Religion and Sexism in the Trump Era, 2016-2018

By Paul A. Djupe

[image credit: The Daily Beast]

American society has been going through what seems like a profound shift given the #MeToo revelations over the last few years – widespread allegations of sexual harassment (and worse) that have caused the resignations of multitudes of men in high profile positions, including Harvey Weinstein (producer), Al Franken (US Senator), and Bill Hybels (megachurch pastor). Of course, another public figure – Donald Trump – has now been accused of sexual harassment and worse by 24 women, though of course his supporters dismiss those allegations out of hand. For some in the public, this series of events may have served to make them aware of the continued problems of sexual harassment that women face in the workforce. It is certainly clear that MeToo and Trump’s treatment of women inspired a large contingent of women to run for public office in 2018.

Those cultural forces may have run up against religious institutions conveying long-standing views about the appropriate roles for women to play in public life. A few weeks ago, I wrote up a description of how different religious groups stand on women in public life. Generally speaking, I found gender gaps within each religious tradition and higher degrees of sexism among more conservative religious groups. Several findings stood out. First, young evangelical men were more sexist than their granddads. And, second, there was no gender gap among Mormons.

Those findings beg the question – how have sexist attitudes been changing in this critical period? We are fortunate that the Voter Study Group asked the same battery of questions in 2016 and again in 2018 to the same people (I used the 2018 in my previous RIP post). They asked whether respondents agreed or disagreed with the following statements; I’ve put in parentheses what a sexist response would be:

  • Women Should Return to Their Traditional Roles in Society. (agree)
  • When Women Demand Equality These Days, They Are Actually Seeking Special Favors. (agree)
  • Women Often Miss Out on Good Jobs Because of Discrimination. (disagree)
  • Women Who Complain About Harassment Often Cause More Problems than They Solve. (agree)
  • Sexual Harassment Against Women is No Longer a Problem in the US. (agree)
  • Increased Opportunities for Women Have Significantly Improved the Quality of Life in the US. (disagree)

In two years, how did the views of religious groups change? The figure below shows that using an index of the 6 statements listed above with a marker for 2016 attitudes and one for 2018 attitudes. Of the 10 groups listed, 7 showed reduced or the same sexism scores. Two showed visible increases – Orthodox Christians and non-Christians (which would include Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims). Both are much smaller samples, so we should take these results with some caution as we’ll see in a second. Evangelicals are pegged to the high end of these groups and have not budged. Mormons showed a notable decline (though not significant at conventional levels). Overall, the shift was about 1 percent less sexist – that is a significant difference, but clearly very small.

The figure in the right panel shows whether the change experienced by the religious group was statistically significant – is it distinguishable from no change (0)? There are only four groups that showed demonstrable change. Nones, Catholics and mainline Protestants all showed a decrease in sexism (less than 2%), while the Orthodox showed an increase (3.5%), and the non-Christian movement is not significant. None of these are large, but they are notable.

Women are certainly not uniform in their attitudes about women in society, so the MeToo movement may have had just as great of an impact on women’s sexism as men’s. However, since women already tend to have lower levels of sexist attitudes as it is, they have less room to move. Men have more room to move, but will they? Perhaps men and women will polarize on sexism just like the parties.

The figure below confirms that most gender-religious groups didn’t change their views much. Some of those small changes among large groups are statistically distinguishable, but they remain small. This is not surprising, of course, but most of the changes are also in a less sexist direction. Catholics, mainline Protestants, religious nones all show some small movement to the left among both men and women.

There are several groups that show sizable changes. Sexism among non-Christians and Orthodox Christians sexism went up, especially among women. It increased so much among Orthodox women that it erased the gender gap that was present in 2016. Black Protestant men also shifted left by 2018, shrinking the gender gap.

Maybe the most interesting shift was among Mormon men, however. In my previous post, the lack of a gender gap and the high degree of sexism from both Mormon men and women were surprising and lead to quite a bit of discussion, such as in this piece by C. Jane Kendrick. Well, as it turns out, there used to be a gender gap, but the time between 2016 and 2018 erased it. Mormon men’s sexism as measured by this scale dropped considerably (~5%) in those 2 years.

What could possibly cause this decline? One possibility is the anti-Trump sentiment from Mormons that lead to a strong showing for Evan McMullin in 2016. But, after looking at the data, the shifts were stronger among men who approve of Trump. Something else is going on. I suspect that the answer lies within Mormonism. One example is the organizing of the Mormon Women for Ethical Government, which among other things put pressure on Mormon senators to oppose Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. But there have been other moves that have challenged established practices in the church’s treatment of women, such as an online petition against the practice of LDS bishops asking young girls about their sex lives, and the creation of the Ordain Women organization pressing to allow women as religious leaders (though this organization has been in existence since before 2016). Surely there are many other points of pressure that I am not privy to.

Perhaps the elephant in the room is partisanship. Religious groups are mostly not homogeneous politically, so perhaps the partisans are just polarizing on sexism, which may mute the apparent movement within religious groups. The figure below shows the movement from 2016-2018 among partisan categories.[1] No group shows significant gains in sexism, and most groups show signs of becoming less sexist over this time period. Strong and leaning Republicans are holdouts. Again, the amount of change is small – the greatest amount of change is just shy of 2% (Democrats).

With a crowded Democratic field full of women contenders for the party’s presidential nomination, it is clear that the public discussion of gender norms and roles will continue. Religious groups, and not just Democratic leaning ones, are in on these discussions and their affiliates are slowly shifting their views in ways more inclusive of women. I sure hope I get to write another one of these posts in a few years.

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


1. Don’t be fooled that these groups are next to each other in their sexism scores – Strong Republicans average .475 on this 0-1 scale, while Strong Democrats average .145. They are far apart.


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