In the aftermath of the presidential election, one thing is unclear about the Evangelical vote, and two things are quite clear. Here’s what’s hazy: Did Joe Biden win the presidency in part because there was just barely enough slippage in the white Evangelical vote to make a difference in key counties in key states?
My friend Michael Wear makes that case in the New York Times, relying in large part on exit polls. He may well be right, but there is some conflict in the available polling. So I’m going to take the advice of my podcast co-host Sarah Isgur (who hates exit polls) and wait until 1) the exit polls have been re-weighted; and 2) I can dive fully into actual, county-level voting data before I test the vote-slip hypothesis.
But while the precise level of white Evangelical support may be unclear, their overwhelming electoral preference is not. White Evangelicals once again supported Donald Trump as least as much as they supported Mitt Romney, John McCain, and George W. Bush. Moreover, their support isn’t simply about religious liberty and abortion. As a group, they’re not holding their noses and casting their votes based on those two issues alone. No, they’re Republicans down the line.
In fact, as Eastern Illinois University’s Ryan Burge notes, if you really drill down into white Evangelical political preferences, immigration explains their support for Trump more than abortion. Here’s how Burge outlines white Evangelical politics:
The answer is simply that this group of voters are Republicans first, white people second, and evangelicals third. As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s simply not true to think of white evangelicals as an uneasy type of Republican—one that’s not sold on the GOP’s economic policy but votes with them because of gay marriage and abortion. The reality is this: the overwhelming majority of white evangelicals are Republicans, through and through.
Look for example at these fascinating charts mapping how various American religious groups place themselves, Democrats, and Republicans in ideological space. Let’s start with White Evangelicals.
The gray line (self-identification) maps so perfectly with the red line (Republican identification) that it’s actually hard to see. How does this compare with how non-white Evangelicals see themselves?
I won’t paste all the charts, but every other branch of American Christianity perceived daylight (to some degree) between themselves and both major parties. Black Christians are quite partisan also, but there’s some distance between themselves and Democrats:
(This chart also helps explain why black voters were so crucial to Joe Biden’s primary victory—they’re more moderate than white Democrats.)
I could fling chart after chart in your direction, but the point remains—white Evangelicals are very, very Republican. Now let’s talk about (some of) the cultural and religious consequences of that fact, and let’s start with explaining why so many millions of Evangelicals are understandably mystified by anyone who would say their politics negatively impacts their witness.
They’re more than mystified. They’re positively annoyed or angered by the claim—in part because it often directly contradicts their personal experience.
The reason is simple. In our hyper-polarized society, Republicans increasingly tend to live around Republicans, and Democrats live around Democrats. Thus, for many millions of white Evangelicals, their politics isn’t an impediment to their witness. Quite the contrary, it’s a social lubricant. It facilitates the formation of personal relationships and helps bond the Christian to his or her community.
In fact, they would face profound social challenges if they weren’t Republican. They’d often find themselves fighting through political polarization to create real relationships.
When they hear pastors or critics talk about the public witness of the faith, they see it not in terms of relationships with friends and neighbors (which are just fine), but rather as a vain attempt to appeal to a community that would never like them anyway—the media, distant Blue America, the elite academy.
The smaller numbers of Evangelicals who live in Blue America often have a different experience. With Christianity now so closely tied to virtually every issue in the GOP platform and to every GOP politician, they have to fight through a thicket of presuppositions that Christianity somehow means adopting specific (and despised) Republican stances on gun rights, immigration, taxation, health care, or climate change to even begin to get to true and real conversations about Jesus.
Critics of conservative Evangelicalism often focus on the challenges of the latter scenario without adequately understanding and appreciating the lived experiences of the church-going majority.
Moreover, these trends are self-reinforcing at every level. Let’s take the church experience itself. Why do people leave churches? It’s not because of the way that other Christians at other churches behave or what other Christians at other churches believe. As Burge notes, “This would be like breaking up with your boyfriend because Casey Affleck is behaving badly.”
Instead, Burge observes, “people leave houses of worship when they disagree with other members. Liberals leave churches that are too conservative and conservatives leave churches that are too liberal.” Put another way, “The Christian Right did not cause people across the religious and political spectrum to leave their churches. Instead, their politics was inspiration to leave for evangelicals who disagreed with the Christian Right.”
As this process has persisted year after year—and as the corresponding national big sort has proceeded apace—then politics, faith, church, and community start to fit together in a seamless, comfortable garment. When you’re fully immersed in this world, criticisms make very little sense. Threats feel existential.
I remember those comfortable clothes. After spending many years as a conservative Evangelical in deep blue America, my wife and I decided to move back home to Tennessee shortly before I deployed to Iraq. Though we’d made good friends in the Northeast and had lived a good life, we’d also felt the sting of progressive intolerance. My work defending free speech and religious liberty on campus repeatedly exposed me to the censorship and anger of the extreme left.
Life in rural Tennessee was substantially different. We felt loved. We felt respected. Our friends and neighbors appreciated our faith, our work, and our politics. We were home. Until we weren’t.
In 2015 and 2016, my faith didn’t change, my commitment to life and liberty didn’t shift, but I left the GOP because of its embrace of Donald Trump. And suddenly the garment wasn’t seamless. Outside of my relationship with my closest friends, I suddenly went from the in-group to the out-group. To go back to the chart above, my line diverged from the red line.
The backlash was so intense that I remember telling my wife that it was easier being a Republican Christian in Cambridge, Massachusetts than being an independent Christian in Columbia, Tennessee. In my entire life, I had not experienced direct and personal hatred and intolerance like I experienced from other Christians, including Christians who’d known me for decades.
It stung. It still stings.
What’s the cultural effect of a very, very Republican Christianity? It’s way too simple to say that it impairs the ability of Christians to reach their friends and neighbors. In some places it enhances the church’s appeal and integrates Christians within their community. In other places it creates a host of challenges and needlessly alienates Christians from their fellow citizens.
It does something else also—something I didn’t see until I was outside of my own tribe. It helps create the illusion that believers can in fact knit and wear a comfortable cultural garment on this earth. It fosters the belief that tightly knitting together religious faith and secular power can create, protect, and sustain a thriving community of believers.
This unity of church and party imbues all political disputes with an intensity far beyond their true eternal weight, and it does so on issues up and down the Republican platform, including on matters far beyond the classic culture war issues that allegedly define and motivate Evangelical political involvement.
It thus shouldn’t surprise anyone that Evangelicals bond easily with other Republicans. Nor should it surprise anyone that political dissenters can feel isolated and alone. When party identification merges with church identification, political cohesion fosters religious intolerance.
One last thing …
Of all the songs and artists I put at the end of my newsletters, I get the most enthusiastic response to the band from my church, We the Kingdom. They’re great folks. They make great music. Here’s more:
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.