Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

Keith Miller writes a very helpful piece for The Federalist, demonstrating that reports of evangelical support for Donald Trump don’t quite say what you might think.

Among the 40 percent of GOP primary voters who say they are evangelical or born again, Trump only polls 25 percent compared to his 38 percent support among all other GOP primary voters. Even that overstates the amount of Trump support you would find in an evangelical pew on Sunday morning. Of those evangelical GOP primary voters who go to church at least once a month (80 percent of that subgroup), Trump polls just 21 percent. By contrast, among those attending church less frequently, Trump doubles his support.

Trump polls differently among different religious subgroups more generally, dividing the GOP primary electorate into three segments: churchgoing evangelicals, other churchgoing Christians (mostly Catholics and non-evangelical Protestants), and the unchurched. Again, only 21 percent of churchgoing evangelicals support Trump, while Trump wins 42 percent of the unchurched, and 32 percent of other churchgoing Christians.

Of course, this data raises a couple important questions, like whether this is a matter of churchgoing evangelicals not feeling the “anger” that Trump is supposedly tapping into or whether it’s more indicative of Trump’s phony conservatism. My answer would be: Both.

Remember that churchgoing evangelicals are, in terms of beliefs and practices, one of the most conservative blocs in the country. These are the Americans who are most likely to say that Jesus Christ is the only way to God and that there is an objective right and wrong. And yes, churchgoing evangelicals do, statistically, tend to vote conservative Republican. So if these evangelicals are not flocking to support Donald Trump, why not? The simplest answer is that the content of serious, “born again” evangelical religion is diametrically opposed to most of who Trump is and most of what he stands for.

When Trump says he’s never asked for forgiveness from God, or when he describes communion as taking “my little wine and my little cracker” and feeling a bit better about himself afterwards, he is denigrating the very ecclesial experiences of these evangelicals. When he brags about how many women he’s slept with, or when he describes Hispanic immigrants with words like “rapists,” he is insulting millions of women and Hispanics who attend evangelical churches. This is pretty simple logic, but it gets obscured for two reasons. One, many media outlets don’t know how to describe evangelical religion outside of its recent support for Republican politics. Secondly, Trump supporters–as well as a fair share of pundits– have assumed that Trump is a kind of super-authentic conservative who is bringing the debate back to the Right, if in a less than ingratiating way.

The truth is that it’s the conservatism of Donald Trump that is fake and deceptive and compromising. Crank conservatism is not conservatism at all, but mere showmanship that hijacks the language of populism. Church going evangelicals are better equipped to recognize this because of their participation in the institution of the local church, an institution that is conservative in its very nature. By contrast, the hyper-individualized, “choose your own adventure” type of evangelical is far more susceptible to the hokum of crank conservatism, with its historical ignorance, moral apathy, and piecemeal worldview.