Evangelicals’ evolving role in the 2016 election

Since the Reagan years, conventional wisdom has held that evangelicals, who make up roughly 25 percent of the U.S. population, are a formidable voting bloc capable of launching a candidate to the White House. But the 2016 election cycle is upsetting that wisdom.

Reports, surveys and exit polls show a significant number of evangelicals support Donald Trump — a kind of anti-evangelical in his messy personal life and mere passing acquaintance with the Bible. Meanwhile, avowed evangelical candidates such as Ben Carson and Marco Rubio (a Catholic-turned-Mormon-turned-Catholic who attends an evangelical church) failed to excite evangelical voters and dropped out of the race. And Ted Cruz, whose evangelical bona fides are a prominent part of his campaign, has had to fight for every evangelical vote he has won.

What is going on among American evangelical voters, who were once such a powerhouse? Are they now so divided that they no longer have the power to drive an election? What effect will their 2016 votes have on the future of the Republican Party? Or were they ever the solid voting bloc the press reported? Many of these questions won’t have definitive answers until after the election, but scholars, politicians and pundits agree: The political clout of American evangelicals is evolving.

Background

Polls and other resources

  • A March 24, 2016, poll published by the Barna Group found that evangelicals are the least engaged faith group in the current election.
  • “Faith and the 2016 Campaign” is a report by the Pew Research Center published Jan. 27, 2016. It shows that most Americans say it is important the president have religious beliefs. At the same time, it finds that among all the candidates still in the race at that time, Americans found Trump to be the least religious by a large margin. The poll also found that two-thirds of Republicans say it is important that a president share their religious beliefs, and half of evangelicals say they think Carson, Trump or Cruz would make good presidents.

National sources

  • David Kinnaman

    David Kinnaman is president of the Barna Group, which has conducted research into whether infidelity is similarly or less prevalent among churchgoers.

    He can discuss the findings of the Barna Group’s most recent poll on religion and politics.

    Contact: 805-639-0000.
  • T.M. Luhrmann

    T.M. Luhrmann is an anthropology professor at Stanford University and the author of When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With GodIn an April 13, 2013, New York Times op-ed essay, she describes herself as a secular observer of evangelical congregations and says “one of the most important features of these churches is that they offer a powerful way to deal with anxiety and distress, not because of what people believe but because of what they do when they pray.” The essay is titled “When God Is Your Therapist.” She has worked with psychotic homeless women, many who claimed God was their only friend.

  • Russell D. Moore

    Russell D. Moore is president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Contact through Carrie Kintz.

  • Jonathan Merritt

    Jonathan Merritt writes and speaks extensively on faith and culture and is a senior columnist for Religion News Service. Merritt’s books include A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars and Jesus is Better Than You Imagined. He can discuss the viewpoints and concerns of young evangelicals on a range of issues, especially on sexuality and sexual identity and the environment. He lives in Brooklyn. Contact through his website.

  • Stephen Prothero

    Stephen Prothero is professor in the religion department at Boston University. He is author of Purified By Fire: A History of Cremation in America and American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, which looks at popular images of Jesus in film, television and print. He has also written about American Hindus.

    Prothero wrote a piece for Politico asking why evangelicals are migrating to Trump, whose personal life and political promises seem to contradict many of their assumed beliefs and values.

  • Samuel Rodriguez

    The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez of Sacramento, Calif., is president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. He has criticized conservative evangelicals who have spoken against or have remained silent on immigration.

    He has been critical of Donald Trump’s rhetoric surrounding immigrants, especially Hispanic immigrants.

  • Mark Silk

    Mark Silk is director for the Leonard Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. Silk is also professor of religion in public life at Trinity. He is particularly knowledgeable about religious variances from one part of the country to another; his books include (as co-author) One Nation, Divisible: How Regional Religious Differences Shape American Politics.

    He is co-editor, with Candy Gunther Brown, of The Future of Evangelicalism in America (2016).

  • Gregory A. Smith

    Gregory A. Smith is the associate director of research at the Pew Research Center and is an expert on religion in America.

    He can discuss the Pew Research Center’s findings on religion and politics.

  • Ed Stetzer

    Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He was formerly the executive director of LifeWay Research, a division of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, one of the world’s largest suppliers of Christian products and services. Through LifeWay, he conducted research on American evangelicals. He is also an expert on church planting and blogs on a variety of subjects about American evangelicalism for Christianity Today.

    With Leith Anderson of the National Association of Evangelicals, he researched the changing definition of “evangelical.”

Organizations

  • National Association of Evangelicals

    The National Association of Evangelicals is an organization that includes 45,000 congregations from 40 member denominations, individual congregations from an additional 27 denominations, and 250 parachurch ministries and educational institutions. Its mission is to gather, strengthen and expand the evangelical community. Galen Carey is vice president for government relations.

    Contact: 202-789-1011.

Regional sources

Northeast

  • Melanie Brooks

    Melanie Brooks is a writer and memoirist who was raised in an evangelical home. Her father contracted HIV-AIDS through a blood transfusion and the criticism of Jerry Falwell and other evangelicals of people with HIV-AIDS deeply affected her and her family. She has written critically of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s support of Donald Trump. She lives in Maine.

  • Peter G. Heltzel

    Peter G. Heltzel is associate professor of systematic theology at New York Theological Seminary and an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He is the author of Jesus and Justice: Evangelicals, Race and American Politics.

  • Andrew R. Murphy

    Andrew R. Murphy is an associate professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. He co-edited the book Religion, Politics and American Identity: New Directions, New Controversies.

Midwest

  • Laurie M. Johnson

    Laurie M. Johnson is a political science professor at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., where she teaches a course on religion and politics.

  • Kedron Bardwell

    Kedron Bardwell is an associate professor of political science at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. Bardwell’s focus includes American politics, public policy, civic engagement and collaboration. He has tracked the courting of evangelical voters in Iowa in the lead-up to the 2016 election.

  • Brent Waters

    Brent Waters is a professor of Christian social ethics for Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. He co-edited God and the Embryo: Religious Voices on Stem Cells and Cloning. He studies Christian ethics and can discuss their relationship to Christian political thought.

South

West

Related ReligionLink resources

“A guide to evangelicals and politics,” updated June 19, 2014.