Evangelicals, negative partisanship, and Trump Skip to content

Evangelicals, negative partisanship, and Trump

Why do evangelicals, who supposedly are concerned about morals, continue to support Trump in overwhelming numbers?

5 min read


Earlier this year, scholars rated Donald Trump the worst-ever president. Earlier this month, Trump became the only former president to become a convicted felon.

Even so, most polls still show a tight reelection race between President Joe Biden and Trump, who is also the only twice-impeached president.

More than a few Americans think that given Trump’s dubious record in office, Biden should be a shoo-in for a second term. But Trump v. Biden II “defies logic,” said Northern Kentucky Tribune columnist Bill Straub, a Kentucky Journalism Hall of Famer. “I’ve thought about it for a long time now, and I’m no closer to reaching some sort of resolution in my own mind.”

Murray State University historian Brian Clardy is in the same crowded boat with Straub, other perplexed pundits, and other stumped scholars. “Twenty years ago, if somebody had told me that Jan. 6 would happen, I would not have believed them,” the professor confessed. “If anybody had told me 20 years ago that Donald Trump, an unsuccessful carnival barker, would incite a MAGA mob that would storm the Capitol, I’d have said they needed to be committed.”

Straub is especially baffled by white conservative evangelical Christians whose faith in Trump seems unshakable. “The conservative religious folks used to look down their noses at lying, cheating, and stealing, but seem to be embracing Trump more than most other folks,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to matter to these folks.”

Trump is a twice-divorced, thrice-married philanderer. He uses foul language and prefers golf to church on Sundays. Before he became a felon, a civil trial jury found Trump guilty of sexually abusing a woman. After the trial, the judge said ”what the jury found Trump did was in fact rape, as commonly understood.”

Now Trump is facing paying thousands of dollars in civil damages. He could do time for fudging business records on the 2016 campaign to hide paying hush money to a porn star who said she once had sex with him.

But white evangelical fealty to Trump — and like-minded politicians — is rooted in racism, according to Anthea Butler, a professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania.  

Trump has run the most racist presidential campaigns since George Wallace in 1968. When he dog-whistles “Make America Great Again,” he wants whites, including evangelicals, to hear “Make America White Again.”

In her 2021 book, White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, Butler argued that racism has always undergirded white evangelical theology.

“It is racism that binds and blinds many white American evangelicals to the vilification of Muslims, Latinos, and African Americans,” she wrote in her book’s introduction. “It is racism that impels many evangelicals to oppose immigration and turn a blind eye to children in cages at the border. It is racism that fuels evangelical Islamophobia. It was evangelical acceptance of biblically sanctioned racism that motivated believers to separate and sell families during slavery and to march with the Klan. Racist evangelicals shielded cross burners, protected church burners, and participated in lynchings." 

Also in the introduction, Butler described herself as “a former evangelical” and warned that “evangelicals are not naïve individuals who were taken advantage of by a slick New York real estate mogul and reality TV star. They were his accomplices. Their prayers and shows of piety surrounding conservative elected officials — most notably in recent times, the forty-fifth president — are a feature, not a bug, of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American evangelicalism. Race and racism have always been foundational parts of evangelicalism in America, fueling its educational, political, social, and cultural mores ….

“Evangelicalism is synonymous with whiteness. It is not only a cultural whiteness but also a political whiteness. The presupposition of the whiteness of evangelicalism has come to define evangelicalism, and it is the definition that the media, the general public, and politicians agree on.”

Clardy said that a current of racism has always flowed through American politics. “Let’s not fool ourselves. But Donald Trump came along at the right time with economic anxieties being what they were, with changing demographics in the country being what they were – and he exploited that to the max, and he appealed to people’s worst and basest instincts, and here we are.”

Clardy never believed that Obama’s election meant that white America had finally turned its back on its racist past. He recalled standing in the crowd at Obama’s inauguration in 2009. A woman standing next to him remarked about how wonderfully promising the day was. “Yes, but back home they’re seething,” he replied.

Straub said many conservative whites — not just evangelicals — oppose “sharing power with other people who have been denied such power in the past. He appeals to people’s worst and basest instincts. He has no empathy for Black or Latino voters.”

No voting bloc is more fiercely loyal to Trump than white evangelicals. “More than 80 percent backed him in the 2020 elections,” Shadi Hamid recently wrote in The Washington Post. “And this has long presented a puzzle: How can people who prize moral rectitude and personal witness to Jesus so faithfully support the most secular president in American history, someone who seems by his behavior at best indifferent to Christianity?”

He said the answer partly lies in Trump’s ability “to change the meaning of ‘evangelical.’”

Explained Hamid: “After evangelicals embraced Trump, something odd happened. As other Christian denominations hemorrhaged members, evangelicals saw their ranks grow; from 2016 to 2020, their share of the White adult population increased to 29 percent, from 25 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. The catch was many of these new evangelicals didn’t go to church. They became evangelicals because of what it meant politically, most of all because it was a way to signal support for Donald Trump. Among White Trump supporters who were not evangelicals in 2016, 16 percent began to identify as evangelical by 2020, suggesting again that politics rather than religion was the driving factor.”

In a January Time column. Samuel L. Perry proposed two reasons why so many evangelicals dote on The Donald: “The first is that white evangelicals, and especially the most devout ones, are ride-or-die partisans. The more often white evangelical voters attend church, the more likely they are to identify as Republican. ... The second ... is because they are not only partisans but culture warriors who still feel under attack.” 

Perry concluded that “whatever cognitive dissonance some devout Christians may feel for supporting a twice-impeached serial philandering liar who tried to stage a coup and threatens violence against political opponents, is easily dismissed with the conviction that no Republican nominee, no matter how problematic, could be worse than losing to a Democrat.” 

Some of the Trump faithful even believe a Russian is preferable to a Democrat. At a 2018 Trump rally in Ohio, two men were photographed sporting tee shirts that proclaimed, “I’d rather be Russian than Democrat.” Versions of the shirts are available online.

Vox’s Zach Beauchamp called the snapshot “an extremely clear way of understanding how deep hatred of Democrats is warping the Republican Party, part of a phenomenon political scientists call ‘negative partisanship.’”

He wrote, “This attitude — hatred of the other party above all else — is at the heart of so-called ‘negative partisanship,’ a concept that Georgetown University’s Jonathan Ladd defines as “the tendency to vote for a party not mainly because you like it, but because you are repulsed by the other major party.” This phenomenon, he explains, is why Republican leaders and voters were able to get past their policy disagreements with Trump and vote for him: “They’d rather have a Republican in office, however unorthodox and unqualified, than any kind of Democrat.”


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Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a professor emeritus of history at West KY Community College, and an author of seven books and co-author of two more. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)

Arlington, KY