Is ‘White Born-Again Christian’ Just a Synonym for ‘Republican’?

By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

In a previous post, I described the results of data from November of 2018 which indicate that white evangelicals were actually more Republican halfway through the Trump administration, than before he was elected. They show no signs of regretting their decision; if fact it appears they are emboldened by the Trump administration. Nearly 80% of white evangelicals who attended church once a week or more approved of the job that Donald Trump was doing as commander in chief. After writing that post I was struck with a simple thought: is white evangelical just a synonym for Republicans now? Is there any daylight between how a typical Republican feels and how a born-again evangelical feels on political or racial issues? Once again, I turned to the great new dataset available from Data for Progress to try and answer these questions.

The graph below shows the mean for four different groups: white born-again Protestants (blue), white born-again Republicans (red), everyone who identifies as a Republican (orange), and Republicans who say that they are not born-again (black). Each of the graphs below contain 95% confidence intervals. I think these four different groups help to paint a picture of exactly how religion and race intermingle to generate interests that largely align with the Republican platform.

The array of issues is a bit all over the place, I will admit. They are clearly focused on areas that would appeal more to a progressive audience than Republicans or evangelicals, but I think that they are especially helpful in trying to understand where evangelicals overlap with Republicans, and where there are differences. It’s clear that white evangelicals as a whole are slightly less conservative than the other three groups since they’re not all Republicans. That is more evident when it comes to abolishing ICE and other economically progressive ideas like free college and Medicare for all. But where do white evangelical Republicans break from Republicans in general? I can’t find many instances where there is a real divergence. On the issue of legalizing marijuana it seems that white evangelical Republicans are slightly less receptive to the idea than Republicans overall, and evangelical Republicans are more supportive of drug tests for welfare than all Republicans. That seems to be the only two places where there is daylight between the groups.

The Data for Progress survey also contained several batteries of questions that were trying to tap into white racial resentment. There’s been a flurry of research lately that indicates a sizeable chunk of Obama voters in 2012 voted for Trump in 2016 because they felt that white Americans were losing their privileged status in society. The four statements had the goal of tapping into that idea by attempting to elicit feelings of racial animus. Again, the same four groups were assessed on each of these four statements. Nearly the same pattern emerges as before. White born-agains seem to possess lower levels of racial animus than the other three groups, but the differences are small. However, there are no statistical or substantive differences between not born-again Republicans, born-again Republicans, and Republicans on any of the four questions. The clear indication is that being born-again does not lower the levels of racial animus felt by evangelical Republicans in any way.

In addition to the racial animus scale, the survey also included a number of questions reminding respondents that in the next 25-30 years white people will not make up the majority of the population. Once that idea was proposed in the survey, then five statements were read asking participants to consider the implications of that demographic shift. The only clear cut difference here is white born-again Protestants indicating slightly lower levels of fear regarding demographic change. The remaining three groups are strikingly similar in how they respond to these questions.

Finally, the survey asked how lazy or intelligent the respondents thought that blacks, whites, and Hispanics were. These questions have a long history in public opinion research as a means to gauge overt prejudice toward minority groups. Here, white born-again Republican were slightly more likely to think that blacks were hardworking and intelligent than Republicans in general, but the differences were not statistically significant. In general, all four groups found Latinos to be more hardworking than whites, but blacks and Latinos were also rated as slightly less intelligent than whites. However, these differences are relatively small.

Looked at broadly, we see from this data there is essentially no difference between a Republican who is white and born-again and a Republican in general. There are some issues where there is a slight difference: namely marijuana legalization and some racial issues, but by and large white evangelical Republicans look like the average Republican. There are a lot of ways to think about this. One quick thought is that it reinforces the fact that there’s not a lot of diversity in policy stances among Republicans. These results, especially in the first graph, indicate that there is not a huge share of libertarian Republicans. Another consideration I had was this: the cohesion in results is a function of the fact that most Republicans are also white and born-again, so I checked that out. In total there were 945 self identified Republicans in the sample, compared to 335 white born-agains who identified as Republicans. That means that two thirds of the Republican sample is NOT white and evangelical.

If one were to believe that exposure to a religious belief or a religious community has an impact on the political perspective of the faithful, then why do the results for white evangelical Republicans look the same as Republicans in general? That leaves us only two answers: the theological messages and social interactions that white evangelicals experience as part of the religious activity has no impact on their political outlook, or that this religious exposure is so intertwined with Republican politics that the two reinforce each other. It’s clear that religious authority has taken a backseat to political authority when it comes to shaping the political worldview of parishioners. One could speculate that this is due to the fact that many church going evangelicals have access to 24 hours of news from a conservative perspective on a daily basis, while religious instruction may make up 1-2 hours in the week of a frequent churchgoer. Either way, it’s clear that religious teaching is taking a backseat to political punditry for white evangelicals.

Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website. The syntax for the post can be found in this gist.

Featured Image Credit: Progressive Radio Network

2 comments

  1. Hi Ryan. Thanks for this interesting piece. There’s a somewhat more efficient way to think about this phenomenon. I think that being Republican has become a component of the social identify of (white Anglo) evangelicals. This is what Leonie Huddy described as a politicized social identity in her essay: “From Social to Political Identity: A Critical Examination of Social Identity Theory.” Political Psychology 22 (2001): 127-156. If we have to shoehorn it into the 3B framework, it’s another case of belonging.

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    • I think you are largely correct, Ken. I am more and more convinced that the most important word in the term “white evangelical” is the racial descriptor. It’s clear that evangelicals of color represent a much more diverse (and dare I say interesting) range of political beliefs and behaviors. Maybe that could lead to some more analysis. It’s nice to know that this stuff is being read by people I respect and admire.

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