Despite porn stars and Playboy models, white evangelicals aren’t rejecting Trump. This is why.

 March 26 at 7:00 AM
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porn actress says she had sex with Donald Trump, only a few months after his wife gave birth to a son. A former Playboy model says she had an affair with him, too. And yet according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted March 7-14, both white mainline and evangelical Protestants continue to approve of Trump as president at higher levels than other religious groups.

Why are white Christians sticking so closely to President Trump, despite these claims of sexual indiscretions? And why are religious individuals and groups that previously decried sexual impropriety among political leaders suddenly willing to give Trump a “mulligan” on his infidelity?

Our new study points to a different answer than others have offered. Voters’ religious tenets aren’t what is behind Trump support; rather, it’s Christian nationalism — their view of the United States as a fundamentally Christian nation.

Here’s how we did our research

To explore the link between Christian nationalism and Trump support, we examined data from the fifth wave of the Baylor Religion Survey. Fielded soon after the election, from Feb. 2 through March 24, 2017, this survey is a national, random sample of 1,501 American adults with telephones and is weighted to estimate population parameters. This data set is unique in its size, time of collection and the measures it contains.

To measure Christian nationalism, we combined responses to six separate questions that ask whether respondents agree or disagree with these statements:

  • “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation”
  • “The federal government should advocate Christian values”
  • “The federal government should enforce strict separation of church and state” (reverse coded)
  • “The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces”
  • “The success of the United States is part of God’s plan”
  • “The federal government should allow prayer in public schools”

We also examined many other common explanations of support for Trump, including economic dissatisfaction, an index of attitudes on gender, an index of anti-black prejudice, a measure of respondents’ attitudes toward illegal immigrants and an index of views toward Muslims.

Finally, our statistical models also accounted for religious affiliation, religious beliefs and a variety of religious behaviors, as well as political measures including party affiliation and political ideology, and sociodemographic predictors including age, gender, race, education, income, marital status and residential context.

The more someone believed the United States is — and should be — a Christian nation, the more likely they were to vote for Trump

First, Americans who agreed with the various measures of Christian nationalism were much more likely to vote for Trump, even after controlling for other influences, such as political ideology, political party and other cultural factors proposed as possible explanations.

As you can see in the figure below, even when holding constant a host of other explanations, a Democrat at the higher end of the index was three times more likely to vote for Trump than a Democrat at the lower end of Christian nationalist ideology. For independents, the probability of voting for Trump increased moving across the range of the Christian nationalism scale. Likewise, Republicans scoring low in Christian nationalism were significantly less likely to vote for Trump than those scoring high on the index.

No other religious factor influenced support for or against Trump

Second, we find that Americans’ religious beliefs, behaviors and affiliation did not directly influence voting for Trump. In fact, once Christian nationalism was taken into account, other religious measures had no direct effect on how likely someone was to vote for Trump. These measures of religion mattered only if they made someone more likely to see the United States as a Christian nation.

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Antagonism toward Muslims was just as important as Christian nationalism

Finally, the various cultural explanations that other researchers have examined didn’t predict Trump support in our study, with one notable exception: anti-Muslim sentiment. How much a U.S. voter feared Muslims was as significant in predicting who voted for Trump as Christian nationalism. Overall the strongest predictors of Trump voting were the usual suspects of political identity and race, followed closely by Islamophobia and Christian nationalism.

What does this mean?

Many voters believed, and presumably still believe, that regardless of his personal piety (or lack thereof), Trump would defend what they saw as the country’s Christian heritage — and would help move the nation toward a distinctly Christian future. Ironically, Christian nationalism is focused on preserving a perceived Christian identity for America irrespective of the means by which such a project would be achieved.

Hence, many white Christians believe Trump may be an effective instrument in God’s plan for America, even if he is not particularly religious himself.

In the upcoming midterm elections, Trump and other politicians will keep emphasizing Christian nationalism. After all, it works.

White Christian America is unquestionably in demographic decline. But one of its primary cultural creations — Christian nationalism — will continue influencing U.S. politics and society for decades to come, particularly in response to waning demographic and social dominance. It’s a worldview that can’t be undermined, even by porn stars and Playboy models.

Andrew L. Whitehead (@ndrewwhitehead) is an assistant professor in the department of sociology, anthropology, and criminal justice at Clemson University. 

Joseph O. Baker is an associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at East Tennessee State University, and author of “American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems” (NYU Press, 2015).

Samuel L. Perry is an assistant professor in the department of Sociology at the University of Oklahoma, and author of “Growing God’s Family: The Global Orphan Care Movement and the Limits of Evangelical Activism” (NYU Press, 2017). 

 Courtesy: The Washington Post
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