Welcome the Stranger? Evangelicals’ Views on Immigration Prior to Donald Trump

Photo Credit: Bilerico.com

by Miles D. Williams, Eastern Illinois University

Exit polls for the 2016 presidential election reveal that 81% of white evangelicals supported Donald Trump. However, among other religious groups Trump received substantially less support. At the same time, survey data leading up the election revealed that Trump supporters placed immigration among the top problems facing the U.S., and the majority favored construction of a wall along the southern border. After taking a look at a previous survey, the evidence indicates that these negative immigrant attitudes were not just a product of Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. Was preexisting immigration-related anxiety partially responsible, therefore, for evangelicals’ later support for Trump?

Religious Identification and Attitudes toward Immigration

Even as early as 2014, evangelicals seemed primed to favor a presidential candidate that took a tough stance on immigration. Results from a multivariate model using Pew Research Center survey data from 2014 show a clear association between identifying as an evangelical and the belief that greater levels of immigration into the U.S. are likely to represent “a change for the worse.” Republican and white respondents were further likely to view more immigration negatively, thus suggesting that if a respondent was white, evangelical, and a self-identified Republican, the odds that said respondent had a negative attitude toward immigration were quite high.


According to this same 2014 survey, evangelicals were the least likely among all religious and non-religious groups to have positive attitudes toward greater levels of immigration. Less than 20% of evangelicals reported that more immigrants entering the U.S. would be a good thing. Meanwhile, those who identified as Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist were most likely to have positive attitudes toward more immigration. Nearly 62% of Hindu respondents and 59% of Muslim respondents reported positive attitudes toward greater immigration, topping the chart among religious and religiously unaffiliated respondents.


Conversely, Evangelicals (nearly 50%) were the most likely to think more immigrants coming into the U.S. would represent a change for the worse, while only 10% of Hindus and 11% of Muslims bore negative attitudes toward greater levels of immigration.


Immigration and the Uniquely American Evangelical

It is of no small consequence that a majority of white evangelicals (57%) place a high premium on the importance of being a Christian as a prerequisite for being an American. Further, it is of equal importance that further survey data has shown that, at the county level, both a greater proportion the population that identifies as evangelical and a greater proportion of the population that report “American” as their ancestry (as opposed to “English,” “German,”, “Italian,” etc.) was positively associated with support for Trump.

The unique intersection of national and religious identity found within American evangelicalism may, therefore, explain evangelicals’ anxiety toward greater numbers of immigrants entering the U.S. and thus their support for Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Most evangelicals are native born U.S. citizens, while those affiliated with other religious groups (i.e., Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists) are more likely to be immigrants and/or know someone such as a family member or friend who is an immigrant. Therefore, evangelicals, perhaps as a result of their uniquely American identity, were more likely than other groups to resonate with Trump’s tough rhetoric on immigration since many would not be personally hurt by tougher immigration policies and since many further expressed substantial concern over immigration. And as the above analysis confirms, these attitudes preceded Trump’s candidacy for president, making this group among the most uniquely primed to support Trump and his immigration policies in 2016.

Miles D. Williams is a graduate student who recently completed his Master’s degree at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. You can see more of his work on his portfolio. 







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