• Kevin Boyle

The myth of the 80%

This week, particularly if Trump wins, you will hear people blame “the evangelicals” for the Trump vote.

Evangelicals have been blamed for Trump ever since 2016 when the Edison exit poll supposedly revealed that 81% of evangelicals voted for Trump. (I just learned this today, but, incredibly, there was only one national exit poll, Edison, to which all media outlets refer.[1])

Here I’ll give my own version of a great little blog from a couple years ago by Justin Taylor. In it he disputes the 81% (actually 80%), and he’s absolutely right. It is simply inaccurate to say 81% of evangelicals voted for Trump.

“Stop Saying 81 Percent of Evangelicals Voted for Trump (It Was Probably Less than Half)”

First, the exit poll did not say 80% of evangelicals voted for Trump. It said 80% of white evangelicals. White evangelicals make up anywhere from 58-76% of the total population of evangelicals in the United States, depending on whom you ask (see below). At any rate, the 80% number fails to account for at least a quarter of the evangelical church in America. Minority evangelicals tend to vote Democrat, like minorities tend to do regardless of religious identification.[2] But unfortunately the poll doesn’t tell us the breakdown of how all evangelicals voted because, amazingly, it didn’t ask! The poll only identified whiteevangelicals.[3] If all evangelicals, including my non-white brothers and sisters, were included, the percentage who voted Trump would be around (and probably under) 50%.

So should we just blame the white evangelicals? No.

The poll didn’t even measure the percentage of white evangelicals who voted for Trump. It measured white evangelical voters who voted for Trump.There is a difference. Taylor cites historian Thomas Kidd who estimates 40% of white evangelicals did not vote in 2016. If only 60% of white evangelicals voted, and if 80% of the 60% voted for Trump, that means 48% of white evangelicals voted Trump.

But even that estimate is too simple.

There is the two-fold problem that (a) the exit poll relies on self-identification and that (b) there are competing definitions of the term “evangelical.” What polls and pundits mean by “evangelical” is not what theologians mean by “evangelical.” The World Evangelical Alliance—by the way, probably the people you should ask if you want to know what the word means—has a nice summary of who evangelicals are:

"evangelicals are recognized by their high regard for the Bible as the Word of God that guides their daily lives; the conviction that salvation is only received by faith through Jesus Christ who died on the cross and was resurrected to life; that God is triune as Father, Son and Holy Spirit…. evangelicals want to share the Good News (in Greek: evangelion) of Jesus Christ with others, serve those who are in need and speak up for the marginalized. Their highest commandment is to love God, and to love their neighbor as themselves."[4]

What do politicians and the media mean when they use the term evangelical? Well, I have no way to demonstrate this, but it seems to me they normally use the term to mean “politically conservative Christian.”[5] I’m no expert in American religious history, so I don’t know how we got here (Jerry Falwell?), and I’m sure it was very circular.[6] But that’s my assessment how the term has been used in the media both now and leading up to the 2016 election. As Jonathan Merritt says, “To the pastor, it is a denominational or doctrinal term. And to the politician, it is a synonym for a white Christian Republican.”[7]

The problem is that most people only know the media’s definition. Every November I’m hesitant to tell the person sitting next to me on the plane that I’m going to the annual meeting of the “Evangelical Theological Society,” because they’d probably envision a prayerful Trump rally with bishops wearing MAGA mitres. Most people, including most evangelicals according to the theological definition, are only familiar with the Fox News and CNN definition and not the WEA definition.

Now combine the problem of definition with the problem of self-identification. The poll asks you to determine if you’re an evangelical (only if you’re white, I guess). And whether you think you’re an evangelical depends on what you think an evangelical is. And as I’ve just said, the vast majority of people have only heard the word “evangelical” as used in the media to designate a politically conservative Christian.

And then we act surprised when the exit poll says 80% of white evangelicals voted for Trump. It’s built into the definition. When the exit poll asks individuals whether he or she is an evangelical, many non-evangelicals will check “yes” and many evangelicals will check “no,” because everyone thought they were asked, “Do you identify as a Christian, and are you politically conservative?”

This is why a 2017 Lifeway Research study distinguished self-identified evangelicals from “evangelical by belief,” i.e., evangelicals according to the theological definition.[8] They found that only 45% of people who identified as an evangelical actually held evangelical beliefs.[9] Conversely, of those who held evangelical beliefs, only 69% considered themselves an evangelical.[10] See the problem? (Also, the research revealed 58% of evangelicals by belief are white, while the number is 70% for self-identified evangelicals. Pew, which relies on self-identification, puts the number at 76%.[11])

And after four years of hearing about Donald Trump’s “evangelical base,” I’m sure the confusion is worse now than it was in 2016. This year, when the poll asks the evangelical question, many people will hear, “Do you identify as a Christian, and are you voting for Trump?”

So don’t believe it this time next week when you read that 80+% of evangelicals voted for Trump.

All that having been said, there will still be a lot of evangelicals who vote for Trump. But you will not hear me bashing them.

Believe it or not, not all evangelical Trump voters vote for Trump because they are white nationalist racists who don’t care about poor people.

First of all, most Trump voters don’t think that Trump or his policies reflect those views. And for that reason many evangelical Trump voters support Trump with few reservations.

But for most evangelical Trump voters their decision was not simple. I cite this Christianity Today article[12] presenting key findings of research done by the Billy Graham Center Institute and Lifeway Research which sought to understand the motivations of evangelical (by belief) voters in 2016. They showed that only half of evangelical Trump voters actually understood their vote as vote for Trump. The other half viewed it as a vote for certain policies or against those of Clinton.

And believe it or not, even of those who considered their vote for Trump, not all of them agree with every view or every tweet of Donald Trump. In a media and social media climate in which we’re constantly told that you must be 100% against Trump or 100% for Trump, the truth is that most evangelicals (and Americans) are somewhere in between.

Now all that having been said, I absolutely admit that there is a Trump problem in the American evangelical church. If you want proof (and to laugh), watch a movie called The Trump Prophecy, produced, unbelievably, by Liberty University. Seriously, do it (it's included in Prime). You’ll actually learn something (though not what the producers intended). (And by the way, I pray for Liberty’s post-Fallwell Jr. recovery.) Or search “Robert Jeffres” on YouTube. That sort of Trumpvangelicalism is called idolatry; it’s an abomination. When we see it, we should practice church discipline.

But the Trump problem is not as big as many people think it is.

The data shows it, and it’s been my experience as well. I live in the evangelical world. I'm basically a professional evangelical. And I can honestly say that in the last five years I haven't heard any elements of the MAGA narrative apart from individuals I can count on one hand. I can count the people I know to be Trump voters on two hands.

I don’t care if the world slanders the church. That's par for the course (1 Pet 3.16). But what I can’t handle is when church leaders, particularly academic theologians, slander the church (Jas 4.11; 1 Pet 2.1; Eph 4.31-32). Slander might not be on our top-10 sin list, but it seems to be on God’s list (Ex 20.16).

P.S. I'm not voting, in case you're wondering.

[1] [2] [3]Danielle Kurtzleben reports the revealing comment of one reporter who said, “The idea” behind diving these groups “is to avoid lumping groups with clearly distinct political ideas into one bucket.” Well, no wonder. [4] [5]I wrote this before I read the following article by David French in which he writes, “When they hear ‘Evangelical’ they often interpret it as ‘politically conservative Christian.’” [6]Jonathan Merritt touches on it here: [7] [8] [9]Even more dramatically, as pointed out by Danielle Kurtzleben for NPR, Pew, which relies on self-identification, calculated that evangelicals comprise 35% of the US population. The Barna Group, which defines evangelicals by belief, puts the number at 6%.;; [10]According to Barna in 2007, 86% of evangelicals by belief call themselves evangelicals, whereas only 19% meet the Barna’s theological definition. [11] [12]

Kevin Boyle