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A lot of white evangelical voters aren’t evangelicals

Evangelicals worshippig at Gateway megachurch

According to the exit polls, 26 percent of the electorate in last week’s midterms consisted of white evangelicals. Yet white evangelicals make up just 15.3 percent of the U.S. adult population, according to PRRI’s widely used survey data. What gives?

Apparently, the Baptist and Pentecostal and non-denominational Christian faithful turned out to vote Republican in disproportionate droves. As Faith and Freedom Coalition chairman Ralph Reed, who’s in the business of boosting evangelical turnout, told a National Press Club audience, “We had an astonishing level of evangelical voters cast their ballots.”

But appearances can be deceiving, and in this case they are. That’s because a lot of the voters identified as white evangelicals weren’t Baptists, Pentecostals and non-denominational Christians. They were mainline Protestants and Catholics.

Here’s how I know this.

PRRI cuts the American religious pie into slices by race, ethnicity, and religious tradition: white evangelical Protestants and white mainline Protestants and black Protestants; white Catholics and Hispanic Catholics and “other non-white” Catholics; (Eastern) Orthodox Christians; Mormons; Jews; Muslims; etc. It’s according to this set of separate slices that white evangelicals come in at 15.3 percent.

By contrast, the exit polls simply ask voters whether they consider themselves evangelical or born-again Christians, then cross-tabulate the result with a question about race. That’s how they came up with 26 percent for the proportion of white evangelicals in last week’s electorate.

Now, 10 years ago I was involved in designing the third American Religious Identification Survey, conducted by my colleagues Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar. We decided to cross-tabulate the evangelical question with denominational responses and lo and behold, we found that 38.6 percent of mainline Protestants and 18.4 percent of Catholics identified as “born again or evangelical.” In other words, “white evangelical” is an exit poll category that includes big chunks of “non-evangelical” religious groupings.

That a lot of mainline Protestants (a largely white community) would consider themselves evangelical was not particularly surprising. Especially in the South, there are plenty of Presbyterians and Methodists and even Episcopalians who look and quack like evangelicals (cf. George W. Bush).

The Catholic number did take us aback, not least because almost the same proportion of white Catholics subscribed to the evangelical category as Hispanic Catholics. (Presumably, some white members of non-evangelical bodies in our “Other Christian Groups” category also identified as evangelical.)

All in all, there’s no reason to think that this situation has changed since 2008. By my back-of-the-envelope calculation, one-third of the “white evangelicals” who voted last week were not evangelicals in the denominational sense. And that covers most of the gap between PRRI’s number of white evangelicals and the exit polls’.

We could have a good argument about how many “white evangelical” voters were not really evangelicals. What’s inarguable is that white evangelicals shouldn’t be seen as punching way above their weight at the ballot box. At 26 percent, they turned out to vote at just about their proportion of the population.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

16 Comments

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  • Perhaps what is needed is a definition of “Evangelical” and “Born Again” . When people are asked to self-identify and you don’t give defining characteristics for the categories you give them to choose from you really don’t know what they mean.

  • I’m somewhat informed about American religion and the distinctions you make. So what? I’m not connecting dots here to draw any meaningful conclusions. 9 out of 10 still voted Republican no matter faith-label they claim, right? Maybe more? Now, if there were a large or even predictable number as you suggest, and the vote for Republicans was less than the group would seem to have pointed toward in past elections, it could mean complexifying feelings about their faith and their vote–enough evangelical leaders have spoken out against Trumpism that that result would be interesting. So…what exactly are you pointing toward as conclusions which follow? Reed was wrong; business as usual?

  • I think the term “evangelical” has begun to take on a new meaning that reflects certain political beliefs and Christians who hold those beliefs, even if they are not part of an “evangelical church” according to the historical definition, are now applying that label to themselves to identify as part of that political tribe. At some point in the future, perhaps not so far off, “evangelical” will come to simply mean someone who is in favor of certain laws that prohibit or restrict access to abortion, prohibit same-sex marriage, eliminate government funded birth control, eliminate legal protections for LGBTQ folks, etc. For the most part, older white evangelicals are the only folks left who feel this way about those issues. As some church leaders encourage members to prioritize political activity over the historical activity of “evangelicals” … something about spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ I think … the process will speed up and their children will find another tribe. In the end, as their numbers dwindle and their political aims are thwarted, Evangelicals will become a group much like the Amish: folks who hold fast to a set of curious beliefs that the rest of the community do not see as very practical in a modern world. The other sorts of Christians will still be around, trying to act as much like Jesus as they can.

  • For a long time, really since 1980, there’s been a narrative honed by people like Reed that aroused evangelicals will make all the difference and that when evangelicals are asleep there’s hell to pay. It’s a version of the revival/backsliding story baked into Christianity. The truth is banal. White evangelicals vote pretty much the way other white Americans vote.

  • In the South, there are cultural Evangelicals just as there are cultural Catholics and cultural Jews in other parts of the country. That could account for the reason the mainline protestants identify themselves as “Evangelical”. Where I live in Tennessee it’s almost a given that people are Evangelical because it’s so predominate.

  • I agree. Perhaps “white Christian nationalist” should replace “white evangelical,” since it is coming across more as a theocratic political ideology than a set of theological propositions. Andrew Whitehead has come to a similar conclusion in his research published in January in the Sociology of Religion journal.

  • This raises a bigger question for me, however. My question is not only for whom are they voting, but for what. In other words, for the non-religious white Americans who are voting GOP, are they voting for the Christian nationalist agenda that Trump is handing the so-called white evangelicals on a silver platter? I realize Trump’s border policies and Muslim refugee bans are probably extensions of the Christian nationalist ideology, but what about classic evangelical hot-button issues like restrictions of women’s reproductive rights? If they are not, perhaps the distinction is still valid?

  • Vox ran a piece on this topic about a month or two ago. They made the same point – geography has a lot to do with what is meant by religious identity.

  • In an increasingly tribalized electorate, I not sure “for what” is all that meaningful, with one exception. That’s abortion. Otherwise, their issue positions are pretty malleable.

  • Yes, I sensed this may have been the case. It seems a sort of Christian theology and natural theology has fused into “the way it is supposed to be” theology concerning gender and sexual identity in particular. Anecdotally, the other day I mentioned to a man who swings right (and does not identify with any religion) that the Christian nationalist program known as Project Blitz had successfully passed legislation in our state Florida that required “In god we trust” be displayed from every public school. The man responded “I don’t think that is a bad thing.”

  • OK, so call this group “born agains.” That gives them a distinct religio-cultural-political leaning.

  • I liked Mark MacKinnon’s comment that the Democrats don’t understand how people don’t vote generally on the basis of policy. This is certainly true of many who vote Republican. As Tom Frank wrote, “Vote to limit abortion; get tax cuts for the rich.” etc.

  • The term evangelical is a loose term with many understandings. Evangelical is what Luther and other early reformers labeled the Church after separation from Roman and is used in Germany and other nations as the term for what the English speaking world says is Protestant.

  • The wording of the exit poll question is really poor. Folks who are familiar with the import of John 3 know that Evangelical and “born again” are not coterminous. Every true Christian is born again, and perhaps some mainline Protestants and Catholics are answering in light of that.

    Also there is a weird phenomenon of late in which there is a certain cachet to being called “Evangelical” despite the fact that we are still generally reviled by the culture at large. That and the fact that many now use the word “Evangelical” as though it means “evangelistic”.

  • Ted Cruz was the preferred candidate of most of the Religious Right “leaders.” Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindahl, and others were also religious right true believers, among the 17 Republican Primary challengers. Jeb Bush endeared himself to some for his involvement in the Terry Schiavo imbroglio. Of course, J. Bush, a cradle Episcopalian, had converted to Catholicism, which is a no-go for some Religious Righters. Rick Santorum, a cradle Catholic, same thing.
    Trump’s strongest supporters appeared to be the type of religious rightists who couldn’t tell you the names of the four Gospels or name 7 of the 10 commandments. Beyond those he appealed to more secularist “libertarian” types, like Bikers, veterans, farmers, and such. This group seems to value what they call “Freedom” which involves owning a whole lot of guns, being racists, and being against “The Establishment” which to them includes people like Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, John McCain, etc. The same bunch backed H. Ross Perot in 1992 and/or 1996. There is a mythos in the U.S. that a President who is a “businessman” can straighten out Washington D.C. The names of Trump, Perot, Warren Buffett, Lee Iacocca, etc. have been touted by those who believe this mythos since the 1970s. Of course all are Insiders who pretend to be Outsiders.
    There is a variation of opinion on abortion. Most Americans are pro-choice but would like to see abortion reduced somehow. Your Religious Right true believers would like to see abortion docs executed and the women who have abortions whipped or somesuch. Most others could care less. The fact Trump is a sexist pig, P—– grabber, etc was a point in his favor for many of his fans. They would not care if he outlawed abortions even if evidence was produced that he had paid for some.
    If you ever see “Pro” Wrestling, you can understand Trump is a classic wrestling character. As a matter of fact, he’s the only President ever to be inducted into the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame. Mark McKinnon, the Republican strategist, once remarked to an embedded reporter with the George W. Bush campaign, “Most Americans don’t care about policy. This is the Democrats’ mistake. Democratic policies are favored by a majority, but they vote on the basis of, like they said of the 2004 race between Bush II and John Kerry, “on the basis of who they’d rather have a beer with.”

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