By Aaron Earls
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Politics is important for most evangelicals, but not so important that they question the faith of those who vote differently from them.
A new survey from Lifeway Research sponsored by the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College explored the voting habits and political motivations of three groups of Americans: evangelicals by belief, self-identified evangelicals and those who are not evangelical by belief or self-identity.
Evangelicals by belief—those who hold to four key theological statements developed by Lifeway Research and the National Association of Evangelicals—were most likely to say politics is at least somewhat important to them (87 percent), with 30 percent saying it is extremely important.
Self-identified evangelicals (85 percent) gave similar overall importance to politics. Non-evangelicals (78 percent) are less likely to see politics as at least somewhat important. But few self-identified (23 percent) and non-evangelicals (18 percent) say politics is extremely important.
“These numbers show evangelicals have a greater passion for politics than most, which could say something about the issues of our day. Some of the biggest political issues today involve evangelicals, which could explain why they are engaged at a higher level than others,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center.
“Evangelicals care for and tend to be involved in the communities in which they live,” Stetzer said. “We have come a long way from 50 years ago, when many evangelicals thought political involvement was worldly.”
Four in 10 African-American evangelicals by belief say politics is extremely important to them—more than any other ethnicity.
Evangelicals by belief and self-identified evangelicals are more likely than non-evangelicals to belong to one of the two major political parties.
Among evangelicals by belief, 44 percent are Republicans, 32 percent Democrats and 14 percent independents. Self-identified evangelicals are slightly less Republican. Forty-one percent say they are part of the Republican party, 32 percent Democratic party and 15 percent independent. Non-evangelicals are more diverse with 23 percent Republicans, 36 percent Democrats and 23 percent independents.
The 2016 presidential election
Evangelical by belief voters are the most likely to say they felt strong support for their candidate when they voted and are most likely to still feel strong support for that candidate today.
Thinking back to 2016, 9 in 10 evangelicals agree they felt strong support for their preferred candidate, with 69 percent strongly agreeing.
Little has changed when evangelical by belief voters think about who they voted for in the last presidential election. Today, 88 percent agree they feel strong support for who they voted for in 2016, with 70 percent strongly agreeing.
“Given the nominated presidential candidates in 2016, most voters with evangelical beliefs were sure about their choice and few have changed their minds,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research.
Self-identified evangelical voters and non-evangelical voters are less likely to say they felt strong support in 2016 and today.
And among evangelicals who voted, most did so for Donald Trump. More than half of evangelicals by belief (58 percent) and self-identified evangelicals (53 percent) cast their ballot for the Republican nominee. Slightly more than a third of evangelicals by belief (36 percent) and self-identified evangelicals (38 percent) voted for Hillary Clinton.
A majority of non-evangelical voters (53 percent) voted for Clinton, while 36 percent voted for Trump.
African-American voters with evangelical beliefs overwhelmingly voted for Clinton (86 percent), while more than three-quarters of white voters with evangelical beliefs voted for Trump (77 percent).
Around half of younger voters with evangelical beliefs cast their ballot for Clinton—47 percent of those 18 to 49. A majority of voters 65 and over who have evangelical beliefs voted for Trump (72 percent).
Single-issue voters? Not necessarily.
The survey found evangelicals by belief (62 percent) and self-identified evangelicals (59 percent) were most likely to say one of the reasons for their 2016 vote was choosing the candidate with the ability to improve the economy.
Close to half those numbers—36 percent of evangelical by belief and 31 percent of self-identified evangelical voters—listed the candidate’s position on abortion as a factor in their vote. Similar numbers said a likely Supreme Court nominee played a role.
When asked the most important reason for voting the way they did, again evangelicals by belief (17 percent) and self-identified evangelicals (18 percent) chose an ability to improve the economy. That was followed by positions on health care and immigration.
Few evangelicals by belief (5 percent) and self-identified evangelicals (4 percent) said abortion was the most important issue in deciding their 2016 vote. And 7 percent of evangelicals by belief and 6 percent of self-identified evangelicals chose likely Supreme court nominees as the most important reason.
“In many ways, evangelical voters are a lot like everyone else when it comes to deciding their vote,” said McConnell.
“The issues often tied to evangelicals—like abortion and the Supreme Court—are further down the average evangelical’s list of deciding factors, behind topics like the economy and health care.”
Political divides in the pews?
Most evangelicals by belief and self-identified evangelicals say the 2016 election brought to the surface some underlying divisions among Christians.
Six in 10 evangelicals by belief (59 percent) and 57 percent of self-identified evangelicals agree the election revealed political divides within the church that have existed for a long time.
Younger and ethnic minority self-identified evangelicals are more likely to say those political divides were exposed during the election. Sixty-three percent of those 18 to 34 agree, compared to 53 percent of those 50 and over. African-American (62 percent) and Hispanic evangelicals (64 percent) are more likely to agree than whites (54 percent).
Yet, most evangelicals by belief and self-identified evangelicals believe someone in the opposing party can be a devout Christian.
Among Republicans, 68 percent of evangelicals by belief and 71 percent of self-identified evangelicals say someone can be a committed Christian and a Democrat. Fewer than a quarter of each disagree—25 percent of evangelicals by belief and 22 percent of self-identified evangelicals.
Among Democrats, 74 percent of evangelicals by belief and 77 percent of self-identified evangelicals say someone can be a committed Christian and a Republican. Fifteen percent of Democratic evangelicals by belief and 13 percent of self-identified evangelicals disagree.
When evangelicals encounter someone using biblical beliefs to justify political views that are opposite of their own, few question their political opponent’s faith. Twenty percent of evangelicals by belief and self-identified evangelicals say they doubt the validity of the other person’s faith.
Evangelicals by belief are most likely to say they are hopeful they can find common ground biblically (40 percent), while self-identified evangelicals are most likely to agree to disagree (38 percent) with the other person.
“Jesus is not coming back on a donkey or an elephant,” said Stetzer. “We have to acknowledge that people vote for different and complex reasons and that Christians can differ on politics and agree on the gospel.”
Other findings in the study include:
- 59 percent of evangelicals by belief, 61 percent of self-identified evangelicals and 56 percent of non-evangelicals say their political support should focus on praising or criticizing issues rather than supporting individual political leaders.
- 27 percent of evangelicals by belief, 30 percent of self-identified evangelicals and 34 percent of non-evangelicals say evangelical Christians are too closely aligned with President Trump.
- 43 percent of evangelicals by belief, 41 percent of self-identified evangelicals and 27 percent of non-evangelicals say when a leader is making important political decisions they support, they should also support the leader when they say or do things they disagree with.
- 57 percent of evangelicals by belief and 54 percent of self-identified evangelicals say the goals conservatives achieve under President Trump will last after his presidency.
- 67 percent of evangelicals by belief and 66 percent of self-identified evangelicals agree committed Christians can benefit from a political leader even if that leader’s personal life does not line up with Christian teaching.
In his new book, Christians in the Age of Outrage, Stetzer said he describes how Christians should “gear down the outrage and turn up the mission. We certainly can’t go to war with people with whom we disagree because you can’t be at war with a people and reach a people at the same time.”
Aaron Earls is a writer for Lifeway Christian Resources.
The study was sponsored by the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. The online survey of Americans was conducted May 9-16, 2018. The completed sample is 3,000 surveys. A minimum of 1,000 respondents were screened for each of three groups (those qualifying for both evangelical groups are included in the reporting for both:
- 1,000 Americans who are not evangelicals (do not have evangelical beliefs nor self-identify as evangelical or born again
- 1,064 Americans who have evangelical beliefs
- 1,814 Americans who self-identify as an evangelical or born-again Christian
Slight weights were used for each group to balance gender, age, region, ethnicity and education. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error from the online panel does not exceed plus or minus 3.2 percent for non-evangelicals, plus or minus 3.1 percent for those with evangelical beliefs, and plus or minus 2.4 percent for self-identified evangelicals. These margins of error account for the effect of weighting. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.
Lifeway Research is a Nashville-based, evangelical research firm that specializes in surveys about faith in culture and matters that affect churches.