Nobody should be surprised that evangelical voters are sticking with the GOP.
I’ve been watching evangelical voting behavior since I worked for Paul Weyrich’s Free Congress Foundation in the 1980s, and I’ve come to believe that, in most cases (though certainly not all), white evangelicals get their religion from their politics, not their politics from their religion.
That is, many evangelicals are first and foremost political conservatives drawn to a church (or a pastor) that confirms their worldviews and, in turn, their political views.
They gravitate to evangelical, fundamentalist and Pentecostal churches that are spread across the American landscape, particularly in rural and small-town America, because those churches hold views about the Bible and human behavior that are traditional rather than pragmatic. Not surprisingly, most of those church members are politically conservative, particularly on social/cultural issues but increasingly also on the role of government.
There are, to be sure, socially and economically liberal evangelicals, and they gravitate to progressive churches or to groups like the Sojourners, a social justice evangelical group that looks at the exact same scripture as Jerry Fallwell Jr. and Pat Robertson but emphasizes very different values and takes very different political positions.
While the Falwells and Roberstons focus primarily on abortion, same-sex marriage and transgender rights, Jim Wallis of the Sojourners focuses on the poor and those marginalized by society. All are “evangelicals,” but they have very different concerns and agendas.
Of course, the tendency to affiliate with religious institutions that are consistent with one’s political views and priorities isn’t limited to evangelicals. Most people of faith pick a religion, a denomination, a particular house of worship, a clergyman and a level of observance that is consistent with their world view – and therefore with their core political beliefs.
You aren’t going to find very many political conservatives in Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues, just as you aren’t going to find many extremely liberal Hasidic Jews or pragmatists who attend fundamentalist churches.
The Catholic divide isn’t as easy to see, but it exists, with the religious travels of Paul Weyrich a good example of divisions in the Catholic Church.
Weyrich, a leading figure in what was called the New Right and the person who probably was most responsible for bringing evangelicals and conservative Catholics together after decades (really centuries) of distrust, grew up in Wisconsin as a Roman Catholic. But after Vatican II, he switched to attend St. Gregory of Nyssa Byzantine Catholic Church in Washington, D.C.
Many Eastern Rite Catholic churches were more traditional than their Roman Catholic brethren, retaining time-honored liturgical rites and ancestral languages. Those elements fit Weyrich’s traditional religious orientation and his overall conservative instincts.
Then, one day during a sermon, a priest referenced the Vietnam War in a context that was critical of U.S. involvement. Weyrich and his family walked out of St. Gregory’s, eventually joining a Melkite (Greek) Catholic church that was even more traditional than the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic church they had been attending.
Weyrich looked for a church in which he was comfortable, and that led him to more orthodox denominations, churches and clergy who followed traditions more closely and were not at the forefront of change.
Not everyone is as clear as Weyrich was in searching for a house of worship that reflected his values, principles, trappings and priorities. And certainly, some evangelicals, like former Bush speechwriter and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, have chosen to follow their moral imperatives rather than their partisan and ideological instincts.
But many religious denominations — or branches, in the case of Judaism — reflect a worldview that goes well beyond strictly religious views (such as, the divinity of Jesus or the observance of kashrut, for example).
They tend to be politically conservative or liberal, on social issues, foreign policy and even economic issues, depending on the denomination and the individual church or synagogue. (Again, there are plenty of exceptions, including my own synagogue, which tends to avoid matters of public policy except for Israel.)
For many white evangelicals, their religious and political views are so strongly intertwined that it is almost impossible to separate them. When their views of religion and morality collide with politics, politics often wins out. That’s why it’s naïve to ask why so many white evangelicals continue to support Donald Trump or Roy Moore.
Remember physician Scott DesJarlais (R-TN 4), the pro-life, tea party conservative first elected to Congress in 2010?
DesJarlais admitted pressuring his mistress to have an abortion and acknowledged he had multiple sexual relationships with patients and co-workers. His wife had two abortions. And yet, the Family Research Council, which promotes “traditional marriage and family and advocates for policies that uphold Judeo-Christian values” (according to the Almanac of American Politics, 2016), gave the congressman a 100% rating for 2014. Even more amazing, voters re-elected the Republican in 2012, 2014 and 2016.
The congressman’s hypocrisy is obvious, but no more so than the political behavior of his conservative, evangelical supporters.
If you have any doubt that white evangelicals are as much a political category as a religious one, you need only look at recent elections and exit polls.
In 2016, Donald Trump received the support of 80% of white evangelicals and born-again Christians, while Hillary Clinton drew just 16%. Clinton, on the other hand, won 60% of non-evangelicals. One year later, in the Virginia governor’s race. Republican Ed Gillespie carried 79% of white evangelicals, compared to Democrat Ralph Northam’s 19%. Northam carried a stunning 67% of Virginians who were not white evangelicals or born-agains.
Obviously, I have painted with a broad brush here. Religious institutions are changing all the time – witness Pope Francis’s priorities and comments. And the increasing partisan polarization we have witnessed surely is impacting how people evaluate the behavior and beliefs of others.
What does all of this mean for Roy Moore’s Senate race next month? Given their politics, I expect the overwhelming percentage of white evangelicals in Alabama to vote for Moore, so his prospects depend on turnout by establishment Republicans, Democratic voting groups and Republican women.
If Moore does win – and he is more likely than not to defeat Democrat Doug Jones – it will be because white evangelicals find his politics more important than his morality.