Despite tense polarization, there was no massive exodus from evangelicalism by white evangelicals who disliked Donald Trump or evangelicals of color during the four years of his presidency, Pew Research found. Center.
According to an analysis released Wednesday, more Americans began to identify themselves as born again Protestants or evangelicals between 2016 and 2020 than they continued to call themselves evangelicals. The boost came almost entirely from white Trump supporters.
Of those who did not consider themselves evangelical when the former president was elected, nearly one in six had started identifying as evangelical by 2020. Only 1% of white Americans who were not in favor of Trump made the same change.
The results complicate an already tense discussion about the future of evangelism and the political baggage the label carries in the United States.
âEvangelism does not collapse, despite the enthusiastic predictions of its detractors. However, what it’s becoming, I think, deserves more conversation, âsaid Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. âThere are important implications for the fact that a significant number of white Trump supporters now identify as evangelical or born again. We don’t know why, and correlation doesn’t always mean causation, but there is more to study here. “
In the last two presidential elections, white evangelical Protestants have formed a grassroots electoral bloc for Trump, as they have for previous Republican candidates, including Mitt Romney, John McCain, and George W. Bush. But “only 30% of non-white voters who identify as born again Protestants or evangelicals (including only 12% of black evangelical voters) said they voted for Trump” in 2020, the researchers wrote.
Yet evangelical identity among people of color has remained stable in the Pew survey. Non-white respondents were just as likely to drop the gospel label during Trump’s tenure as they were to adopt it. About a quarter identified as born again or evangelical in 2016 and 2020.
Among white evangelicals, although slightly more opponents of Trump had abandoned their evangelical identity in recent years compared to Trump supporters, the difference was not statistically significant because it was within the margin of error, wrote the Pew researchers.
For historian Thomas Kidd, the possibility that Americans have started calling themselves evangelicals simply because they supported President Trump “should be of concern to all pastors and devotees involved.”
His book 2019 Who is evangelical? : the story of a movement in crisis argues that the popular connotation that evangelicals are white Republicans – or supporters of Trump’s white Republicans – fails to capture the historical and current scale of the movement. It was released amid a new debate over the evangelical label following the 2016 election.
“There are good reasons why churches continue to describe themselves as ‘evangelical’, if by that term they refer to their historic commitment to the authority of the Bible, the need for spiritual conversion and the felt presence of God in everyday life, âKidd said this week.
“But pastors in particular must realize that the meaning they attach to evangelical may not be the same as some in their congregation. I suspect most pastors would not want to inadvertently signal to their congregations that they are indeed branches of Donald Trump’s GOP, simply by using the term indefinitely. evangelical. “
While many evangelicals and evangelical institutions view their movement in theological terms, to the point that Christian pollsters have tried to shatter evangelicals out of belief rather than personal identity, the label has taken on a political dimension over decades of polling, media coverage and the partisan engagement of evangelicals themselves.
âBut what if a gap between what we claim to be and what we politically support emerges? The Trump administration has raised these questions in new and unusual ways, âsaid Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University. âWhile the Pew study holds up, and is confirmed by other data sources, it presents the challenge in a new light. Is it possible that people who are not in the religious tradition of evangelism are only âpolitical evangelicalsâ? Does it reflect badly on us? “
Trump has embraced the support of dozens of evangelical leaders, ranging from prominent Southern Baptist pastors to prosperity preachers popularized on TBN like his longtime friend Paula White-Cain. While a crowd of Christians decried Trump’s character, others celebrated how his administration stood up for religious freedom, the pro-life cause, and the protection of conscience. (And some Christians have done both.)
After the 2016 election, analyzes of voter surveys indicated that Clinton voters were more likely than Trump voters to disaffiliate, but not dramatically. In 2018, the General Social Survey found that, even with the rift between Trump and the growing number of unaffiliated Americans, the evangelical share of the population in the United States continued to hold up, as it had been during a decade.
Smith in Cedarville says the social and political overtones of evangelicalism in America may be inevitable, which becomes a challenge if they interfere with the mission of the church.
âMy concern is that this change might make it more difficult to present ourselves as ambassadors of Christ. Will those who disagree with our policy reject us theologically out of hand? If so, it poses real problems for who we are, âhe said. âThe Great Commission always beckons us, but our culture is so politicized and polarized that spreading the gospel under what is considered a political banner becomes much more difficult. “