for LGBT rights among young white evangelicals is concentrated among those who don’t go to church often. This suggests that changes in secular culture, not changes in religious doctrine, are making the difference.
We also don’t see much evidence that young evangelicals’ discomfort with Trump or their liberalization on LGBT rights is affecting their voting. In 2016, Trump won 79 percent of white evangelicals ages 18 to 29 and 83 percent of white evangelicals ages 65 and older. The differences were a bit larger in the 2018 midterms: 72 percent of white evangelicals ages 18 to 29 voted for their district’s Republican congressional candidate, compared to 81 percent of white evangelicals ages 65 and older. That’s still not much of a gap, especially given that the national political context strongly favored Democratic candidates, and it hardly suggests a white evangelical exodus from the Republican Party.
If young evangelicals are uncomfortable with Trump, what’s keeping them tethered to the Republican Party?
The first answer is abortion. Beginning in the late 1970s, religious leaders such as Francis Schaeffer and Jerry Falwell Sr. made abortion an important issue within the evangelical subculture. As Castle discusses in “Rock of Ages," opposition to abortion remains key in evangelical identity, reinforced by subcultural institutions like Sanctity of Life Sunday, March for Life, and church-sponsored pregnancy resource centers. That subcultural emphasis has helped keep young evangelicals’ opinions on abortion consistent over time. In the late 1970s, about 30 percent of white evangelicals ages 18 to 29 said they would support a woman being able to get an abortion for any reason. In 2018, the figure was 32 percent. The parties’ increasing polarization on abortion and young evangelicals’ steady conservative attitudes on and commitment to this issue limits the proportion of evangelicals who are willing to vote for pro-choice Democratic candidates.
The second factor is party identification. Republican politicians such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (and even Donald Trump) spoke the language of evangelicalism, and evangelicals became a key part of the public image of the Republican Party. Scholarship has shown that once social identities and partisanship are linked, motivated reasoning and negative partisanship make that link remarkably resistant to change. As you can see in the figure below, evangelical whites ages 18 to 29 have held essentially the same party identifications since the mid-1980s, with a notable increase in Republican identification in 2016.
In short, it’s unlikely that young white evangelicals are about to turn blue. As long as Trump continues to advocate conservative positions on cultural issues, most evangelicals are likely to prefer him to the Democratic alternatives. Rather than abandoning the Republican Party, young white evangelicals may push the Republican Party toward the center on a few issues, such as LGBT rights and possibly immigration, and may encourage the party to nominate more moderate candidates in the coming decades.
The band that connects evangelicals to the Republican Party is very strong and quite elastic, capable of accommodating diverging views on certain issues. Until another issue like abortion comes along, one with the emotional power to change evangelicals’ party identification, they are likely to remain solidly Republican.
Jeremiah J. Castle (@CastlePoliSci) is a lecturer in political science at Central Michigan University.
Ryan P. Burge (@ryanburge) is an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University.
Paul A. Djupe (@PaulDjupe) is an associate professor of political science at Denison University.