White evangelicals and white born again Christians in 2020

In 2016, more white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump than had voted for the Republican in any election since 2004 (The Hill). In 2020, exit polls estimated support among white evangelicals at about 76%—5% off of the 81% exit poll estimate in 2016. What do these numbers tell us about the political divide in American religion? On one hand this stunning divide might show signs of modest decline in this age of hyper polarization. On the other hand, this exit poll measure greatly exaggerates the political divide along religious lines and care must be taken in the 2020 postmortem to capture religious diversity more accurately.

To begin, these numbers are stunning because it is difficult to find large groups within the American public in which the partisan split is so stark. 76% and 81% rival the split among Democrats and Republicans—and “white evangelicals and white born-again Christians” are a fairly large group, 27% of the electorate according to the exit poll. These groups are very, very rare. In fact, the ONLY SOCIAL group that bests this partisan split in the exit poll is race. The 2020 exit poll estimated 87% of black voters supported Biden and were about 12% of the electorate. Only 66% of Hispanics supported Biden. Sex, age, union membership, and so on are nowhere near these levels of division. What gives?

First, it is telling that race is the only rival split in the exit poll because white evangelicals are, well, WHITE. The exit poll designation is a Frankengroup—a group created by political analysts that does not occur in nature. This is problematic because much of the partisan divide in this item is about race, not religion. Yet many pundits analyze the percent of white evangelicals that vote for the Republican as if it confers the approval of a religious group. To be sure the racial divisions elsewhere in American society are very much a part of religious life, but the exit poll item confounds race and religion by using the question about race to create the group, “white evangelical or white born-again Christian.” Tobin Grant (Professor of Political Science at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale) estimates that if evangelical and born-again Christians were NOT divided by race in the exit poll item, the percentage voting for the Republican would be closer to 50% than 80%. Many black voters are evangelical or born-again Christians.

But even if race were removed, the “evangelical or born-again Christian” designation is also problematic. Unfortunately, again, no such group exists in nature. The Southern Baptist Convention is an American denomination with institutional structure and whose members share history and governance. Many Southern Baptists answer in the affirmative to the exit poll question about whether one is an evangelical or born-again Christian, but they share little history or governance with other groups that also answer in the affirmative.

Academics studying religion and politics also combine groups in order to analyze evangelical protestants, but they attempt to do so in ways that capture inter-denominational cooperation and preserve broader religious differences (e.g. theological differences). Unfortunately this more rigorous approach requires a battery of survey questions about the specific church and denomination each individual attends. Tobin Grant also estimated support for Republican candidates among evangelicals using a more rigorous measure of evangelical affiliation (and again, no racial question) and arrives at a number closer to 60%. This number is somewhat higher than the one obtained by only removing race as a criterion, reflecting ongoing racial divisions within American religion. But the main point is that the political divide in evangelicalism—let alone within American religion—is much lower than the exit poll item implies.

Perfect alignment between religion and partisanship would pit religious and non-religious groups in existential political battles. Unfortunately analyses of the exit poll item identifying white protestants make it seem like that frightening reality is nearly at hand. It is important to remember, however, that a portion of what appears to be a religious divide is a racial divide. This divide is also terribly important and it is also terribly important to be able to identify it as a racial divide. In addition, the artificial group formed using the survey prompt to identify “evangelicals or born-again Christians” also seems to underestimate the amount of political diversity among real evangelical groups. And of course there are many religious groups in American society besides evangelicals (and those groups tend to be even more politically diverse)—and so over-reliance on the exit poll item creates a false dichotomy between evangelical and born again Christians and the non-religious. To conclude, the religious divide in American politics is terribly important and more analyses are needed before we can feel confident about where things stand in 2020.