By Paul A. Djupe and Ryan P. Burge
Last fall, we wrote about the extent to which white Protestants believed Donald Trump was anointed by God to be president of the United States. Just 21% believed this, but evangelicals were more likely to believe it (29%), and pentecostals were the most likely (53%). This belief didn’t come out of nowhere, it was making the rounds of conservative media, with figures such as Rick Perry suggesting that Trump is “the chosen one,” a label Trump embraced and used (while pointing toward the clouds) in an August 2019 presser. Others used variations on the theme; he was compared to King Cyrus; “God was behind the last election;” and Trump is the “King of Israel,” and the “second coming” according to Wayne Allen Root.
We ran another survey in late March, 2020, and asked the same questions of a sample of American adults quota-sampled to match the nation in gender, region, and age. The 2019 sample was only of church-attending Protestants, so we subsetted the 2020 data to match. In 2019, among white Protestants who attended church weekly or more often, 29.6 percent believed Trump was anointed by God to be president. But by March 2020, that figure had climbed to 49 percent. It was up across the board, though none so dramatically as among the regular attenders.
Notably, believing that all presidents were anointed also increased over the past year and in just as dramatic of fashion. It is also clear that there remains a gap in believing that all presidents are anointed versus whether Trump was, though it is now much smaller. In 2019, the gap was nearly 40% across attendance categories, though by 2020 the gap was closer to 15%. The religious significance of the presidency is spreading.
Before we isolate this as a phenomenon of white Protestants, we should compare them to the rest of the sample in 2020. The figure below shows unequivocally that white Protestants are NOT distinctive in their beliefs in Trump’s anointing. In the top two attendance categories, the level of belief is effectively identical between the two groups. This is a phenomenon that is sweeping American religion.
Why? An obvious candidate is that people are hearing these arguments made by elites. In our previous post, we noted some high profile figures suggesting a special religious mandate for Trump, but it may go much deeper than talking heads on Fox News. We do not yet have data on clergy or other local elites making specific claims about Trump’s anointing, but we have two proxies and an experiment to document how this may be happening.
First, we asked March 2020 respondents whether they had heard their clergy mention a number of political topics and figures – e.g., Donald Trump, coronavirus, Islam in America, and 9 others. We do not know the content of that speech from these questions, but we can see whether clergy speech is driving up the religious significance of Trump. There is no effect of clergy speech on anointment beliefs for Democrats and Independents. But there is quite a strong effect for Republicans. More Republicans believe in Trump’s anointment when they attend a political church. Though some of this effect surely reflects the political engagement of the respondent, a fair bit of congregational experiences are beyond the control of the individual.
We also asked respondents if they had heard anyone making the claims that Democrats would strip them of their rights and liberties if they were to take power. We’ll have a whole post on these items soon, but for now they also serve as a proxy for elite persuasion and terms promoted by the Trump camp (and ones he explicitly utters from time to time, such as at the 2020 CPAC conference). Here the relationship between hearing these arguments and believing in Trump’s anointment are not strongly contingent on partisanship. Independents appear less responsive, but belief in Trump’s anointment climbs for both Democrats and Republicans with the more of these arguments heard. At the high end, 40% of Republicans and 26% of Democrats believe that Trump was anointed by God. Thus, both proxy measures are relatively consistent that there is at least a supportive set of argumentation behind the belief that Trump is anointed.
We also sought to test whether elite communication could be causally responsible for believing Trump is anointed using an experiment. In the survey, we exposed half of the respondents to this popular meme before answering the questions about anointing:
This is now an old meme, dating back to at least 2017, and we believe that quite a bit of similar material has been in play online and on TV, so this should pass for a stringent test of elite persuasion – chronically accessible information tends not to move people. Does incidental exposure to the association between Trump and Jesus influence beliefs in his anointment?
Yes, but the effect is not widespread. Evangelicals are more likely to believe that Trump is anointed across the partisan board. But the meme has no effect on Democrats or Independents. Only among Republicans can we see an effect, but it too is limited to evangelicals. Evangelical Republicans who were exposed to the meme boosted their belief that Trump was anointed by God. The effect is about 8 percentage points, shifting from a bare majority (52%) to 60%. This is perhaps surprising given our belief that evangelical Republicans would have already been saturated with this sort of argumentation. Apparently, though, the persistent reminders are effective, which implicates the effect of the right-wing echo chamber.
We are not the first to note that right wing media are having a profound effect on public opinion, serving to insulate Trump supporters. But we are some of the first to document how this is built and sustained from the bottom up. That is, political churches, among Republicans especially, reinforce the argumentation that is also coming from above. The evidence provided here suggests a degree of vertical integration that is amplifying the threat felt from outgroups and the religious significance of the ingroup political leader, Trump. It is this combination of forces that suggests traditional measures, such as campaigns, that can broaden the discourse and pull in new constituencies will likely be ineffective. But it is important to see that this is not just an evangelical Republican problem.The religious significance of the presidency is swelling across the board for the religious, indicating further polarization along religious and partisan lines is continuing.
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.