Given the amoral mess that is the Trump presidency ― with one Yeti-sized scandal coming out of the Oval Office after another ― it’s no surprise that some Christian conservative leaders have tried to distance themselves and their faith from Donald Trump.
Yet with 81 percent of white evangelicals supporting Trump in the 2016 election ― the largest backing for him among any demographic group ― attempts to downplay evangelical fervor for Trump have often seemed foolish. Still, the small but persistent #NeverTrump crowd has continued to insist conservative Christians remain wary of the president, hoping that they can save evangelicalism from its troubling association with Trump.
Now, a new analysis of survey data from the Voter Study Group has finally given them something concrete to work with. The study found that among Trump voters, the more one attended church, the less likely one was to side with the president’s economic policies, support his immigration proposals or share his aggrieved ethno-nationalist identity.
That’s a compelling finding, and anti-Trump conservatives wasted no time deploying it. In a column for The New York Times last week, conservative Ross Douthat touted the survey’s results while also worrying that they foretold a “conservatism after Christianity.” In Douthat’s words, the survey showed that “the more religious part of the G.O.P. is the less Trumpist portion.”
In order to arrive at that conclusion, Douthat diminishes conservative Christians’ support for Trump by arguing it isn’t as strong as Trump’s secular backers. But that’s only true depending on how you look at the numbers.
For those Trump voters who attend church more than once a week, 49 percent say they are “favorable” to President Trump, compared with 63 percent of those who never attend ― a striking contrast, no doubt. But among those who attend church weekly ― a commitment that suggests strong religious devotion ― 56 percent indicate they feel favorably toward Trump. And for those who attend church once or twice a month ― a not insignificant habit in our secular age ― Trump finds his strongest numbers: 68 percent of those churchgoers said they feel favorably toward the president. Combined, the support for Trump among these different groups of regular churchgoers is within a few percentage points of the support among his non-churchgoing voters. And the combined results are in line with an April poll from the Public Religion Research Institute that found 75 percent of white evangelicals held a favorable view of Trump, compared with just 22 percent with a negative opinion.
Even if support for the president does decrease the more one attends church, as the Voter Survey Group study shows, it’s worth asking if this really matters. During the 2016 Republican primaries, Trump’s evangelical critics latched on to similar polling that showed the most frequent churchgoers gave candidate Trump less support than those who seldom or never attended, pointing to it as some sort of proof that “true” evangelicals had not gotten behind the thrice-married casino magnate with a louche personal life.
What they didn’t want to acknowledge was that among the Republicans running for president, Trump still came out as the favorite candidate of even those evangelicals who attended church most often. Whatever reluctance some felt about him at first, Trump’s eventual capturing of the presidency relied on white evangelicals coalescing around him as he moved through the primaries and then forming a solid bloc of support in the general election.
Yet Douthat and others want to paint churchgoing evangelicals’ mixed feelings about Trump, both during the election and now, as evidence of conservative Christians’ waning influence in the Republican Party, an argument meant to absolve evangelicals for their part in electing Trump even as it disguises how much white evangelicalism’s political agenda stands to gain from his presidency. In his Supreme Court appointments and his approach to Israel, for example, Trump has delivered on some of the religious right’s principal objectives of the last 40 years.
If there are white evangelicals who now express hesitation or discomfort with some of the president’s other policies or with his unsavory character, it doesn’t change the fact that those same voters were crucial to his election. For all of us living under the Trump administration, it doesn’t matter how enthusiastically or not white evangelicals feel about the president. What matters is the fact that their votes are what allowed him to pursue his dangerous agenda in the first place.
The truth is that the political context we all must live in is created by the selections voters make, not by the level of enthusiasm with which they made that choice. With that in mind, white evangelicals who have chosen to voice their tepid feelings about Trump to survey takers could register a far more powerful reflection of those views by voting for Democratic candidates in November’s midterm elections.
They are unlikely to do so.
In summarizing its findings, the Voter Study Group survey concluded that “religious participation may serve a moderating function in our politics.” That may be true. Regardless of whatever self-serving responses some have given to surveys, however, white evangelicals are no moderating force. They are the core of our extremist president’s support.
Neil J. Young is a historian and the author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. He hosts the history podcast “Past Present.”