Cherry-Picking in the God Gap: A Post-Election Conversation on the Religious Vote and the Battle to Spin it

Image: The Democracy Fund Voter Study Group.

Exit polls are even more suspect this year than they usually are, but few pundits have been dissuaded from drawing conclusions and whipping out megaphones to share them. Yes, even RD has a mote in its eye on this account. Maybe even a beam.

Regardless, two of RD’s staff writers recently engaged in a socially distant conversation to discuss the data we’ve gotten so far and what it tells us about the 2020 election. While numerous parties—many of whom have much to gain by election narratives—have rushed to claim that Trump’s share of the white evangelical vote went from overwhelming to merely staggering, less interested experts like PRRI’s Robert Jones and Religion in Public’s Ryan Burge concluded that Trump’s evangelical support is, in Jones’ words, “remarkably stable and consistently strong.”

Dan and Chrissy confront this pivotal and perennial election narrative and dig into deeper concerns: the problematic concept among journalists of “the real America,” the asymmetry of polarization, and the devastating threat to democracy itself. There’s also a “Rocky and Bullwinkle” reference.


Dan: So, Chrissy, what the hecker-decker? We’ve had article after article teasing us with the prospect of white evangelicals abandoning the Republican party over Trump, and…it didn’t happen. We’ll see different numbers floating around (there are as many measures of evangelicals as there are demographers), but preliminary indications are that the white evangelical vote for the GOP dipped little, if at all.

Chrissy: Well, Dan, I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to publish a fair bit of media criticism over the course of this election cycle, primarily here on RD and over at The Conversationalist, but sometimes—scratch that, most of the time—it does feel like shouting into the void. I’ve been surprised to see some unusually accurate takes on white evangelicals in the New York Times lately, so maybe we’re starting to experience a slight shift? Maybe plugging away at media criticism does ultimately have at least a little impact?

Still, as I certainly don’t have to tell you, most of what passes for religion “journalism” consists of suspect takes on white Christians, and is chock-full of demonstrably false narratives that simply will not die. There’s a whole subgenre on how evangelical youth are going to be making evangelicals normal, “like us,” any day now, because gee whiz, they say they care about the environment! It’s like Bullwinkle trying to pull a rabbit out of his hat—”This time for sure!”

Dan: I’m glad somebody else remembers Bullwinkle. I should also note that in addition to your fine writing, we of course have some other great stuff at RD, including, most recently, this piece from Ryan Burge arguing that it’s time for Democrats to stop chasing white evangelicals. Some folks invested in religious outreach, such as Michael Wear, aren’t quite as willing to give up the fight, but if Burge’s numbers are right, Dems would have better luck in pursuing other segments of the religious voter pool—white Catholics and the religiously unaffiliated in particular.

You mention evangelical youth, which I think is particularly relevant. One pattern we’ve known about for many years is that young voters tend to vote like their parents. Indeed, Trump won white youth by a healthy nine points. But nearly 90% of young Black voters cast ballots for Biden, enough to tip the election in Georgia in his direction. And yet it’s highly unlikely that outside of RD, we’ll ever hear much about those voters’ religious commitments, or how increasing secularization among young Blacks shapes the community’s politics. Jack Jenkins had a chapter on it in his new book, and that’s all I’ve seen.

Chrissy: Ha! I watched a lot of cartoons from my parents’ generation when I was a kid.

And yes, I think that good religion journalism ought to be covering mainline and progressive as well as authoritarian Christianity, even though I believe we agree that there should not be, and cannot be, a “religious Left” in the same sense that there is a “religious Right” in this country. Journalists need to stop looking at white Christianity through rose-colored glasses, and when it comes to coverage of Christianity and politics, we need both greater diversity of representation and more nuance.. 

Of course, as a religious none and the ex-evangelical founder of the loosely organized #EmptyThePews movement, I think good religion journalism needs to cover youth secularization and include the perspectives of those who have left high-control religious traditions like evangelicalism. I also agree with you that we should be hearing a lot more about Black young people’s attitudes toward religion and secularism and the current generation’s relationship to the Black Church. 

The issues we’re identifying here also exist within the Democratic Party itself, which is only beginning to include its large non-religious contingent in a serious way, and also within the atheist community, which unfortunately has a big racism and sexism problem. We need to do a much better job of platforming and listening to African-American atheists.

Anyway, as for the Democrats’ exasperatingly quixotic commitment to chasing the white evangelical vote, Michael Wear is a white evangelical whose brand relies on the belief that white evangelicals can be won over by Democrats, so he’s clearly far from unbiased. I’m with Burge, and I’m glad someone with his credentials is making the case against Democratic outreach to that demographic. But I also think there’s something bigger going on here, and it’s related to all these misguided post-election calls for liberals to “empathize with” Trump supporters and hardline Republicans who not only refuse to compromise with Democrats, but don’t even recognize Democrats’ legitimate right to govern. 

America’s elite public sphere seems unable to quit the right-wing myth that conservative, implicitly white, gun-loving, small-town and rural southern and midwestern Christians are somehow “the real Americans” in a way the rest of us aren’t. This anti-pluralist, anti-democratic, and indeed völkisch nonsense not only survives, but dominates our discourse because of the failure of our elite media to reckon with the trifecta of internalized patriarchy, white supremacism, and Christian supremacism. Would you agree? 

Dan: You ask a complicated question: there are a lot of moving parts here. First, as you and I have talked about in other contexts, it’s important to recognize that truly, not all evangelicals are conservatives. On top of that, as we saw with John Piper’s recent comments criticizing Pres. Trump, the political lines within the evangelical community are constantly in motion. So there’s a natural tendency for journalists to pick up on changes, but for whatever reason, they haven’t figured out that white evangelicals are overwhelmingly conservative, and they’re going to stay that way for the foreseeable future. Not every little shift is a trend, in other words. 

There’s also this idea that there is this pool of “persuadable evangelicals” somewhere, who could potentially be wooed over to the Democratic side if only Dems could unlock the magic framing over abortion or equity for the queer community. But it’s not true, as poll after poll has demonstrated. If you look at this year’s exit polls, for example, you see that people who think abortion should be entirely or mostly legal voted Democratic, and those who don’t voted Republican. That’s a very durable pattern, and I’m not sure why people aren’t able to grasp that.

I suspect, however, that it stems from a failure to reckon with the truth that voting largely appears to be a matter of identity, rather than a rational or strategic consideration of policy choices. Why don’t social conservatives vote for Democrats’ economic proposals? Because that’s not the way social conservatives vote, simple as that. It’s not who they are.

So to finally get around to answering your question directly, while I wouldn’t disagree that there’s a good bit of internalized oppression, I think there’s something else at play here. For one thing, even many reporters who can think outside the frames of patriarchy, white supremacism and kyriarchy want to bend over backwards to make sure they’re including all sides of any social question. 

Part of that is simple mechanics: editors think talking with the salt of the earth at some midwestern diner or southern church makes a more compelling story than talking to a random secular office worker in a big city Starbucks. And some of it, honestly, is post-2016 trauma. Journalists believe there’s some “hidden America” they have to uncover to truly understand what’s going to happen in the next election. That’s why there are all these stories about Trump voters at the local diner.

And in fact, there are celebrations of others, albeit in different terms, and unevenly and unequally. There are lots of profiles of liberal religious leaders, particularly Black leaders; there was a lot of coverage of couples getting married when same-sex marriage was legalized around the nation; there was coverage of the spontaneous celebrations after Biden clinched his victory last weekend. All of that, we’re told, offends social conservatives, who feel like they’re being pushed out of public discourse. 

In turn that points to something I find very interesting and troubling, which is that we seem to be constructing two separate sets of identity in America: liberal pluralists and social conservatives. Increasingly and asymmetrically, those sets don’t recognize the political legitimacy of their opponents.

Chrissy: I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t recognize the political legitimacy of a party dedicated to making me and many other Americans who are othered by social conservatives “less equal than others.” In fact, since you brought up John Piper as an example of political shifts within evangelicalism, I have to say that I don’t see his decision to abstain from voting for president this year as much of one. In his vaunted blog post on the issue, he still wrote, “I think Planned Parenthood is a code name for baby-killing.” Someone who thinks like that is not someone liberals can work with.

And what could be more delegitimizing than Republicans clearly demonstrating that they’re no longer dedicated to democratic norms, to protecting the federal bureaucracy from politicization, to fairness, to democracy itself? McConnell’s Senate Republicans pushed through the confirmation of radical charismatic Catholic Amy Coney Barrett to fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat in a brazen display of open hypocrisy, and that’s only one of numerous recent acts that show us they’ll do anything to preserve their power and privilege. 

There’s no legitimacy there, so it’s important to avoid false equivalence. When something is illegitimate, we shouldn’t accuse those who say so of being unduly “divisive.”

Polarization is a dangerous state for a society to be in, but even conservatives of conscience who are truly dedicated to democracy recognize that American polarization is driven from the right. This is why the post-election emphasis on “reconciliation” in the elite public sphere, coming not least from President-elect Biden himself, is so worrisome to me. 

It’s like my friend Rev. Dr. Andre Johnson says about conservative evangelicals’ “racial reconciliation” project, which he calls a fallacy: there’s nothing to reconcile to. The only way forward I see is to remain clear-eyed, face the necessary confrontation that comes from speaking hard truths, and at long last find the will to use what power Democrats do have in pursuit of justice, rather than ceding much of it to Republicans in return for nothing, which is apparently what “compromise” means these days. Or, as Rev. Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, put it:

You’re right, of course, about the presence, albeit uneven, of media coverage that celebrates things like same-sex marriage, spontaneous outbursts of joy at Biden’s victory, and progressive Christian leaders like Rev. Barber, and there’s an odd disconnect between those stories and the stories focused on conservative, mostly white Christians/social conservatives. This is, perhaps, an interesting reflection of American polarization, but it doesn’t challenge the status quo. 

And I think it’s important to consider ways that we might push to change the national conversation in ways that would challenge the status quo. Even the cottage industry of head-scratching, quasi-critical punditry on white evangelicals that developed during the Trump years failed to do that, largely because it remained fixated on the concept of hypocrisy and failed to include ex-evangelical perspectives.

And already after this election, of course, we have “respectable evangelicals” using cherry-picked statistics in the pages of The New York Times to give supposed white evangelical defectors from Trump undue credit for Biden’s win. But even if they were using statistics responsibly, it’s a neat trick to flip the script in such a way that the anti-Trump public is invited to cheer for America’s most Trumpist demographic. What do you think of all this, and what do you think coverage of religion and politics ideally should look like? 

Dan: I like how that piece cites one poll to show how much Biden’s support among evangelicals improved over Clinton’s—all the way from 16% to 23%!—and then another to demonstrate that mainline Protestants also moved toward Biden, even though that second poll showed no meaningful change in the evangelical vote, and even though the link itself says “THE NONES ARE THE STORY” [sic]. So as far as what I’d like to see in coverage of religion and politics, not that I guess?

Look, it’s hard to argue that the Biden campaign didn’t do a better job of faith outreach than Clinton’s campaign did. But that also needs to be put in the context of Clinton herself: we know that Christians overall and particularly evangelicals are not as friendly to women leaders as secular folks are, and we know that Clinton has been relentlessly demonized for decades. It’s hard to say for sure, then, but it’s entirely possible that had Biden run the same campaign as Clinton in 2016, we’d be seeing the same results then as we do now. In short, the difference might have been the candidate, not the campaign.

The other thing that’s mentioned only glancingly here is that while Biden may have done better with faith voters, something seems to have gone dramatically wrong with the campaign’s outreach to Hispanics. That cost him, particularly in Miami-Dade County, filled as it is with Cuban-Americans who tend to be more conservative and more evangelical than Hispanics overall. Had they understood some of those nuances, they might have been able to counteract Republican appeals and win Florida. We might not be in the current mess of the president denying the election results in that case: I mean, a 335 electoral vote Biden win is pretty hard to argue with. That’s important!

So as a serious answer to your question, I’d like to see two things in coverage of these stories: first, a wider understanding that religion and politics is a far more diverse and complex topic than just “Who are the white evangelicals voting for this time?” There are some journalists who get it, but they tend to be religion specialists, and their perspective doesn’t break through to the thought leaders. 

Second, when looking at religion and politics, there’s a tendency to overemphasize the moral dimensions of faith and underrate the social dimensions. Journalists and opinion writers have to wrestle, really engage, with the idea that faith is only one factor in forming voters’ decisions, and it may not be the primary one. Identity is so, so important these days. White evangelicals are, after all, white. Young black voters may be religiously unaffiliated, but they’re still also young and black. Religious expression in the United States is shaped by all the same social forces that shape everything else. So if you’re tempted to look for a religious pattern in voting, maybe step back and ask if there’s not a simpler sociological explanation.

Chrissy: Good points about race and misogyny, Dan. I want to believe, and do believe, that America is ready to elect a woman as president, and I also think it’s likely that the Russian influence campaign and James Comey’s shenanigans put Trump over the top in 2016. Still, the irrational and visceral hatred most white evangelicals feel for Hillary Clinton, and the patriarchal impulses of Christians, cannot be denied.

Religion and politics are both complex phenomena that deserve more nuanced treatment. I don’t know how to affect big changes in elite media discourse, but I know that I will continue to plug away at achieving some ex-evangelical representation, and hope that that helps to mix things up some over time. It’s always great to chat with you!