In Search of The Elusive Liberal Evangelicals

by Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

I was listening to a podcast the other day and the host asked a guest a question that I have heard way too many times over the last year –  “Why did you decide to focus only on conservative evangelicals?” I fully admit that a lot of my work does focus on conservative evangelicals. Why? Because, in the current political landscape, there’s not a more important force in American politics. The nones are too disorganized at this juncture to have a systemic impact. Catholics and Mainline Protestants are too politically divided to be considered anything close to a coherent voting bloc. 

The fact is simply this: 13% of all American adults in 2020 were white evangelical Republicans. No other group comes even close to that size. Nine percent of Americans are nothing in particular Democrats – but that’s not an easy group to wrap your arms around. There are twice as many white evangelical Republicans as there are white Catholic Republicans. For every Democratic atheist, there are 2.5 white evangelical Republicans. 

But, I wanted to devote some time trying to look at the other side of the evangelical coin: those who describe themselves as politically liberal. Because the Cooperative Election Study is so large, even if that group is a relatively small percentage of the population, it’s still possible to do in-depth statistical analysis of liberal evangelicals. 

Of all self-identified evangelicals, 58% describe themselves as conservative, 29% indicate they are moderate, while 13% say they are liberal. If that is restricted to just white evangelicals: 8% are liberal, 24% are moderate, and 68% say they are conservative. That’s obviously much different than the general population. In 2020, 30% of all Americans said they were liberal, along with 28% of just white respondents. 

In a total sample of 61,000 respondents there were 2,129 who indicated that they were politically liberal and would describe themselves as “born-again/evangelical.” That’s 3.4% of the general population. This is not a large group – and I would argue that it’s not a group that would be especially embraced by liberals in the general population, either. I compared liberal evangelicals to the general liberal sample on twenty-eight different questions of public policy and found that on almost every measure liberal evangelicals are more moderate than liberals who do not identify as evangelical. I’ll walk through them thematically below.

In terms of immigration, a liberal evangelical is twice as likely to want to reduce legal immigration to the United States by 50% than liberals in general. Nearly half of liberal evangelicals want to increase border patrols – it’s just 29% of liberals overall. A liberal evangelical is twice as likely to support a policy that would withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities. On basically every measure, a liberal evangelical is much more conservative on immigration policy than a liberal who does not identify as an evangelical. 

That difference is less dramatic on health care policy. On only one issue: repealing the Affordable Care Act, do liberal evangelicals express opinions that are far out of step with other liberals. It’s noteworthy that a third of them want to abolish President Obama’s signature domestic policy, though. It would be fair to look at these results and say that liberal evangelicals are closer to the center on health policy than liberals in the entire sample. 

On the issue of guns, the data is clear: liberal evangelicals are much more in favor of gun rights than they are pro gun control. They are twice as likely to support laws that make it easier to obtain a concealed carry permit than liberals as a whole. However, it is worth pointing out that nearly three quarters of liberal evangelicals support a ban on assault rifles. 

The CES 2020 also contained a nice battery about policing and possible reform efforts surrounding the police. Here the differences are small, but significant. Nearly seven in ten liberals want to reduce policing by 10%, but it’s only 54% of liberal evangelicals. At the same time, liberal evangelicals are twice as likely to support a ten percent increase in police versus liberals in general (41% to 20%). The overall impression here is, again, liberal evangelicals are more moderate than liberals are as a whole. 

Finally, when it comes to abortion, some large gaps emerge on a number of policy dimensions. First, note that strong majorities of both groups support a woman’s right to choose (88% of the entire sample; 73% of liberal evangelicals). But when it comes to specific scenarios, a divide emerges. Liberal evangelicals are twenty points more likely to say that federal funds shouldn’t be used for abortion. They are thirteen points more likely to say that abortion should be completely abolished. They are twice as likely as liberals overall to support an employer not covering abortion as part of the health care plan at the workplace. And a majority of liberal evangelicals (56%) would support a ban on abortion after 20 weeks gestation. 

After sifting through all of these policy questions, I think there’s a clear conclusion. In the eyes of the average liberal, a liberal evangelical is fairly middle of the road in terms of policy. In fact, I did not find a single policy area where liberal evangelicals supported a leftist policy in greater numbers than liberals overall. Especially on immigration and abortion, I would venture to guess that many liberal evangelicals would feel out of step if they were surrounded by other liberals at a political meeting. 

I think I’ve come to the conclusion that liberal evangelicalism is not much more than a mirage for many progressives in the United States. Recall that just 13% of all self-identified evangelicals describe themselves as politically liberal  –  just over 3 percent of the population. But, also note that even among this group, they are not full throated supporters of a progressive vision of America. Nearly a quarter want to abolish abortion, a third want to completely repeal the Affordable Care Act, a third want cut legal immigration in half in the United States, and a third want to make it easier to get a conceal-carry permit. These are not the kind of folks that would readily back a Bernie Sanders candidacy for President of the United States. 

Ryan P. Burge teaches political science at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website. Syntax for this post can be found here.

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