Sometimes it seems like there are two Americas: evangelical America and the rest of us. Reports often highlight conservative political trends in the evangelical community as if they have nothing to do with those outside of that faith community. Religious conservatives, particularly white evangelicals, are regularly cast as outliers in U.S. politics, blindly supporting President Trump despite his moral transgressions. Data from PRRI show that white evangelicals consistently exhibit the highest support for Trump and most conservative viewpoints of all religious groups. PRRI CEO Robert Jones has observed, “White evangelical Protestants are sitting in their own unique space in the religious landscape on a whole range of issues.”
But after spending the last decade studying evangelicals for my book, Immigrants, Evangelicals, and Politics in an Era of Demographic Change, I am convinced that evangelicals do not represent a separate or wholly unique force in the United States. Rather, they exemplify current trends in American political life around race and difference, only in a more intense way. Evangelicals embody U.S. racial attitudes on steroids.
Progressives often express horror at the deep conservatism of white evangelicals, but they fail to note that this conservatism is not only a function of religion. In my book, which included analysis from a 2016 survey my colleagues and I conducted of more than 10,000 people, I show that support for Trump was higher among non-evangelical whites than among evangelical black, Latino, or Asian Americans. That is, the most religiously conservative non-whites tend to be less conservative than whites who don’t identify as religiously conservative. This fact shows that conservative political attitudes are not just a function of religion. They are, perhaps mostly, a function of race.
Further, while Asian American evangelicals tend to exhibit more religiosity in terms of church attendance and fundamentalist ideas about Christianity than white evangelicals, they are much less conservative than white evangelicals on issues ranging from climate change to health care reform. Less than 10 percent of Asian American evangelicals oppose the government doing more to combat climate change, versus nearly 30 percent of white evangelicals. White evangelicals oppose the federal government guaranteeing health care at nearly twice the rate of Asian American evangelicals.
Similarly, Latino evangelicals tend to be more conservative on abortion than white evangelicals, but much less likely to support Trump or a Republican House member. One evangelical Mexican American man, who was born and raised in Texas and whom I spoke to as part of my research, asserted that his political concerns were “homosexuality, abortion, and those things that are contrary to what the Bible and the Lord God teaches.” At the same time, he had experienced racism: “I’ve gone through many years, when I or my race, Hispanics … we were more impoverished than so-called white people. We had lower jobs, less pay. We were part of that.” This awareness of systemic racism among Latinos helps to explain why my 2016 study showed that while about three-out-of-four of white evangelicals supported Trump and Republican House members, only about one-in-four Latino evangelicals did the same.
The racial divides among evangelicals in the United States are strong and persistent across many issues. Black, Latino, and Asian American evangelicals were not only less likely to support Trump in 2016, they are much more progressive than white evangelicals on taxing the rich and providing federal funding to aid the poor. Non-white evangelicals diverge even more starkly from white evangelicals when it comes to immigration and race in the United States. White evangelicals are at least twice as likely as blacks, Latinos, or Asian Americans to believe “immigrants hurt the economy” or to oppose Black Lives Matter. At the same time, I found that white evangelicals were reluctant to acknowledge or talk about race. A middle-aged, white evangelical man who was interviewed for my book said he only thought about race “because I’m forced to … We’re forced to think about things in racial terms. I certainly have no reason to believe that’s anything that God necessarily wants, for us to think in terms of white, black, brown, Asian, whatever.” Another white man asserted that “what the Bible teaches about equality is that in terms of racial equality, your social equality is less important than your relationship to God and your role in the Kingdom of Heaven … Racial equality I think is less important to the Bible than your relationship to God.”
There has been a great deal of speculation about whether younger white evangelicals will break with their parents’ generation when it comes to politics. But, political scientist Ryan Burge’s analysis of a large-scale study of more than 60,000 people shows that young white evangelicals identify with the Republican Party at about the same rate as their older counterparts. Further, Burge shows that while young white evangelicals with at least a two-year college degree showed very high levels of support for Trump in 2016, they were not outliers. In the two-party contest, a majority of white, college-educated people showed strong support for the president.
It’s pretty clear at this point that economic disenfranchisement is not the driving force behind white evangelicals’ conservative politics. Rather, the primary driver in my view is a sense of “racial embattlement.” I find that half of all evangelical whites believe that whites face as much or more discrimination as Muslims in the United States. This strong perception of racial threat goes a long way to explaining their conservative political attitudes, even after accounting for partisanship and conservative attitudes about the role of government. While that seems like a large proportion of people, I also find that more than 35 percent of all non-evangelical whites hold these views. This sense of white racial embattlement is not just an evangelical thing.
More recent data confirm similar findings. Take the issue of racial inequality in the United States. When asked about the root causes of disparities between whites and blacks in PRRI’s 2018 American Values Survey, fifty-three percent of white evangelicals attributed economic inequality to “lack of effort” among black Americans, rather than to generations of slavery and discrimination. But, whites in general were not much more reluctant to adopt this explanation. Forty-five percent of all whites came to the same conclusion about lack of effort among blacks. In contrast, less than 25 percent of black respondents believe that if blacks only worked harder they could be just as well off as whites.
Over the course of my research, my team and I visited 60 evangelical churches and interviewed more than 70 white, black, Latino and Asian American evangelicals. These churches ranged from a megachurch in Houston that regularly drew more than 8,000 worshippers to a small, Bible-based church in Santa Monica, California. We visited store-front churches in downtown Los Angeles and Pentecostal churches in the suburbs of Southern California. We rarely heard discussion of politics from pastors in the pulpit. We did not see explicit political materials or messages circulating. Could it be that religious leaders and institutions house, mediate, and incubate, rather than ignite, political views? That would be consistent with recent research that University of Pennsylvania political scientist, Michele Margolis, puts forward in her recent book, From Politics to the Pews. Margolis argues that under certain conditions, political attitudes exert a strong influence on religious attitudes and identity. This assertion, based on Margolis’ analysis of survey data and survey-based experiments, flies in the face of long-held assumptions about the ways in which religious commitments move people’s political passions. She argues that religious affiliation and identity are not “impervious to politics.” Rather, “partisanship can profoundly shape identification with and engagement in the religious sphere.”
The bottom line is that the racial divides and racial anxieties we see in evangelical America are not so different from the views of white Americans more generally. I speculate that these attitudes are more extreme than those of other white Americans because their fears of demographic change are even more exaggerated than other whites. A narrative of religious persecution runs deep in white evangelical theological circles. Believers expect to be attacked for their religious commitments. Hence, their defenses may be easily raised by “the War on Christmas.” Narratives of persecution have primed them to expect a broad cultural assault, despite the fact that white Christians face the least religious persecution of any religious group in the United States. These fears of religious persecution, unfounded or not, interact in an especially potent way with fears of racial embattlement to produce the political conservatism detailed above. That being said, the racial patterns we observe among evangelicals are more intense, but consistent with the racial patterns that define the country as a whole. In this respect, we all share something very deep with evangelicals.
Janelle Wong is professor of American studies and Asian American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is also a PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) Public Fellow.