Evangelicals’ Civility Stops at Trump Tower

Melissa Deckman, Washington College

White Evangelical Christians make up one of Donald Trump’s most committed group of supporters. Much ink has been spilt over why any devout follower of Jesus Christ would so fervently back a figure whose personal life and character largely fail to emulate what many would term Christ-like behavior, including Trump’s lack of civility toward his political opponents. But how does religion, particularly Evangelical Christianity, shape attitudes about civility more broadly? From a theological perspective, one could argue that Evangelicals would be less tolerant of uncivil behaviors. For instance, in Ephesians, the Apostle Paul tells his followers, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”

To understand more about what factors, including religion, shape attitudes about political civility, in June 2018 I asked 1,100 Americans their thoughts on civility through an online, national survey using Qualtrics Panels (the data are weighted to match the U.S. population in terms of sex, age, race, education and income).

Drawing on language used by Allegheny College’s (2016) survey of political civility, I asked respondents whether they would consider certain aggressive behaviors to be “against the rules” if they were creating a rulebook for civility in politics. Comparing white Evangelicals with other Americans, the figure below breaks down which specific actions white Evangelicals say would be okay and NOT against the rules of civility. For instance, just 14 percent of white Evangelicals say that manipulating the facts about an issue to persuade others would be within the bounds of civil behavior, compared with 20 percent of other Americans.  Notably, in most cases, White Evangelicals are less likely to think that aggressive behaviors should be included in a rulebook of civility, although equal numbers (18 percent) of Americans say that belitting or insulting someone constitutes civil behavior. Only when it comes to commenting about someone’s sexual orientation or questioning someone’s patriotism when s/he has a different opinion are white Evangelicals more tolerant than other Americans of such aggressive behavior.

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But how do White Evangelicals compare with Americans from other religious traditions? I created an Incivility Tolerance scale by adding the behaviors listed above, so that respondents have scores that range from 0, which indicates that they would say that none of the behaviors should be included in a rulebook of civility, to 9, which indicates that respondents indicate that all of the behaviors should be included in such a rulebook. As the score goes higher on the scale, respondents essentially have a higher tolerance for incivility. On average, white Evangelicals have a score of 1.94 out of 9, which is virtually indistinguishable from the scores of nonwhite Protestants, the religiously unaffiliated, and members of religious minority groups (see figure below). The group least tolerant of aggressive behavior is white Mainline Protestants, whose score is 1.60.  Catholics, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, are far more tolerant of uncivil behaviors than other religious Americans.

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Isolating the analysis to only Republicans (including leaners; N=414), could it be the case that White Evangelicals differ in their attitudes about which behaviors are uncivil? Here, although noting that these data should be interpreted with some caution given the small sample sizes of some of the religious groups, the figure below shows that white Evangelical Protestant Republicans actually are tied with non-white Protestant Republicans as having the least tolerance for incivility. Once again, Catholic Republicans are more tolerant of aggressive behaviors in politics, by far having the highest average score (3.522). If anything, this finding suggests that perhaps Evangelical Republicans should be a moderating force when it comes to attitudes about civility within their party.

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On the surface, then, white Evangelicals, particularly Republicans, express relatively little tolerance for uncivil behavior. However, a multivariate analysis (OLS regression) shows that being an Evangelical is not statistically related to incivility tolerance. However, Republicans are slightly less tolerant of uncivil behavior than Democrats (p=.053). This finding supports previous research by Lilliana Mason, who finds that Republicans’ homogeneity makes them less likely to be tolerant of other viewpoints and more likely take offense quickly compared with Democrats, who have more practice engaging in political disagreement as their social networks are more diverse. My regression analysis also shows that older Americans, women, and Americans who disagree with the notion that America has become “too soft and feminine” are also less tolerant of uncivil behavior.  Notably, the model results show that Catholics are significantly likely to be more tolerant of uncivil behavior.

How do Evangelicals rate, however, when it comes to their tolerance of Trump’s incivility? I asked respondents whether they would classify Trump’s behavior as civil or uncivil. White Evangelical Protestants are significantly more likely than other Americans to rate his behavior as civil, at least initially: 66 percent of white Evangelicals agree that Donald Trump is civil. By contrast, one-third or fewer nonwhite Protestants, religious minorities, or the religiously affiliated feel similarly. Interestingly, while Catholics appear to be more accepting of uncivil behavior as politically acceptable in the abstract (above), they are mixed when it comes to judging Trump’s civility.

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Turning to logistic regression analysis, however, religious tradition fails to emerge as a statistically significant predictor of such attitudes. Instead, other factors emerge as far more important in understanding which Americans are more tolerant of Trump’s behavior. Party, ideology, sex, race, income, age, and attitudes about gendered nationalism drive attitudes about whether President Trump’s behavior is considered civil. Church attendance is also positively related to viewing Trump’s behavior as civil, but matters less than other factors. For instance, conservatives are 7 times as likely as liberals to describe Trump’s behavior as civil; moderates are 3.7 times as likely to describe his behavior as civil compared with liberals. Not surprisingly, Republicans are 4.7 times as likely as Democrats to view Trump as civil, with Independents being twice as likely as Democrats to view Trump as civil. Race is also a big factor in understanding attitudes about Trump’s behavior, with whites being almost 9 times as likely as racial minorities to think Trump acts civilly. Gender matters too—men are almost twice as likely as women to rate Trump as civil. Moreover, those who subscribe to a gendered nationalist viewpoint are 3.74 times more likely than those who don’t to rate Trump’s behavior as civil. Older Americans are marginally more likely to view Trump as civil; income is also positively related to whether one views Trump as civil.

Is there anything religiously distinct about being an Evangelical that is linked to attitudes about civility in American politics? Apparently, the answer is no, which is interesting given that from a theological perspective, many Biblical authors have implored Christ’s followers to behave in a civil, peaceful manner. Perhaps the more interesting finding is that Catholics are distinct, being less bothered by uncivil acts than other Americans. One explanation could be tied to the ethnic cultures of many Catholics or their place of residency. While a stereotype, one imagines an Italian American who hails from New York as being more accepting of open, interpersonal conflict. Or, again, being more likely to live in an urban area may also make Catholics overall more accepting of different views and be more open to uncivil talk. I guess Catholics, too, are not always likely to follow the Bible’s missives about peace and love—at least when it comes to politics. This finding deserves further unpacking.

Turning back to white Evangelicals, had more of them relied on an interpretation of the Bible that calls for restraint and kindness to others, perhaps Trump’s ascension as the leader of the GOP could have been halted. There were certainly prominent Evangelicals, including Russell Moore, who warned their followers against supporting Trump because of his personal immorality, which included Trump’s course language and uncivil tone. At the same time, and with increasing frequency, it seems that other Evangelical leaders have embraced Trump despite—or even because of—his uncivil behavior. Take Jerry Falwell, Jr., a devout supporter of Trump, who once tweeted that the “US needs street fighters like Donald Trump at every level of government because the liberal fascist Dems are playing for keeps and many Republican leaders are a bunch of wimps!” As long as Trump delivers on the policy priorities of many Evangelicals, it appears that most Evangelicals are willing to overlook Trump’s outrageous behavior—which includes much of the types of behaviors that majorities of Evangelical view as being outside the norms of civil engagement as shown in the first figure. At the end of the day, Evangelicals are largely Republicans, and their unwillingness to largely brand Trump as uncivil is an indicator that partisanship “trumps” (pun intended?) religion when it comes to politics in some cases.


Melissa Deckman is the Louis L. Goldstein Professor of Public Affairs at Washington College and chairs the board of PRRI.  Her latest book is Tea Party Women: Mama Grizzlies, Grassroots Activists and the Changing Face of the American Right.  Further information about her work can be found at her website.

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