Conservative evangelical Christians put Donald Trump, of all people, in the White House because they believed that his administration would bring them big wins on the issues they care most about. That bet paid off handsomely — on abortion, perhaps their top issue, and on much more — during the first two years of Trump.
Those voters have in turn become the president’s most loyal base, even as he endures a campaign finance scandal linked to payoffs to a porn actress, and they played a critical role on Election Day.
Evangelicals overwhelmingly prefer Republicans, and they turned out in high numbers again in the midterms. With that strong social conservatives turnout, the GOP managed to avoid a nightmare scenario in the House, where they lost 35 seats, and the party appears to have gained seats in the Senate.
White conservative evangelicals could point to wins across the board — on abortion, on gender identity, on “religious freedom,” and, most importantly, on the Supreme Court — under Trump. From their perspective, the Trump administration has been a series of smashing successes on their core issues. Trump’s behavior is almost beside the point. Instead, they have a deeply religious vice president, Mike Pence, quietly working to enact their agenda.
“President Donald Trump’s administration has undoubtedly been the most pro-family and pro-life administration in decades,” Walker Wildmon at the American Family Association said in an emailed statement to Vox.
The white evangelical community views the Trump era as a fundamental realignment of American politics, with the Christian right reasserting itself after eight years of Barack Obama. They understood that if the GOP lost the Senate and the House in the midterm elections, their agenda was at risk. On the surface, the GOP leaned into a fear-based white identity campaign, but underneath, evangelicals had a whole set of other issues they care very deeply about that have nothing to do with immigration or crime.
Perhaps most importantly, evangelicals wanted Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation. And the day after the election, Senate Republicans were eager to credit the Supreme Court justice for their Senate gains. A few Senate Democrats who opposed Kavanaugh lost in Trump states: Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. Several other Senate Democrats, however, ran in states that Trump won while opposing Kavanaugh and pretty easily won reelection.
Whatever the spin in the afterglow of election night, evangelicals appear to have been crucial to the coalition that kept Senate Republicans in power.
The importance of evangelicals in the 2018 midterms, explained
It isn’t news that white evangelical Christians vote overwhelmingly for Republicans. But it was fair to wonder in 2016 how they would reconcile Christ’s teachings with an adulterer who was caught on tape bragging about grabbing women’s genitals against their will.
In the end, it made little difference: 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump. It is impossible to quantify his effect, but the presence of Pence on the ballot surely helped some of those voters make peace with Trump — and the vice president has been an instrumental figure since taking office in setting the administration’s agenda on these issues.
Those people have stuck with Trump. In April, after a year of Trump and having racked up some of those important victories, 75 percent of evangelical voters said they approved of the way the president was doing his job. In the most recent Fox News poll, Trump was still holding 73 percent approval among these voters. They gave him winning marks on the economy, health care, immigration, race relations, and the Supreme Court.
Evangelicals used the specter of the midterm elections to influence the White House and Republicans in Congress. They warned that if Trump pulled Kavanaugh’s nomination as the judge faced sexual assault allegations, their voters would be demoralized and might not turn out in the numbers needed in November.
“If Republicans were to fail to defend and confirm such an obviously and eminently qualified and decent nominee,” evangelical leader Ralph Reed told the New York Times, “then it will be very difficult to motivate and energize faith-based and conservative voters in November.”
Trump and Republican leaders held out and Kavanaugh got confirmed. Republicans were relying on their base to stave off a Democratic tsunami, and they knew evangelicals were critical to that mission.
These people vote. In 2014, Sarah Posner wrote at Religious Dispatches after those midterms, evangelicals might have been a declining share of the population, even in places like the South, but they made up a disproportionate share of voters. In Kentucky that year, which had a marquee Senate race, evangelicals were only 32 percent of the population, but they were 52 percent of the electorate.
“The religious right spent decades building get-out-the-vote operations and candidate recruitment and training grounds,” Posner wrote in 2014. “Those efforts do not vanish with demographic changes,”
In 2018, white evangelicals were again an outsized part of the electorate, per Robert P. Jones at the Public Religion Research Institute:
White evangelicals hanging on, % voters vs. % population:— Robert P. Jones (@robertpjones) November 7, 2018
2012: 26% vs. 20%
2014: 26% vs. 18%
2016: 26% vs. 17%
2018: 26% vs. 15%#Midterms2018
Evangelicals break for Republican candidates by a huge margin, 68 percent versus 24 percent for Democrats, in the recent Fox News poll of the generic congressional ballot. That was the single strongest showing for the GOP across any economic or demographic group.
These evangelical voters made up a crucial bloc in many of the red-leaning districts Democrats thought were within reach but fell just short in.
Democrats did seem to be fare better with social conservatives than Hillary Clinton did in 2016, per that Fox News poll, and they did win some solidly Republican districts.
But the problem was the sheer number of votes as much as the margin. White evangelicals showed up as they had in past midterm elections, while Democrats were relying on younger, more diverse voters who haven’t historically turned out in prior midterm elections in the same volume as they do in presidential years.
Democrats look to have come up just short in the Texas Senate and in Florida governor races, some of the races where they were making that bet, despite strong turnout.
Biggest wins for evangelicals: anti-abortion agenda, Supreme Court Justices
Social conservatives have their reasons for sticking by Trump. As Vox’s Jane Coaston reported, the Supreme Court motivated Republicans to rally to Trump two years ago as much as any other single issue.
For the evangelical community, there is no more important issue than abortion. Many evangelicals still hold hopes of overturning Roe v. Wade completely, which could lead to abortion becoming illegal in much of the country.
But short of ending legal abortion outright, conservatives have pushed a broad range of abortion restrictions in the states they control. Those restrictions almost always end up in the courts, when abortion and civil rights groups sue, and evangelicals want conservative justices who will uphold them.
Trump gave them two: Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. I reached out to half a dozen socially conservative groups to ask what they liked about the Trump administration, and the president’s Supreme Court choices made every list.
“Judge Kavanaugh is a man of proven judicial temperament, fair and impartial to all who appear in his courtroom,” Jim Daly at Focus on the Family wrote after his Senate confirmation vote. “He deserves to sit on the nation’s highest court, and the nation will be greatly served because of it.”
The evangelical fixation on abortion — white evangelicals are actually the only white Christian cohort with a majority of members who oppose abortion, according to the Pew Research Center — extends beyond the Supreme Court.
The anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List compiled a list of the Trump administration’s “pro-life” wins. While the material impact might be debatable or unclear — many of these policies are simply federal guidance or giving the states more options to crack down on abortion, which some Republican-led states surely will — they are still part of the agenda that evangelicals voted for when they voted for Trump.
- Permitting states to deny federal family planning and Medicaid funding to Planned Parenthood
- Reinstituting the “Mexico City” policy, which prohibits overseas US aid from being used to fund organizations that perform abortions (even if US aid doesn’t directly fund them)
- Requiring health insurers, particularly on Obamacare’s markets, to disclose if their plans cover abortions
- Loosening Obamacare’s contraception mandate to give religious nonprofits and private companies wide latitude to refuse to cover those medications for their workers
- Creating a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division within the Health and Human Services Department as a safeguard for socially conservative concerns on health care
Evangelicals see all this as evidence of an administration taking a hard line against abortion.
It’s not just anti-abortion policies that evangelicals love
Evangelicals have another smattering of issues they care about, based on their stricter reading of Christian teachings: religious freedom (i.e., permitting discrimination against LGBTQ people for religious reasons), gender identity (particularly in the education space), and foreign policy (US-Israel relations first and foremost).
In all those areas, Trump has also been a huge success in conservative Christians’ eyes.
The Trump administration issued a broad edict to all federal agencies to respect “religious liberty” in their various policy pursuits. Trump also signed an executive order that ostensibly protects free speech rights and religious freedom. Even if its force of law is questionable, it was another positive signal from the White House to evangelicals.
In Trump’s first month in office, the Education Department rescinded Obama-era federal guidance that encouraged schools to allow students to use whatever school facilities fit with their gender identity. The president has also supported a transgender ban in the US military, to the chagrin of some seasoned military veterans.
The consideration of redefining gender as biology fits in the same vein. Evangelicals see permissive, secular public opinion changing around issues like LGBTQ rights and gender identity, and they are looking to the Trump administration to claw back to some sense of normalcy. At least what’s normal in their worldview.
“Under the last administration, liberals were so used to the president twisting the rules to suit the Left’s agenda that it’s news when Donald Trump decides to operate within the plain text of law,” Perkins at the Family Research Council wrote.
Trump also moved the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a longtime dream of the evangelical right (and a notion sometimes tied up in other, more troubling apocalyptic ideologies). It was one of the issue areas White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, herself a devout Christian, said she was personally invested in.
It is one of the great paradoxes of American politics in 2018 that white evangelicals have convinced themselves that Trump, whatever his personal history, is a man of good and upright character. But his administration’s actual record on some of their core issues, the project of Mike Pence, helps explain any apparent contradiction.
Evangelical Christians likely delivered some of the decisive votes for Republicans in the 2018 midterms. Republicans sure want to credit them with doing so. After all, the Trump administration had quietly spent the past two years giving them every reason to turn out and keep the country, in their minds, on the right track.