Numbers, Schnumbers, Why Evangelicals Should Worry About Trump’s Popularity

What would journalists and pundits do without Donald Trump? Indeed, one wonders how they ever got through our nation’s inexplicably long campaign season without him!

While the Donald has inspired countless columns about myriad topics, much recent commentary has focused on the extent to which he has (un)successfully courted white evangelicals, a crucial voting bloc in the GOP.

For those who think Trump has won over the evangelical vote, the driving question behind their writing has been how an “immodest, arrogant, foul-mouthed, money-obsessed, thrice-married, and until recently, pro-choice” candidate ever gained such traction among religious conservatives. On these terms, evangelicals and Trump do seem strange bedfellows. Writers in this camp typically cite an arsenal of polls lending credence to their suggestion that evangelicals favor Trump. Here’s a few from Monmouth University, The Washington Post, MSNBC, and Public Policy Polling.

And yet, many conservative commentators have suggested that the story is more complex. As noted by Sarah Posner here on RD, Warren Cole Smith just published a piece in WORLD Magazine which asserts that widespread evangelical support for Trump is “a myth” born out of small sample sizes and inadequate criteria for classification as “evangelical.” On the latter point, Smith writes:

The myth likely started in August, when a Fox News poll said Trump was the top choice of “white evangelical” voters. But polls like this use methodology that allows respondents to self-identify their religious affiliation without any examination of their actual beliefs…

Chris Anderson, president of Anderson Robbins Research, which helped conduct the Fox News poll, told me the survey question asked, “Would you describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian?” That may sound like a straightforward question, but people who do religion polling for a living know a dirty little secret: People lie, and there’s no way to know they’ve lied unless you ask more questions that expose the lie. A famous Barna survey found that while more than 25 percent of Americans self-identify as evangelicals, less than 10 percent actually hold historically evangelical beliefs, such as the divinity of Jesus, a historical resurrection, and the authority of the Bible.

Smith does have a point. He cites a recent Gallup poll which had Trump in twelfth place among “highly religious” voters (now eleventh, after the dropping out of Gov. Rick Perry). Other commentators have also been quick to point out the negative association between religiosity and support for Trump, indicating that practicing evangelicals may well be the group “least excited about Trump.”

Honestly, I would love nothing more than to find a poll which conclusively gets us evangelicals off the hook for Trump’s unprecedented rise. Unfortunately, Smith’s arguments sidestep a larger problem and, in doing so, prematurely absolve evangelicals of any responsibility for Trump’s ugly ascendance.

What’s the larger problem that Smith overlooks?

Even if it’s only 20% of practicing evangelicals that support Donald Trump, 20% of practicing evangelicals still support Donald Trump! Best case scenario, one in five practicing evangelicals—people with an active commitment to pattern their lives on the ministry and teachings of Jesus—now voice support for a candidate whose principle calling cards include chauvinism, nativism, misogyny, and outright incompetence.

Smith ends his piece by claiming that evangelicals “look at Trump and see a man whose political positions, personal lifestyle, and bombastic rhetoric are not consistent with what they know their evangelical doctrine and theology teaches.” This may be true for many, and it very well may be true for more evangelicals than we previously thought. And yet, one in five clearly don’t feel this way. One in five revel in Trump’s “political positions, personal lifestyle, and bombastic rhetoric”—or at the very least don’t reject it. Not to mention the fact that the favorite alternative of these “practicing evangelicals,” Ben Carson, has recently demonstrated a disturbing willingness to sink to Trump’s level.

Evangelicals are quick to lament the perceived moral degradation of American culture, particularly in the realms of sexual and reproductive ethics. Yet, I see a much more troubling trend at work in our relationship to Donald Trump. That Trump’s numbers refuse to drop, despite his flagrant displays of disrespect, reveals the extent to which these very elements are at work within our own faith community. Whether it’s 40% or 20% or 5% of us seems, at this point, like so much hair splitting.

The unfortunate reality is, Trump may not go away anytime soon. While pundits and pollsters keep themselves busy predicting when Trump will hit his “polling ceiling,” he shows no sign of giving up his lead in the polls. Far from hitting a “polling ceiling,” many are now rightly worried that Trump has found his “polling floor.”

For Christians, Trump’s persistent presence in the GOP primary should be a concern. The fact that he has duped even a small fraction of the faithful into actively supporting his campaign should be cause for even more worry.

Maybe, instead of focusing such inordinate attention on the cultural decline supposedly evidenced by the legalization of same-sex marriage, we Christians should be confronting the more unattractive truth that Trump’s vacuous, hate-mongering rhetoric—rhetoric which puts vulnerable people in actual, physical danger—actually resonates with some of our peers beside us in the pews.

In other words, perhaps evangelicals should take the “yuge” plank out of our own eye before attempting to remove a speck from the nation’s.