By Paul A. Djupe
The last week has gifted us some truly stunning news centered around the presidential election, studded by violence against voters, promised violence to (Democratic) elected officials, and violence (with fire) against votes. It would be easy to blame deep-seated negative emotions toward the other party as the cause, but that would be missing one underlying accelerant of apocalyptic sentiment: the growing religious significance of the presidency for many voters.
The presidency has always been significant to religious groups, especially as the powers of the branch expanded and the public reach of the president grew apace. Moreover, the president, particularly from Washington’s example, was arguably the high priest of American civil religion – a loose, parallel to American religion. But what I mean to discuss here is something altogether different, a step change from the civil religious notions. In the estimation of a growing number of American voters, the presidency is held by a man with a religious charge. Though he has no real idea what the Bible contains or what the Christian faith entails, Trump is seen as the anointed agent of God.
We’ve reported on this before, showcasing a number of examples of elites making this claim and demonstrating the distribution of this belief. In Fall 2019, we estimated that 21% of the electorate believed that Donald Trump was anointed by God, 29% of white evangelicals, and 53% of pentecostals. By March 2020, belief in the anointing of Trump among white, weekly church attending Protestants had jumped 20 points from 29.6 to 49.5%. Some believe that all presidents are anointed, but the figures for Trump are much higher. Have these figures changed since earlier in the year?
Yes. In a survey that is just wrapping up this week weighted to match the national population , we find that among weekly attending whites, over 60% agree that “Donald Trump was anointed by God to become President of the United States.” Agreement steadily deteriorates among non-evangelicals as their worship attendance slides, but it remains high among evangelicals who are more infrequent attenders. There is simply no way to argue that evangelical support for Trump is situated among the less observant among their ranks. Instead, the evidence points to a closed communication system that reinforces Republican tendencies with novel systems of beliefs about the consequences of Republican ceding control.
One way we can tell is the strong relationship between beliefs in Trump’s anointing and Christian nationalism – a worldview consisting of deep links between Christianity and the state such that the US is a Christian nation that is an instrument of God’s plan such that the federal government should promote Christian views. Shown in the graph below (which results from a model that also controls for some demographic differences), Christian nationalism is very strongly linked to belief that Trump is anointed. Fully 90% of ardent Christian nationalists believe Trump was anointed by God. And worship attendance plays little role in differentiating Christian nationalists. Once they adopt this worldview conflating their religion with the state, they become firmly committed to Trump’s Republican Party. This helps reinforce the idea that Christian nationalism is no general, civil religion-style worldview; it has been stoked specifically to deify God’s Own Party and Trump in particular.
That shows prominently in how voter support aligns with a belief in Trump’s anointing. The results below show that belief in his anointing is not a neutral religious belief, but a partisan one. Those who believe in his anointing are overwhelmingly his supporters – 84 percent of evangelicals who believe in his anointing indicate they are voting for him, along with 77 percent of non-evangelical, anointing believers. Less than a majority of those who do not believe he has been anointed are voting for him from the two religious groups, though more evangelicals (47) than non (34).
The idea is not new that an evangelical identity has been fused with a Republican identity. It is newer to see that it implicates race by extending outside evangelicalism to frequent attending whites – see Robby Jones’ new book White Too Long for more on that subject). But it is truly novel to see an explicitly religious belief being used to justify the connection to a specific candidate.
This is not an independent force – few likely believed that the presidency, and Donald Trump in particular, had divine backing until Republican operatives and evangelical elites (often one in the same) began making these claims well into Trump’s term in office. In a previous post, we showed that believing in Trump’s anointing was more common in political churches (where the clergy talk about more political issues). And we demonstrated that a simple presentation of a meme of Jesus guiding Trump’s hand was sufficient to induce more evangelicals to admit Trump’s anointing. Perhaps without these cues available, the religious significance of the presidency subsides for religious Americans. But, at present, the apocalyptic rhetoric would seem to reinforce this view rather than begin to remediate it.
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.
Note. The survey was administered to about 1750 respondents from October 23 to 29th, 2020 using Qualtrics Panels. This is not a probability sample, but employed quotas on gender, region, and age to match 2019 Census estimates. We then generated raking weights by adding race and education to help match the Census on these crucial metrics.