Since Donald Trump started winning Republican primaries this winter, evangelical leaders have looked to absolve themselves of the taint that has come with the surprising news of his significant support among white evangelicals.
Trump’s announcement last June that he would seek the Republican presidential nomination elicited pushback from some evangelical leaders, like Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, who distrusted Trump’s politics, including his switch to a pro-life position, and disliked the thrice-married billionaire’s coarse style and spotty personal life.
But Trump’s primary victories in evangelical-heavy states like South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama, pushed that opposition into overdrive.
And it’s also prompted evangelical leaders to mount a defense of their faith by tearing apart what they have called the “myth” of the evangelical Trump voter.
It’s understandable why they have done so. Portrayed as hypocrites who’ve abandoned their “values voters” reputation for the luster of the Trump moment, some evangelicals have insisted instead that the voters backing Trump aren’t “real” evangelicals; these were “cultural” evangelicals, they argued, not true believers.
Now new survey data seem to back up these claims. In the Washington Post last week, Notre Dame political scientist Geoffrey Layman points to recent data showing that Trump does best among self-identified evangelical voters who “seldom/never” attend church. His support then drops among “sometimes” attenders, and he loses even more from those who go to church “weekly.”
“The key to understanding Trump’s support among evangelicals,” Layman concludes, “is to realize that some evangelicals’ commitment to the faith is shaky, too.”
Not surprisingly, evangelical leaders have latched onto Layman’s article, brandishing it as objective proof of their own suspicions that the evangelicals backing Trump were really evangelicals in name only. In pushing these voters out of the evangelical camp, these leaders hope for a purer portrait of American evangelicalism—one where religious devotion matches with proper political decisions.
But looking at the data again suggests a more complicated picture, and challenges this evangelical spin.
While it’s true that Trump’s support from evangelicals decreases the more they go to church—dropping from almost 55% among the “never/seldom” crowd to about 35% from the “weekly” attenders—that decline isn’t the whole story. Even among weekly churchgoers, Trump still comes out ahead of his competitors.
Evangelicals argue that at least part of that is due to the divided field where anti-Trump voters can choose from a number of alternatives. But that interpretation only underscores the larger point: Trump is still the one candidate who coalesces the largest number of evangelicals—even the weekly churchgoers—around him.
Those numbers would likely shift should Trump face a two-man race with Ted Cruz. But if survey data still show what they have revealed so far—that Trump will continue to win at least a third of the most frequent church-attending evangelicals—it undermines anti-Trump evangelicals’ main argument about the suspect evangelical identity of Trump’s supporters. Even by the strictest definition, plenty of “real” evangelicals are in Trump’s corner.
It’s also worth noting that evangelicals using church attendance as the measure of true faith is a surprising development in itself. Historically, evangelicals identified their faith around a set of beliefs and doctrines about salvation and the Bible, and against what they saw as the more ritualistic and works-based Catholic faith.
If voters who “seldom” or “never” attend church still see themselves as evangelical, they do so in part because of a capacious evangelical theology that holds up the born-again experience as the singular determinant of true Christianity while allowing for a range of worship practices and secondary beliefs. Although most evangelical theologians would argue that religious conversion should bring with it certain behaviors, including regular church attendance, clearly many Americans call themselves evangelical because they subscribe to or at least identify with evangelical theology. And when they make it to a church on Sunday, they choose an evangelical one to attend. How else should they be seen but as evangelicals?
The majority of evangelical voters are not supporting Trump, it’s true. But plenty of them by any measure are. If evangelical leaders really want to defeat Donald Trump, they’d be wise to stop insisting that there’s no evangelical connection and instead start reckoning with the very real Trump phenomenon building in their pews.