Donald Trump is Doubling Down on the Culture Wars. Here’s Why.

Jeremiah J. Castle, Central Michigan University

“Culture wars” politicking, which uses values-driven arguments to take advantage of polarization between religious groups, has always been an important part of Donald Trump’s political playbook.

Nevertheless, Trump seems to have doubled down on the culture wars in spring and summer 2019, using executive action to move policy in a conservative direction. In May, the Trump administration proposed removing gender identity from the definition of sex discrimination. In July, the Trump administration announced a new rule designed to prevent federally-funded, family planning clinics (including Planned Parenthood) from referring women to abortion providers, and later gave clinics two months to comply. In August, the Department of Labor proposed a rule allowing federal contractors to incorporate their religious beliefs into hiring decisions, which could lead to discrimination against LGBT people. This latest barrage of cultural appeals hints that a major part of Trump’s re-election strategy will be maximizing both support and turnout among evangelicals.

The science of electoral behavior and the context of the 2020 campaign suggests that Trump will need strong support from his base if he has any hope of winning re-election. Elections involving incumbent presidents typically become referendums on the performance of the president. If this is true for Trump in 2020, it could spell trouble for Republicans: Trump’s presidential approval ratings set record lows for much of his time in office, and his approval ratings have varied less in response to new events than any other post-World War II president. In short, the data indicate that by now most members of the public have decided whether they like Trump or not, meaning that his 2020 coalition is likely pretty well established. The 2020 election will probably be less about whether Trump can persuade moderates and more about how well he can mobilize his existing supporters (and, perhaps, de-mobilize his opponents).

Although most evangelicals are committed Republicans and would support just about any Republican nominee, a few points of variation in support can be the difference between winning and losing key swing states like Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida. Indeed, part of Trump’s success in 2016 was winning a higher percentage of the evangelical vote (81%) compared to McCain in 2008 (74%) or Romney in 2012 (78%). At the same time, Trump is far from a “natural” candidate for evangelicals: Trump’s multiple marriages, affairs with porn stars and subsequent “hush-money” payments, penchant for swearing, and declaration that he had never sought forgiveness from Christ make him a less-than-natural candidate for evangelicals. A plurality of evangelicals preferred Ted Cruz in the 2016 Republican primary, although most eventually came around to Trump when he became the Republican nominee. Once he was the nominee, Trump relied on a combination of Republican party identification and advocacy on cultural issues to attract evangelicals. In particular, during the 2016 campaign Trump vehemently condemned late-term abortions (including a high-profile exchange in the third debate), promised to nominate pro-life justices, and pledged to repeal the Johnson Amendment.

As I discuss in my new book Rock of Ages: Subcultural Religious Identity and Public Opinion among Young Evangelicals, conservatism on cultural issues (abortion in particular) became an important part of evangelical identity in the late 20th century, due in part to years of advocacy from the New Christian Right. Evangelicals remain distinctively conservative on cultural issues today. The chart below shows the proportion of evangelicals and non-evangelicals taking the conservative position on 48 different policy areas using data from the 2014 Pew Polarization and Political Typology survey. The three issues with the largest gap between evangelicals and non-evangelicals were same-sex marriage, homosexuality, and abortion. On many other sorts of issues, the gap between evangelicals and non-evangelicals is substantively small. Thus, Trump’s culturally conservative policies suggest that he understands evangelicals’ issue preferences, even if his religious biography is lacking.

Trump Evangelicals RiP

Culture wars politicking is also likely to help turn out evangelicals. Evangelicals have much higher than average rates of church attendance, and all of that time in church can reduce the amount of time available for political participation in ordinary circumstances. However, as David Campbell shows, in the face of perceived threats to their values or culture, the deep social networks in churches can make them powerful sources of political mobilization. In particular, cultural issues like abortion and homosexuality have proven effective at mobilizing evangelicals and other religious voters. In the 2004 election cycle, a series of ballot referenda on same-sex marriage mobilized evangelicals and other religious traditionalists. Similarly, in 2008, mobilization among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was key to the passage of California’s Prop 8, which amended California’s state constitution to ban same-sex marriage (this amendment was overturned in the 2010 U.S. District Court case Perry v. Schwarzenegger). Thus, for Trump, culture wars politicking achieves two goals in one.

In short, all signs suggest that Trump’s recent wave of culturally conservative policies are an effort to re-energize evangelicals and other religious voters as the 2020 election draws nearer. In the long-term, there are signs that this strategy won’t last: the percentage of the population with no religious affiliation is increasing, and white Christians are now a minority in American politics. Trump seems to be betting that he can hold together his coalition and hold off the pressure from demographic trends for at least one more election. We’ll see how that gamble pays off in 2020.

Jeremiah Castle teaches courses on American politics, political behavior, and research methods at Central Michigan University.  His work has been published in journals including American Politics Research, Social Science Quarterly, The Social Science Journal, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and Politics & Religion.  In addition, his book Rock of Ages: Subcultural Religious Identity and Public Opinion Among Young Evangelicals (Temple University Press) is out now. You can find out more about Jeremy’s research via Twitter (@CastlePoliSci) or his website.


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