The Duality of Religion and Support for Trump

By Paul A. Djupe, Denison University

It was another week in the US: Trump said yet another awful thing, this time labeling certain countries “shitholes” in a meeting with Senators, and his evangelical advisory council twisted itself in knots defending it (great reporting by Sarah Pulliam Bailey here). Neither is surprising at this point – what is surprising at this point? – but one argument caught my eye that seemed worth discussion and further investigation. Rev. Robert Jeffress, megachurch pastor of First Baptist Dallas, litigated his support for Trump’s comment thusly (pulled from Bailey’s article):

“What a lot of people miss is, America is not a church where everyone should be welcomed regardless of race and background. I’m glad Trump understands the difference between a church and country. I support his views 100 percent, even though as a pastor I can’t use that language.”

I want to move quickly past my outrage about how he defines America to focus on religion. What Jeffress says about religion is not necessarily wrong, but is dangerously incomplete. Religion isn’t nearly so universal as Jeffress implies. He omits half of the American religious family tree. Tellingly, it is the one that he tends to inhabit and the one that tends to move people.

American religion offers a range of religious models that vary in their inclusion and exclusion. An inclusive style welcomes all and understands that the result of aggregating diversity can be shifting commitments. An exclusive style draws boundaries of conduct and interactions looking to protect a set of commitments. Put more bluntly, exclusive religion is more comfortable positing and naming evils that must be avoided. Stark and Finke (2000) argue that the mix of inclusion-exclusion define the spectrum of offerings in the religious economy – they are the brands or styles that denominations present to the public.

The indefatigable Brian Calfano and I took these conceptions to heart and attempted to measure them explicitly in a number of articles (here, here, and here). And in 2016 we were in the field again surveying white Christians about their religious and political commitments just before the election. True to form, we included the same measures that we have used before to capture commitment to inclusion and exclusion and can link that support to their political positions. Just how much of American religion is Jeffress (deliberately) missing?

The figure below (red lines are averages) presents the responses to four questions that Calfano and I argue capture religious values of inclusion and exclusion for white evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and Catholics.[1] It is true that American religion has strongly inclusive qualities. Each of these white religious groups (not by their definition, but ours) takes a strongly majority position in favor of inclusion with very few opposed to those values (note the empty space at the bottom of each graph). However, these groups are also strongly exclusivist as well. Many feel compelled to segment their social and economic lives by religious bounds. Not surprisingly, white evangelicals are both more inclusivist (following the dictate to evangelize) and the most exclusive (reifying the danger of access to sin).

pane of scatters of inc-exc

Since there are multiple models or combinations of inclusion and exclusion, what difference does it make? White evangelicals were 10 points more positive toward Donald Trump compared to white mainline Protestants and Catholics in the week before the election, but those differences hide greater differences by religious style.

In the figure below, we can see how the two value sets work together to shape feelings toward the highly exclusivist political figure Donald Trump. Those with little adherence to inclusion start at the same point regardless of their exclusivity.[2] From there, their support for Trump rapidly diverges depending on how exclusive they are. High exclusivity is linked to quite positive feelings toward Trump, while the least exclusive show feelings toward Trump that increasingly chill as their inclusivity passes the midway point. Those with the highest ambivalence – the most inclusive and exclusive – have feelings toward Trump closer to the midpoint of the scale.

The same pattern plays out in how respondents perceive their clergy to support Trump (both of these analyses controlled for religious tradition).[3] Among the most exclusive parishioners, there is less return to the center linked to high inclusion. And among the most inclusive/least exclusive, the relationship is monotonic. Obviously we do not have the clergy’s own views, so the parishioners’ religious values are a proxy for what they are exposed to. There is some support for that link, though, in a chapter we wrote for Religion and Political Tolerance: Advances in the State of the Art.

Thus, to understand the political attitudes flowing from American religion, we need to comprehend the reasons for its ambivalence as Scott Appleby famously argued.[4] The religious styles capturing various combinations of the directives to maintain piety (exclusivity) while bringing more into the fold (inclusivity) generate competing political logics that affect support for Trump, and in previous analyses drive attitudes about American foreign intervention policy, support for immigrants, and surely much more. Rev. Jeffress is not wrong about the inclusive tendencies of American religion, but he’s missing most of the story and certainly what makes evangelicals’ public face right now so interesting as the two value orientations are at war with each other.

Paul A. Djupe, Denison University Political Science, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of religioninpublic.blog (see his list of posts here). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.


Notes

0. The title is a nod to the iconic scene in Full Metal Jacket.

1. Commitment to inclusion includes agreement that, “To be true to my faith, it is important to ‘love the stranger as yourself.’” and “…it is important to invite others to church even if the church begins to change as a result.” Exclusion is captured by agreement that, “To be true to my faith, it is important to shop as much as possible at stores owned by other people of my faith.” and “…it is important to keep company with other people of my faith.”

2. I started the graph at inclusive=.2 since only 4 percent of the sample lies below that point.

3. One might say that of course the same pattern plays out since they join churches where they agree with the pastor. But this is not nearly a simple 1:1 relationship. As seen in myprevious post “Religion is not a matryoshka doll,” there is often quite a bit of difference in their own views of Trump compared to their perception of their pastor’s view. Here’s what this looks like in this sample:

4. There’s some irony in my saying this. I was just complaining about how many scholars of religion resort to “Applebyism,” finding it sufficient to say that religion is ambivalent or has ambivalent effects. For the record, I of course agree that religion may have differential effects, but we need to specify the conditions under which the effects differ. Here, I link the ambivalence to competing values and the rates at which they are held drive different political attachments. Elsewhere, I have argued that political context drives differential effects of religious values on political tolerance (Shaffer, Sokhey, and Djupe 2015), etc.

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