Since the U.S. presidential election, various news outlets have reported that evangelical Christians—in particular white evangelical Christians—voted for Donald Trump. During the course of the campaign, it became standard wisdom that the evangelical vote was Trump’s—a fact symbolically reinforced by the endorsements given to Trump by some of evangelicalism’s most prominent leaders, such as Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. and evangelical theologian Wayne Grudem. The main exit polls show that about 81% of white evangelicals voted Trump (see here, here and here). This is old news, but some are now contesting this percentage, offering up alternative facts and figures with attendant explanations.
Maybe it is due to a visceral aversion to conventional wisdom that some have decided to problematize the 81% statistic. Maybe it is due to a desire to defend evangelicalism from the charge coming mostly from secular media and the progressive evangelical left (my goodness, does such a thing even exist?) that white conservative evangelicalism sold its born-again soul to a proto-fascist bigot. Maybe there are valid reasons to distrust (or at least question) the methods and conclusions of election polls. Whatever their reasons, both Christianity Today and The Gospel Coalition recently ran articles suggesting that when we consider the voting commitments of so-called minority groups within evangelicalism (Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans), the support for Trump among evangelicals on the whole greatly declines, and the total picture of evangelical politics is not nearly so unholy as mainstream opinion supposes. Regardless of one’s intentions in challenging conventional wisdom, doing so is guaranteed to generate curiosity and promote debate. And certainly alternative angles on this issue of the evangelical vote are beneficial for the larger conversation that we should have about race and evangelical identification. I’m sure we’ll forever be talking about why a large number of American evangelicals (whatever statistic one decides to settle upon) wanted the Donald to be their commander-in-chief.
I am particularly interested in this idea that racial/ethnic minorities must be accounted for when trying to determine what percentage of the evangelical vote we may say gave their support to Trump. I am interested because this is not so simple a thing to do: non-whites, on average, are less likely to explicitly identify as ‘evangelical’ when asked about their religious affiliation, even if they answer affirmatively to questions about doctrine and views of scripture that many would consider distinctive to the evangelical faith tradition. 1 On this basis, commentators at both CT and TGC have argued that the 81% figure is not accurate and/or representative of the evangelical vote at large. This is because it considers only white evangelicals, and not minority evangelicals who, although they do not identify as evangelicals, nevertheless should be counted among the evangelical group on the basis of their theological conformity to its core principles.
The overlap between denominational traditions is certainly something to consider when asking people to state their theological positions for the purposes of labelling and categorization. This is an especially important point when it comes to evangelicalism, because evangelical ideology often reaches across denominational divides. I am certainly not here to contest recent research that looks at evangelical identification from a theological, belief-based perspective. I do think this angle has value. But I think decisively incorporating ethnic minority respondents under the evangelical umbrella on the basis of belief alone, in order to promote a narrative that evangelicals did not support Trump wholesale when minority groups are considered, is very suspicious.2
At this point I do not want to be misunderstood as saying that minority groups cannot be evangelical, or that they do not count or do not matter to evangelicalism: indeed they very much do, and it is because they matter that I write this piece at all. The ostensible purpose of subsuming “ethnic minority Christians” into the “evangelical vote” is to challenge the idea that Trump won handily among evangelicals. When these ethnic minority voters are counted as evangelicals, the 81% statistic is brought down to about 35–45%. This newly constructed 35–45% percentage—which works out to be less than half of the total evangelical vote—suggests that evangelicals were far from unanimous with respect to their support for Trump. Ironically, this very act of including minority voters in the evangelical vote—whether inclusivity is the underlying intent or not—arguably works to salvage the damaged reputation of the evangelical Religious Right.
Essentially, then, certain authors are relying on a (presumed) minority evangelical demographic to alter the percentage of Trump-supporting evangelicals; in the end, this only obscures the racism that fuelled the white evangelical vote. As Evan Derkacz of Religion Dispatches wrote, white evangelical commentators are so eager to “protect the evangelical brand” that they will claim that “real” church-attending evangelicals didn’t actually vote for Trump, and tend to conflate the white evangelical vote with the “evangelical of color” vote. I cannot help but think that this appeal to “ethnic minority evangelicals” is meant to soften the glaringly obvious racism that has become so entrenched in white evangelical politics. Even if the belief-based approach is taken, and more minorities are given the evangelical label, the new 35–45% could still be broken down according to race—and it would still be the case that white evangelicals overwhelmingly voted Trump. There is no statistical manoeuvre to whitewash that.
- See http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2015/november/what-is-evangelical-new-definition-nae-lifeway-research.html and also http://www.conradhackett.com/uploads/2/6/7/2/2672974/measuring_evangelicalism.pdf.
- Note: I am not saying that the researchers at LifeWay and NAE (see first link in footnote 1) are concluding that ethnic minorities = evangelical on the basis of belief. Writers and commentators are extrapolating the findings of recent research on evangelical identification and belief, arguing that many ethnic minority Christians should be considered evangelicals on the basis of their beliefs (despite their reluctance to identify as evangelical). I’m not particularly comfortable foisting an evangelical identity upon certain groups just because their theological views are similar to evangelical views–there are many complex issues here that should not be glossed over in the name of theological unity. I believe ethnic minorities are refusing the evangelical label deliberately; we should ask why and, at the very least, respect this act of religious self-determination. But that is another post altogether.