Many people were surprised when Donald Trump became U.S. president, considering him a long-shot candidate with a message more suited to the past than the present. But despite, and in some ways because of, social change, intensely religious Americans embraced him.
Many Americans are disaffiliating from organized religion, which could make it seem as though the United States is secularizing like comparable countries. But, as I demonstrate in research with Sean Bock, the United States is not secularizing like other countries and intense religion persists. Our study, titled “The Persistent and Exceptional Intensity of American Religion,” shows that there is no decline in evangelicalism, biblical literalism, strong affiliation, or the most frequent levels of religious practice. Instead, only moderate religion is on the decline.
As a result of the persistent intensity of American religion and decline of moderate religion, a growing proportion of religious Americans are intensely religious. The intensely religious aren’t just people for whom religion is important; they are a particular segment of religious Americans for whom religious and conservative political identities have become intertwined. They perceive their religious identity as embattled, may well support some form of (white) Christian nationalism, and look fondly on the time before the gender and sexual revolutions.
The persistent intensity of American religion provided an opportunity Trump capitalized on. Trump positioned himself as a symbolic outsider, and appealed to people who perceive themselves as outsiders and think they face high rates of discrimination. He figured out how to speak to the intensely religious and appeal to their fear of social change, sense of embattlement, and concern for particular symbolic issues—such as abortion, same-sex relationships, and Christian primacy—around which they shape their collective identity. In fact, Trump was so successful at symbolic signaling to this group that they didn’t seem to care about his own lack of piety and adherence to traditional mores: polls show that white evangelicals went from the least to the most likely religious group to think that “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties.”
Intense religion closely overlaps with white evangelicalism, but people in other groups can be intensely religious as well (e.g, certain single-issue voting Catholics with an intense focus on abortion). For these people, intense religion is a type of identity politics that supersedes other identities and concerns. One of the most surprising patterns of the election was that many women voted for Trump over the first woman candidate for U.S. president. This pattern of women voting for Trump varied widely across groups, however, with particularly high rates of women voting for Trump among white evangelicals.
Now a year in, polls show the intensely religious still support Trump even as his favorability among other groups is generally low. White evangelical leaders have continued to state their support of Trump, often suggesting he is fulfilling a higher purpose. For example, Franklin Graham—whose father Billy Graham helped usher in evangelical involvement in politics and was a staunch supporter of and advisor to Richard Nixon—recently stated that “never in my lifetime have we had a president willing to take a strong, outspoken stand for the Christian faith like President Donald J. Trump.”
Other evangelicals, however, are questioning whether evangelicalism can survive Trump. In a recent New Yorker piece, Timothy Keller asks whether “evangelical” is a sincere religious category anymore or instead a political bloc “willing to vote for anyone, however immoral, who supports their political positions.”
What will happen going forward? It’s hard to say, but I can make some informed guesses. First, evangelicalism as an identity will probably survive Trump, Roy Moore, and others like them, but will be increasingly recognized as a partisan, rather than just religious, identity focused on gaining political power. And this will continue to turn moderates and liberals away from religion, and sour non-evangelicals on evangelical-endorsed candidates.
Second, it seems the intensely religious will continue to focus on partisanship and concern for political power over concerns about integrity. White evangelicals were just as likely to vote for alleged child molester Moore in late 2017 as they were to vote for Trump in late 2016 (both received about eight out of ten white evangelical votes).
Third, intense religion’s influence on politics may eventually decline if for no other reason than that the entanglement of intense religion and right-wing politics is primarily a white phenomenon. As clearly demonstrated by Black Americans—who tend to be more religious than white Americans—religion can go hand-in-hand with progressive politics. Even if white evangelicals remain a consistent voting bloc, demographic shifts may make it harder for evangelical favorites to win elections without support from other groups.
In conclusion, I expect that, barring seismic shifts in the social landscape, the intensely religious will remain an important voting bloc who consistently support right-wing candidates, but—as clearly illustrated in Doug Jones’s victory over Moore in the Alabama senate race—support from this group alone won’t be enough to win elections as social change continues.
- Bower, Bruce. “U.S. religion is increasingly polarized.” Science News. December 14, 2017.
- Green, Emma. “White Evangelicals Believe They Face More Discrimination Than Muslims.” The Atlantic. March 10, 2017.
- Hout, Mike, and Claude Fischer. “Explaining Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Political Backlash and Generational Succession, 1987-2012.” Sociological Science 1 (2014): 423-447.
- Keller, Timothy. “Can Evangelicalism Survive Donald Trump and Roy Moore?” The New Yorker. December 19, 2017.
- Kurtzleben, Danielle. “POLL: White Evangelicals Have Warmed To Politicians Who Commit ‘Immoral’ Acts.” NPR. October 23, 2016.
- Schnabel, Landon, and Sean Bock. “The Persistent and Exceptional Intensity of American Religion.” Sociological Science 4 (2017): 686-700.
- Schnabel, Landon. “Gender and homosexuality attitudes across religious groups from the 1970s to 2014: Similarity, distinction, and adaptation.” Social Science Research 55 (2016): 31-47.
- —. “Is Trump an Outsider Candidate?” Sightings. September 29, 2016.
- Shellnutt, Kate. “Young, Female, and Pro-Trump.” Christianity Today. July 26, 2017.
|Author, Landon Schnabel, is a PhD candidate in sociology at Indiana University.|
Sightings is edited by Brett Colasacco (AB’07, MDiv’10), a PhD candidate in religion, literature, and visual culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.