Retired Evangelicals Care A Lot about Immigration, Less about Gay Marriage

by Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

I have written a lot about young millennials at Religion in Public. In “Are Millennial Evangelicals Going to Change the Narrative?” I argued that young evangelicals were slightly less tied to the GOP than their older evangelical counterparts, which may be due (in part) to higher levels of racial heterogeneity in younger generations. More recently I made the claim that “Young Evangelicals are as Republican as Their Grandparents.” In that piece I found that not only were younger evangelicals just as solidly Republican as their grandparents, but the gap in partisanship between evangelicals and non-evangelicals was the largest among the youngest Americans surveyed (aged 18-35). That’s a scary precedent as it could likely lead to less conversation among individuals with different opinions which may make the divide grow even larger. I also wrote a piece about the causes of young evangelicals leaving church. It seems that those who get married and have kids keep up their attendance throughout the life course compared to those who chose to stay single and childless.

I’ve always been interested in the behavior of young people. One of the reasons is because I was a youth pastor for a few years in college and genuinely care about young people’s future and the future direction of evangelicalism. The other reason is that I want to make it clear to anyone who thinks that they can just wait out the Religious Right is going to have to wait a long time. The data tells a story that is unmistakable: young evangelicals are not moving back toward moderate politics. There is zero evidence of that when looking at political partisanship. However, what if there were some small cracks in the evangelical-GOP facade? Are there issues that young evangelicals find more important than their elders that maybe the Republican party doesn’t do a good job of addressing? I turned, yet again, to the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study to find out.

The graph below displays the mean issue importance for six age categories of white evangelicals ranging from 18-35 year olds to those who 75 and older. The horizontal capped lines represent 95% confidence intervals. The dark red dots, which indicate the youngest evangelicals, are clearly different on some issues. Those include social security, national security, and even taxes, and jobs. However, note that those issues are ones that are traditionally considered to be “older adult” problems. While everyone doesn’t like to pay taxes, young people typically pay very low tax rates until they move into their 30s and 40s, therefore that doesn’t strike a nerve with them. The same can be said for social security, with many in the sample being thirty to forty years away from collecting a retirement check from the government.

Look at the bottom of the graph, as well. Note that for many issues, young white evangelicals have the same level of concern as those in other age groups. For instance, there has been some discussion that young evangelicals are more worried about the environment. There is not a shred of evidence to support that in this survey. In fact, their level of concern is the same as the oldest evangelicals. The same can be said for a few other issues like gun control and abortion. If younger evangelicals’ level of political concern is different than other evangelicals that divergence seems to be based on age and little else.

I wanted to offer another angle on the results of this analysis using a rank order chart for each of the six age groups. The chart is displayed in reverse order with those issues that were ranked the lowest at the top (15 is lowest), and issues ranked the highest at the bottom (#1 is best). One caveat: for some of these rankings the difference in means was not statistically significant, but the general trend is still illuminating.

First note which issues are clearly of lower concern to all evangelicals: gay marriage. For all six age groups they ranked that issue dead last in importance. It seems that with the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell that evangelicals see that the same sex marriage as a settled issue and have moved on. Notice, also that the environment was the second least important issue, which is also consistent among all age groups. The other major social issue, abortion, does not register too highly among any age group either. It seems that social issues are not the driver of evangelical voters that many would like them to be. However, when the lines begin to move up and down interesting patterns begin to emerge.

As previously discussed, social security is not a high priority issue for young evangelicals but but it certainly is among their elders, moving from 11th to 3rd. Immigration is one that is incredibly interesting, however. Note that immigration is the 8th most important issue for white evangelicals between 18 and 35 years old. And it stays in that range all the way through age 64. However, something startling happens after that. While 55-64 year olds put that issue in ninth place, that issue becomes the fourth most important for those 65 and older. Many of the arguments against illegal immigration center around immigrants taking the jobs away from American citizens but they doesn’t seem likely to happen from someone who is 65 or older.

Speaking of older white evangelicals, it’s interesting to note what they care about and what they do not. It’s clear that they are quite worried about immigration, but they also don’t give much thought to things like health care and taxes compared to those in middle age. Note that for young evangelicals health care is the number one concern. For the oldest evangelicals it’s the seventh most important. If there is any angle that may help Democrats drive a wedge into the evangelical/GOP coalition, that may be it. It’s clear that young evangelicals care a great deal about health care. However, whether Democrats are effectively able to speak to that concern is an entirely different matter.

While I set out to make this post about millennial evangelicals, I must admit that the results from retired white evangelicals are what really stand out to me. This group is not activated by traditional social issues like gay marriage and abortion. They don’t even seem to be moved by gun control or even taxes. Instead, older Americans seem to have a high level of threat perception. Consider the issues that they care about the most: national security, corruption, social security, immigration, and crime. You could place three of those five squarely in the category of outgroup threat. I wanted to see if any of this was unique to the older, white, evangelical group. The graph above compares the rank order of white, non-evangelicals who are 65 and older with their evangelical counterparts. There are a lot of similarities, but a few glaring differences. One that stands out particularly is that for older, white, non-evangelicals immigration is the 8th most important issue. For older white evangelicals, it’s the fourth most important issue. Clearly, retired evangelicals have a greater deal of animus towards immigrants than the rest of the older population. But it’s also clear that threat is not the issue here, because older respondents of any religious identity belonging put it in fifth place. And national security is also very similar between both groups. There is something going on here. I will leave the reader to draw their own conclusions.

Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website.

Full coding syntax for this analysis is available on my Github.


  1. […] The bigger takeaway from the graph maybe is this: the average vote share for each of the six age groups looks much closer to the “low importance” group than the “high importance” group. Yes, there are evangelicals who look like environmentalists, but even those who believe that the environment is important don’t catch votes for Democrats in large numbers. For white evangelicals over the age of thirty who thought the environment was of high importance (49.9% of the sample), three in five voted for Trump. It seems like an issue that gets a great deal of lip service, but is not become a wedge among evangelicals. Instead, this group is more concerned with things like taxes and immigration. […]


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