A strong white evangelical, white Catholic, and Mormon vote for Donald Trump belied the condemnation many religious leaders had leveled at the tycoon and paved the way for a stunning upset after a long and polarizing campaign. But are they expecting too much?
Preliminary exit polls indicate these religious groups voted for Trump by wide margins—and, in the case of white evangelicals, wider than they had given to GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012.
Christians who described themselves as evangelical and born-again gave Trump 81 percent of their votes, up 3 percentage points from their support for Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton garnered 16 percent of their votes.
“Donald Trump made the most full-throated and aggressive appeal to evangelical voters . . . since Ronald Reagan spoke to the Religious Roundtable in August of 1980,” Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, said the day after the election.
“He made these voters of faith a centerpiece of his campaign.”
White evangelical support for Trump surged even as prominent evangelicals, including Southern Baptist Russell Moore, railed against Trump’s behavior toward immigrants, women, and other groups as un-Christian.
Trump never cast himself as a particularly religious person. And Hillary Clinton made her commitment to her Methodist faith known on the campaign trail.
But no one should be surprised by evangelicals’ turnout for Trump, said Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute.
“White evangelicals in this election aren’t values voters. They’re nostalgia voters,” he said. “Trump’s line—‘let’s make America great again’—and his last-minute saying—‘look folks, I’m your last chance’—was really powerful for white evangelicals who see their numbers in the general population slipping.
“White Christians are declining every year by a percentage point or more as a proportion of the population,” Jones added. “So when Trump says, ‘I’m your last chance, folks,’ there’s a real truth to that.”
Scott McConnell, who studies evangelicals as executive director of LifeWay Research, said its pre-election studies showed that economics—not religious belief—was driving evangelical voters.
That research also revealed clear divides along ethnic and party lines within the group: white and Republican evangelicals favored Trump while African-American, Asian and Hispanic evangelicals favored Clinton.
“These divides are powerful in America today, and they are deeply entrenched in the church,” McConnell said.
Some prominent evangelicals who supported Trump acknowledged that his lifestyle and behavior had given them pause. But he actively sought evangelical votes and proved himself, said Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council.
“Donald Trump went out of his way to build a relationship with evangelicals. I’m not saying there’s 100 percent trust, nor embracing what he has done in the past,” Perkins said. “But one thing evangelicals understand is that everybody has a past, but everyone has the promise of a future as well.”
“Once he captured the nomination, he didn’t say ‘well I’ve checked the box with evangelicals, I’m moving on’'” Perkins added. “He continued throughout the course of his campaign and the general election to communicate with, go to events of, and build upon the relationship with social conservatives.”
White Catholics also favored Trump, casting 60 percent of their ballots for him, compared to 37 percent for Clinton. But it was the reverse for Latino Catholics: 67 percent went for Clinton and 26 for Trump. Mormons nationally, according to exit polls, preferred Trump to Clinton by 61 to 25 percent.
Are evangelicals expecting too much from a Trump presidency?
Now, evangelicals are expecting much in return from a president-elect who did not mention God in his victory speech, who was “strongly” in favor of abortion rights until he was against them, who has said he does not believe in repentance, who has made lewd comments admitting to sexual assault.
“When it comes to his very strong statements on life, on support for Israel, on the Iran nuclear deal, on religious freedom and on judges, we fully expect him to keep his pledge . . . to the American people,” Reed said “And based on my interaction with Donald Trump, I have found him to be somebody who, when he says he’s going to do something, he does it.”
In a speech last month at Liberty University, where President Jerry Falwell Jr. was an early and vocal supporter of Trump’s candidacy, Reed laid out the evangelical case for the then-Republican presidential nominee: chiefly, his turnaround on abortion, his pledge to appoint conservative Supreme Court judges and his expressed support for religious liberty.
Those are themes evangelicals echoed in discussing their support for—and expectations of—the president-elect both before and after Tuesday’s election results were in.
In the days before the election, Franklin Graham stressed that evangelicals were concerned about who would fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
“I think this election is not about his potty mouth or her missing emails,” Graham told RNS on November 3.
“It comes down to the Supreme Court, and who do you trust to appoint to the Supreme Court? Hillary Clinton says she will appoint progressives, and basically progressives are people that are atheists.”
After the vote, Ronnie Floyd, senior pastor of Cross Church in Arkansas, called Trump’s releasing a list of possible nominees for Scalia’s seat a “brilliant” move.
Floyd, a past president of the Southern Baptist Convention and a member of Trump’s evangelical advisory committee, said he believes that within Trump’s first few days in office, he will nominate somebody who is “very conservative, a strict constitutionalist,” to the court.
“The first 100 days he is president, I think he will think about this: . . .‘I’m a business leader, I’ve been given a job, I’m going to get this job done,'” he said.
Anti-abortion activists expect a Trump presidency to defund Planned Parenthood and strengthen the Hyde Amendment, a provision that limits certain federal funding for abortions and which the Democratic platform this year wanted to repeal.
Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee said she did not support Trump in the primary, but overcoming “the rockiness in our relationship” had helped Trump understand them better.
“Now, with clarity, we can stand up and say, ‘This is what he thinks on our core issues,’ ‘This is what he has agreed to.’ He has agreed to pro-life justices and judges. He has agreed to the Hyde Amendment when Hillary Clinton said the opposite. He understands that we want to shift funding from the nation’s largest abortion provider,” she said.
Marjorie Dannenfelser of Susan B. Anthony List said the anti-abortion rights movement has been re-energized since the last election through grassroots efforts.
“That’s why we’re poised to really believe all of the very specific promises that Donald Trump made,” she told reporters in Washington.
Evangelicals also expect Trump will not require businesses to serve LGBT customers, said Michael Wear, who did faith outreach for President Obama’s re-election campaign.
The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said, “The idea that the evangelical community was walking in lockstep with anything and everything Trump said and did is totally erroneous.”
At the same time, Rodriguez said evangelicals have an “unbridled spirit of expectancy” that the president-elect will act on the issues that matter to them.