White Evangelical Leaders Already Distancing Themselves from the “81-Percenters”

Faced with the embarrassment of having helped elect Donald Trump to the presidency, some conservative Christian leaders have begun to argue that evangelical support for Trump was far lower than the commonly reported 81%. In doing so, they are continuing to deny the real role white evangelicals played in the 2016 election—a stunning reversal from how evangelicals have talked about their influence in electoral politics for more than thirty years now.

On Election Day, exit polls indicated that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump. That number represented a shocking measure given who Donald Trump is. But it also fit squarely with the patterns of white evangelical support for Republican presidential candidates in all recent elections.

Still, some evangelical leaders are challenging these findings. “No, the Majority of American Evangelicals Did Not Vote for Trump,” reads the headline of an article published this week at the Gospel Coalition. In the piece, Joe Carter argues that rather than 81 percent, only “somewhere between 35 percent and 45 percent of all evangelicals in America voted for Trump.”

Carter is right, of course, to point out that Trump’s poor showing among non-white evangelicals, particularly Latinos and African Americans, means that his total standing among all evangelicals likely came under 50 percent. But the whole weight of Carter’s argument depends on an inaccurate depiction of the media’s reporting on the election.

News media did not report, as Carter asserts, that “an overwhelming number of evangelicals” voted for Trump. Instead, news media, including the The New York Times, Washington Post and Fox News, to name a few, all made clear time and again that a majority of white evangelicals supported Trump.

It’s true that in prior election cycles the media has not been good about distinguishing “evangelicals” from “white evangelicals”—a confusion that scholars of American religion often pointed out—but coverage of the 2016 election was marked instead by a clear and consistent distinction between white evangelicals and those evangelicals of other ethnicities.

Over and over and over, news reports focused on the phenomenon of white evangelical support for Trump’s unlikely candidacy. Coverage of the election results mirrored this consistency, making absolutely clear—particularly in an election season marked by white ethno-nationalism—that it was white evangelical voters who had so overwhelmingly backed Donald Trump.

But more broadly, the inclination to downplay and complicate evangelical involvement in the 2016 election stands in marked contrast from how evangelical leaders have historically characterized their faith members’ influence in recent elections.

Following George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004, to take one example, evangelical outlets breathlessly reported on how evangelical voters had been critical to Bush’s victory. And four years ago, many of those same outlets touted evangelical support for Mitt Romney against President Obama’s successful re-election bid.

None of this commentary sought to minimize evangelical participation in the elections—quite the opposite. Nor did any of it soften the characterization of white evangelicals’ political involvement by placing it in the larger context of multiracial evangelical voting. Instead, conservative Christian leaders promoted the idea of evangelical political unity as a source of strength, even in times of defeat.

In his outrageous bid for the presidency, Donald Trump has upended many norms of American politics. But the disavowal by evangelical leaders of their political influence after 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for the winning Trump-Pence ticket may be one of Election 2016’s most revealing features.

The desire of some evangelical leaders to distance their faith from the atrocity of a Trump presidency is surely understandable, but doing so after white evangelicals provided Trump with his most solid voting bloc seems especially cruel given the political reality we all must live with now.