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Parting the Red Sea: The US Evangelicals voting Democrat

Parting the Red Sea: The US Evangelicals voting Democrat

Laura Moulton looks at why a growing minority of evangelicals in the US are voting for the Democrats. 02/11/2018

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A growing minority of evangelicals in the US are rejecting the narrative that their religious identity equates to support of Donald Trump. Their backing was crucial to his election in 2016; exit polls revealed he won 81 per cent of the white evangelical vote, accounting for about a third of his coalition. In general evangelicals remain reliably Republican voters, but in the run up to the US midterms on November 6th we’ve seen a surge of ‘resistance’ movements to mobilise evangelicals for the Democrats, including nation–wide bus tours, revivals on university campuses, manifestos by faith leaders, and grassroots ‘get–out–the–vote’ initiatives. They are facing an uphill battle, but regardless of what happens on polling day they’ve already achieved two remarkable results: the press have noticed, and so have the Democrats.

Particularly popular and successful examples include Doug Pagitt’s Vote Common Good (funded in part by Democratic donors) and Shane Claiborne’s Red Letter Christians. As for who they hope to reach, recent polling and reporting suggests evangelical women may be particularly receptive to their message, but whilst these movements have met with success in mobilising those sympathetic to their cause, there remains some ambiguity about how far this message can reach into the Republican/evangelical base. Nevertheless, what’s most interesting about these movements is that they frame their rejection of Trump and his policies in explicitly theological terms; they are urging others to switch to voting Democrat not in spite of their faith, but because of it.

Donald Trump isn’t on the ballot in the upcoming elections, but they are effectively a referendum on his presidency so far. Polling suggests the Democrats are ahead in the generic ballot and are in with a fighting chance of flipping the House (all 435 seats are up for grabs) but the Republicans will probably maintain control of the Senate, perhaps even increasing their majority, currently 51–49.

The white evangelical vote is particularly important to the Senate elections. When safe seats are factored out there are around 10 competitive races, most of which are in seats currently held by the Democrats. Of these, the Democrats are really in trouble in about six, and most of these are in red states that Trump won by big margins in 2016.[1] This means many of the voters who helped elect the president are the same ones who will determine these races, and red states tend to have high white evangelical populations. The Senate has longer terms than the House, gives smaller, less populous states a stronger legislative position in Washington, and performs certain crucial roles independently (such as Supreme Court confirmations). These evangelical voters will be determinative to the remainder of the Trump presidency, and the extent to which Republicans are able to advance their legislative agenda before 2020.

Defining who is or isn’t an evangelical in the US is a fraught process, complicated because the term often functions as a ‘self–descriptor’ in polling. So, whilst Pew’s 2014 religious landscape survey found 25.4 per cent of Americans identify with evangelical Protestantism, analysis from The Barna Group (which uses nine strictly belief–based questions) puts this figure at closer to six per cent. Theos’ Paul Bickley provided detailed analysis of these discrepancies and their significance shortly after the 2016 election.

Most – but not all – US evangelicals are white Protestants who hold broadly conservative political positions. This groups accounts for around 19 per cent of the total US population.[2] However, ‘evangelical’ and ‘white evangelical’ are often used interchangeably, especially at election time. Talking about “evangelicals” voting for Trump obviously glosses over the fact he does not enjoy widespread support from evangelicals of colour. Additionally, in the US unlike in the UK, ‘evangelical’ can denote a specific political agenda including but not limited to opposition to abortion and same–sex marriage, support of the state of Israel and strict interpretations of the Constitution (which partly explains why those from non–Protestant or mainline Protestant groups might identify as evangelicals in polling). These political stances are shared by most but not all of those who call themselves ‘evangelical.’

These ambiguities prompted two years of soul searching from those who didn’t vote for Trump, and baulked at the now notorious statistic that 81 per cent of white evangelical voters did. It also prompted publications such as the collection of essays Still Evangelical? Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning. This trend solidified in February 2016, when Russell Moore penned ‘Why this election makes me hate the word ‘evangelical’’ for The Washington Post and announced his intention to be known instead as a ‘Gospel Christian.’ In the run up to this year’s midterms these op–eds and books representing Democratic–leaning (or at least Trump sceptical) evangelicals seem to have coalesced into political movements. Therefore, whilst the majority of evangelical voters who are determinative to Senate elections are white Protestants in red states, evangelicals organising protest movements often represent a more diverse alliance.  

What are these movements, and who is organising them?

The caravan of the ‘Vote Common Good’ movement’s nationwide bus tour is made up of a sleeper bus, a portable stage complete with sound system, and an RV; it’s been ferrying Christian pastors, musicians, authors and artists round the US since the beginning of October, trying to swing Congress for the Democrats. In the spirit of a ‘tent revival ministry’ the bus will stop in parks and church parking lots, covering 30 locations in 10 states – all congressional districts of strategic importance. Their mission is to persuade evangelicals the GOP is failing in its representation of true Christian values, highlighting welcoming the stranger, care for the poor and refugees, the provision of healthcare, and objections to cutting taxes for the rich.

Pastor Doug Pagitt, executive director of Vote Common Good, outlined this mission in a letter to the editor of USA Today: “Voting your conscience is an act of faith. Followers of Jesus are all values voters, but the Republican agenda no longer reflects the values of the common good.”[3] In a recent interview with the Huffington Post[4] he cited Matthew 25: 40 to this effect: “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” Following stops in the Midwest and the South the bus spent six days in Texas before heading west to California. Many Democratic politicians (especially those who run for President) profess a Christian faith, but for the last few decades the Republicans have attempted to hold a monopoly on Christian voters, urging support because it’s the ‘Christian thing to do.’ Within the current political landscape, the reversal of this message is radical in its simplicity.

Shane Claiborne, one of the speakers on the Vote Common Good tour, is emerging as a figurehead of the movement. A high profile Christian activist and author who worked with Mother Theresa in Calcutta, he founded the group Red Letter Christians, an online movement aiming to encourage believers to “live out Jesus’ counter–cultural teachings.”[5] In April he organised a small but much publicised anti–Trump Red Letter Revival‘ on the campus of Liberty University in Virginia (the largest evangelical university in the country) in an attempt to sever white evangelicalism from Trumpism. Liberty’s President Jerry Fallwell Jr. – son of the ‘Moral Majority’ movement’s founder and vocal Trump supporter – responded to Claiborne’s efforts to promote “a Christianity that looks like Jesus again” by threatening to arrest Claiborne and fine him $2500 if he attempted to pray on campus.

Most of the key players in these movements are part of what we might call a counter–elite; many are liberal, metropolitan, and on the left.[6] So how likely is it that this message will resonate with evangelicals who don’t own Priuses? It’s not impossible. A poll conducted last month by the Democracy Fund’s ‘Voter Study Group’ found, “Donald Trump voters who attend church regularly are more likely than nonreligious Trump voters to have warm feelings toward racial and religious minorities, be more supportive of immigration and trade, and be more concerned about poverty.”[7] The extent to which these “warm feelings” are shared by the Trump administration itself is debatable. This disconnect suggests that the anti–Trump movements could be scattering seeds on fertile soil after all.

Why evangelical women are key to these movements’ success

If the short term goal of evangelical opposition movements is to impact turnout and vote share on November 6th, the long term aim is to challenge the assumption that the Republican Party is the natural home for evangelicals; moreover that the Democrats provide candidates and policies that more accurately reflect their religious and moral commitments. To succeed in either, these movements must reach out to white evangelical women. This group is of particular demographic and strategic importance because on average their support for Donald Trump is 10 per cent lower than for white evangelical men.[8] Republicans have relied on this group as a bulwark of their base for decades, so the idea that women’s votes might no longer be taken for granted should sound warning bells for GOP strategists. 

The majority of competitive Senate races have the Democrats on the back foot, but in Arizona, Nevada, Tennessee and Texas, Democrats are on the offensive. The race in Texas has received the most media attention, where Democrat Beto O’Rourke is challenging Republican incumbent Ted Cruz. A recent New York Times article covered white evangelical women in Texas who are voting for O’Rourke, often in spite of years of loyal partisanship, and sometimes with husbands who are staunch Cruz supporters.

The general feeling amongst these women seems to be that Cruz represents a Republican party that has lost its moral compass (the policy of family separations at the border is of particular resonance for Texans). Tess Clarke, one of the evangelical women interviewed who previously voted Republican on a pro–life ticket summarised, “I care as much about babies at the border as I do about babies in the womb… I keep going back to who Jesus was when he walked on earth, this is about proximity to people in pain.”[9] One of her friends, Emily Mooney, recounts seeing the same ‘Beto for Senate’ bumper sticker she has on her SUV displayed on other cars in the parking lot of her evangelical church.

These stories aren’t anomalous. Recent profiles of evangelical leaders Beth Moore and Jen Hatmaker[10] both detail the backlash they received from the community (including women) in response to publicly denouncing Trump and their criticism of evangelicals supporting him. All this is anecdotal, but points to a growing anger among (at least some) evangelical women about the direction of policy–making of the administration they helped to elect. The salient point here is not that these women are predicted to swing the election, but that their vote is no longer predictable.

A litmus test for the impact of these movements is whether Democrats take notice. Beto O’Rourke has reached out to evangelicals throughout his campaign (even making an appearance on Jen Hatmaker’s podcast), a strategy that would have been unusual for a Democrat in 2016. One of Vote Common Good’s informal advisors is the vice chairman for the D.C.C.C,[11] Representative Ted Lieu of California, quoted by the Times as saying, “More Democratic elected officials should be talking about God, and their own personal religious beliefs… America has always been a country where faith has played an important role, it’s not a good idea for Democrats to ignore that.”[12]

Limitations and Challenges

Recent profiles such as this Guardian article on Vote Common Good hint at the possibility that these movements are preaching to the converted. Some of this is logistical; if churches refuse to host them they can’t reach those congregations, and those that welcome them are likely already sympathetic to the cause. For the midterms at least, Vote Common Good’s aim has been specifically to reach evangelicals who may have otherwise sat out the election, feeling isolated from other believers who are comfortable and open in supporting the Democrats. But if these movements continue their mission to 2020, the most difficult challenge will be that evangelical support of the Republican Party isn’t just a matter of habit or cultural partisanship, there are real overlapping areas of belief and policy, most obviously abortion legislation, an issue which has followed Vote Common Good throughout the tour. To cross this divide opposition movements will need to open up dialogue with Republican evangelicals acknowledging these commitments, while making the case for ultimately denouncing this iteration of the Republican Party.

It remains certain a plurality of white evangelicals will vote Republican next Tuesday. In fact, Trump’s popularity with white evangelicals overall was at an all-time high this April, suggesting that for those who made peace with voting Trump in 2016, not much has changed. Indeed, over the last two years, evangelicals (mostly mean white evangelicals) have enjoyed an unprecedentedly cosy relationship with the White House, facilitated by Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Council. The President commented at a dinner for evangelical leaders in August: “So many great, great leaders. Incredible leaders. I know you, I watch you, I see you. Yours are the words we want to hear.”[13] The conservative wing of the evangelical establishment also has formidable fundraising capabilities and will be relied upon to spend millions on voter turnout and registration, devoting money and resources to targeting evangelical communities that the Democrats and their supporters just aren’t able to match.

Moreover, Trump has largely fulfilled the promises he made to secure the evangelical vote in 2016. These included moving the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, stripping federal funding from abortion clinics, and the appointment of two conservative justices to the Supreme Court: Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanagh, cementing the court’s first reliably conservative majority in 50 years.

We shouldn’t expect any dramatic shifts in broad evangelical support for President Trump or the Republican Party as a whole. They remain a committed alliance, and in many conservative circles support for Trump has become fully enmeshed with white evangelical identity. However, we should increasingly be wary of discussing “evangelicals” as a homogenous voting bloc. Dissenting voices have grown loud enough for the Democrats to take notice, and these voices are more organised and better funded than they were in 2016; most importantly, they have no intention of giving up the title ‘evangelical.’

Image by Paul shuang under a shutterstock licence. 

[1] Notably Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota (who faces additional backlash for her Kavanagh vote) Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Joe Donnelly in Indiana.

[2] http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/chapter-1-the-changing-religious-composition-of-the-u-s/

[3] https://eu.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2018/10/07/republicans-dont-represent-christians-vote-november-readers/1558059002/

[4] https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/flip-congress-bus-gop-midterms_us_5bbb73b0e4b028e1fe3fcc8b

[5] https://www.redletterchristians.org/what-is-rlc/

[6] This phenomena of a ‘red evangelicalism and a blue evangelicalism’ was detailed by The Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/04/18/theres-a-red-evangelicalism-and-a-blue-evangelicalism-faith-leaders-gather-to-discuss-evangelical-future/?utm_term=.6c27eac27014

[7] https://www.voterstudygroup.org/publications/2018-voter-survey/religious-trump-voters

[8] https://www.prri.org/spotlight/white-evangelical-support-for-donald-trump-at-all-time-high/

[9] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/09/us/politics/texas-beto-orourke-evangelicals-women.html

[10] Hatmaker is on the liberal end of the evangelical spectrum.

[11] The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

[12] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/14/us/politics/democrats-progessive-evangelical-election.html

[13] https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-dinner-evangelical-leaders/

Laura Moulton

Laura Moulton

Laura Moulton is a research assistant at Theos. She holds a BA in Theology and Religious Studies and an MPhil in World Christianities both from the University of Cambridge. Prior to Theos, she worked for an international affairs think tank. Research interests include contemporary Pentecostalism and religion in the US and the Americas.

Posted 2 November 2018

Donald Trump, Global Politics, Politics, Religion

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