USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

The Varieties of American Evangelicalism

How Will Evangelicals Vote in 2020?

CRCC created “The Varieties of American Evangelicalism” to help journalists and observers of political life understand the nuances of Evangelicals’ political engagement, highlighted and exposed by their overwhelming political support for Donald Trump.

In the four years since the last presidential election in the US, we have seen both pundits and reporters try to explain this sizable part of the US electorate to the rest of the country. Stories in major publications have pointed to progressive attitudes among young evangelicals, as well as to the steadfastness of evangelical support for Trump. Prominent evangelicals have continued to stand behind Trump, even while Christianity Today, a stalwart institution within evangelicalism, argued that he should be removed from office.

In response to each new headline over the past few years, we repeat one of our favorite phrases at CRCC: “Yes, and….”

Political engagement in the evangelical world exists on a spectrum. Members of our five “types” of evangelicals all ascribe to an evangelical theology and see it as motivating their social and political actions. At the same time, they do not agree on all political and social issues, or how to approach such issues in the public sphere.

There is a growing recognition that the polling category of “white evangelical” obscures the diversity of those who share theological beliefs—and completely leaves out people of color who profess the same beliefs and even identify as evangelical. Yet, as we approach the 2020 US presidential election, the question on everyone’s mind returns to polling: Will the 77 percent of those who identified as white evangelical in 2016 exit polls vote for Trump again?

We encourage you to peruse the five “varieties” of American evangelicalism in our report to understand each type’s background, motivations and how they operate in the world. Additionally, we want to share a few more observations and predictions for today’s political climate:

  • The vast majority of white evangelicals will vote for Trump, even if they are not all Trump-vangelicals. A Pew Research Center survey reports that despite a drop in approval of Trump’s performance in recent months, 82 percent of white evangelicals would vote for Trump today. A recent Fox News poll shows a drop in likelihood of voting for Trump among white evangelicals, but the story is the same: overwhelming support for Donald Trump in the upcoming election. Different groups will have different motivations for voting for him, and some may hold their noses as they vote, but the tradition of political conservatism runs strongly within evangelicalism.
  • Even the most “progressive” Evangelicals, including young people, do not find a natural home in the Democratic Party. You will notice that our spectrum shades from red to purple, with only a thin sliver of blue. There is greater diversity among younger evangelicals and a greater interest in justice issues such as immigration reform and race. Many interested in these issues may be “Kingdom Christians,” but as such, their focus is largely on their local communities. While some young Evangelicals may be open to voting for a Biden/Harris ticket, young people overall are less likely to vote than their elders. Pew Research Data also suggests that even though “Millennial” evangelicals’ have become more accepting toward LGBT+ rights and gay marriage, their party affiliation and views on abortion are not radically different than those born before 1981. Thus, evangelical Millennials have retained a commitment to certain elements of their conservative roots, and are thus not as progressive as one might think.
  • Abortion plays a dominant role in evangelical political attitudes and actions, even for younger evangelicals. Trump’s success in appointing conservative judges across levels of the judiciary branch has helped keep many evangelicals loyal to him.
  • Expect a narrative of victimhood. Evangelicals have historically set their identity against what they present as a tide of secularism and religious discrimination in American culture. The idea that they are being oppressed because of their beliefs and practices is core to their identity. In recent elections, LGBT+ rights have been framed as an affront to their religious freedom to discriminate against individuals, identities and practices that they oppose. In 2020, controversy around wearing protective masks and limiting large gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic has stoked the sense that the government wants to restrict Christian beliefs and practices.