An analysis of data from the American Trends Panel relating to white evangelical protestant Christians found a link between the belief that Donald Trump’s election was a part of God’s plan and whether a person considers him/herself a religious minority. While 66% of white evangelicals who do not see themselves as a religious minority stated that Trump’s election was a part of God’s plan, this percentage increases to 74% for white evangelicals who do consider themselves a religious minority. The study was published in Politics and Religion.
Eighty-one percent of white evangelicals reported voting for Trump in the 2016 presidential elections. This number declined by only 3% in the 2020 election, in spite of multiple well-publicized events in which president Trump displayed irreligiosity or committed moral transgressions.
Given previous findings that white evangelicals consider religiosity of a candidate an important factor when making their voting decisions, their staunch support for president Trump has been a puzzle for researchers. Some scholars have proposed that negative partisanship, a tendency of voters to form political opinions in opposition to parties one dislikes might be part of the answer. But can the perception of threat to one’s religious identity be the factor behind it?
To answer this question, Jack Thompson of the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom analyzed data from Wave 61 of the American Trends Panel that included responses of 6,395 U.S. persons aged 18 and above. Thompson analyzed responses to questions about respondents own religious denominations, the importance they attribute to the religiosity of U.S. presidential candidates, and their assessments of the religiosity of the presidential candidates.
Whether the respondent considers him/herself a religious minority and answers to a 4-category question about God’s role in Trump’s election were considered dependent variables. Possible answers to this latter question were that (1) Trump was chosen by God, that (2) his election was part of God’s plan, that (3) God does not get involved in the elections, and respondents could also state that (4) they do not believe in God.
The author assessed religiosity using items asking about the importance of religion for the respondent, and about how often the respondent prays and attends religious services. Religious denominations were classified using an eight-category system proposed by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) that combines religious denomination and race. Categories were: white evangelical Protestant, Black Protestant, Hispanic Protestant, white Catholic, Hispanic Catholic, other Christian, non-Christian, and the religiously unaffiliated.
The author hypothesized that white evangelicals will have a high probability of considering themselves a minority due to their religious beliefs and that this perception will condition their beliefs about God’s role in Trump’s election.
The results indicated that the vast majority of white evangelicals consider stance towards religious beliefs an important trait of a U.S. president, but only a third of them considered Trump to be religious. While Mike Pence was considered religious by 87% of white evangelicals, this was only 37% for Trump. Prominent Democratic (or Democrat-aligned) politicians like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren were considered even less religious than Trump, but Joseph Biden was considered a bit more religious.
“This finding suggests that Trump is a unique case when it comes to white evangelical evaluations of the religiosity of elites: instead of projecting their beliefs onto Trump, and thereby supporting him because of his perceived religiosity, white evangelicals support him despite his lack of religiosity,” Thompson wrote.
White evangelicals considered themselves a religious minority much more often than other popular Christian denominations and it is only the non-Christian denominations that had visibly higher proportions of people seeing themselves as a religious minority.
When asked about God’s role in Trump elections, white evangelicals who considered themselves a minority were more likely to see Trump’s election as a part of God’s plan (74%) compared to those who do not consider themselves a minority (66%). Although very low, the percentage of white evangelicals who consider themselves a minority and stated that God chose Trump is still greater than the percentage of those who do not consider themselves a minority who gave the same answer (9% vs 7%).
“The findings concerning the salience of identity threats on conditioning white evangelical beliefs also provide an additional explanation for why evaluations on Trump’s religiosity might not have mattered when it came to their vote choice in 2016,” Thompson concluded. “Namely, because Trump’s invocation of the decline of white Christian America proved effective in activating religious identity threat in a way that led to white evangelicals to coalesce around his candidacy. In this way, Trump’s ability to articulate white evangelicals’ fears about the declining influence of Christianity likely overrode any lingering concerns about his religiosity.”
The results highlight the link between minority status perception and political decisions. However, study did not take into account various religious cues that presidential candidates might be using, which might have been shaping white evangelical political stances and responses to the survey.