By Paul A. Djupe and Ryan P. Burge
Our thinking about white evangelicals has come a long way in four years. While they have been tight with the Republican Party since the realignment of the South, there has long been some independence – if the GOP nominated a pro-choice candidate, like Rudy Giuliani for instance, evangelical elites threatened to bolt the party. By 2020 it seems clear that independence is no longer an operative concept. Evangelicals appear to be all-in for Trump.
This is the jumping off point for this post. We’d like to push this notion to its limits and ask, are evangelicals obedient to Trump? Or do they just follow Christian nationalist policy positions that Trump promotes? We’re drawing on data we collected from 3,100 respondents from March 23-27, 2020, which was early in the process of states issuing stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of covid-19. One of the issues that arose quickly was whether religious organizations would comply with those orders. A series of high-profile cases popped up across the country of non-compliant churches, with organizations like Liberty Counsel willing to represent them in court and other elites promoting the idea.
We asked respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with this statement, “If the government tells us to stop gathering in person for worship I would want my congregation to defy the order.” Overall in our sample, 22 percent agreed/strongly agreed with defiance, with 25 percent among those who attend worship services. This may not seem like a lot, but 20-25 percent of a few hundred million people is a very large number.
But we included an experiment in the survey embedded in this statement. The text for half of the sample started with “If the government…,” while for the other half, the question began, “If the Trump Administration…” Would Trump be able to secure compliance from his constituency? If Trump is influential, we would expect that defiance of “the government” might reverse to support when he is the source of the call to action.
We split the responses by race and evangelical identity (see the figure below), which highlights that evangelicals are far more likely to urge defiance of government orders, and non-whites favor defiance at slightly greater rates than whites. A story this past weekend on COGIC, a black pentecostal denomination, helps us understand where the support for remaining open comes from.
In any event, the figure also shows the effects of swapping “Trump Administration” for “the government”. It makes no difference whatsoever. There is a very slight drop in support for defiance among non-whites and a very slight rise in defiance among whites when Trump was the source of the closure order. Evangelicals within each racial group respond in the same way as non-evangelicals.
There is some variance in how much people like Trump, even among white evangelicals, so perhaps the effect of the experimental treatment works conditionally based on those feelings. The figure below shows that, if anything, seeing the “Trump Administration” boosts a desire for defiance among those who like Trump the most. Otherwise, feelings toward Trump have little bearing on defiance when “the government” is the source.
We suspect that the supposed effect of feelings toward Trump is actually something else, especially since those feelings are strongly correlated with Christian nationalism. Christian nationalists strongly identify the United States as a Christian protection device – a nation of, by, and for (white) Christians. As such, it would be inconceivable to them that a legitimate government would seek to shutter Christian churches, even for the best cause – saving tens of thousands of lives. That’s what the following figure shows – Christian nationalism is linked to an accelerating rate of defiance across the board. There is an inkling of an exception, and it really is just an inkling. Christian nationalist evangelicals who see the Trump Administration as the source of the closure order are slightly less defiant than when “the government” is the source of the order. It is not a significant difference, but it is a bit lower.
We also looked to see whether those who believe that Trump was anointed by God to become president would react differently (they are also highly Christian nationalist). But it turns out that they, also, are strongly defiant regardless of whether Trump or “the government” give the order to close.
This is one experiment in one sample and the treatment is not quite a sledgehammer. We also did not include any measure to ensure that they accurately saw the source of the closure order. So, with these caveats in mind, what could this null result tell us. We are quick to note when evangelicals pay extreme homage to Trump, calling him “King Cyrus,” or the “the chosen one.” They have forgiven, ignored, or outright defended his deplorable personal conduct, and warped their morality to support his immigration and other policies. But at no time, thus far, has Trump asked white evangelicals to make any personal sacrifices. They have not been asked to give up anything for the good of the country. While personal values may seem like a real sacrifice, that apparently was an easy choice made way back when Trump became the Republican nominee according to PRRI data.
So, instead, what the null result might be telling us is that evangelicals, liking Trump, and Christian nationalism are not vehicles of obedience or deference, but domination. These are dispositions that support their adherents taking action to protect the group, even from their own leader if the time calls for it. From this perspective, it would make sense that evangelicals defend Trump at all costs, but that is only because he has not threatened the group’s interests even in the slightest.
Paul A. Djupe, Denison University, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the book series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of religioninpublic.blog (posts). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.