Did Evangelicals Win Anyone Over the Last Decade?

If I post a graph that indicates white evangelicals were more supportive of Donald Trump in 2020 compared to 2016, I know the inevitable comment: yeah, but isn’t that because the composition of evangelicals changed during that four year period of time? The implication is that Trump had a galvanizing effect on the evangelical community. Specifically, he may have pushed some people out of evangelicalism who weren’t that conservative, while also drawing other people into the faith who may be more attracted to the movement because of its political beliefs as opposed to its theological convictions. 

I get the impulse to believe that there’s a “sorting” process involving  American religion and politics. In short, people move about the political and religious landscape in search of a suitable home on both dimensions. They want to feel comfortable in who they cast their ballot for as well as with the pew they sit on Sunday morning. Thus, they are constantly on the hunt for  welcoming spaces.

It’s rare to have a dataset that actually addresses this understanding. Beyond the “one off” surveys that happen all the time in social science, the most widely used instruments are longitudinal surveys. Instruments like the General Social Survey, the National Election Study, and the Cooperative Election Study all happen in regular intervals. These types of surveys are amazing if one wants to track how groups have changed over time, but they are much less helpful in tracking movement at the individual level. They can tell us that white evangelicals were more supportive of Trump in 2016 compared to 2020, but they cannot as easily reveal whether the composition of the group changed along with their level of support. 

There is a solution to this problem: the panel survey. They ask the same people the same questions over a period of time. There aren’t that many of these around because they are difficult to administer and thus the costs of conducting one are exorbitant. But, they can offer insights into how individuals change their partisanship or their religion over time. The one I’m focused on here is the VOTER Study from the Democracy Fund. It was a panel that started in 2011 and continued surveying the same people through November of 2020.

Did people who were evangelicals in 2011 abandon that identity by 2020? And did they do so for potlicial reasons? Or did more people embrace the term in 2020 compared to 2011, because of an attraction to the politics of evangelicalism? 

The biggest finding is a lot of stability. Nearly three quarters of the sample never had anything to do with evangelicalism at any point between 2011 and 2020. Another 20% said that they were evangelicals both in 2011 and in 2020. Thus, we are left with just a sliver of folks who either began embracing the label or rejected it across that nine year time frame. According to this data, 5% of folks became evangelical between 2011 and 2020, while 3% dropped the term. Eight percent of Americans in nine years. That’s something to keep in mind. 

But, it’s important to put actual raw numbers behind this. The number of people who took the survey at all points between 2011 and 2020 was 3,744 people. Of that total, 123 of them stopped being evangelical, while 172 began embracing the label. Looked at from this angle it would be unwise to definitively declare from this data that evangelicalism is winning more people than it is losing (or vice versa). This is just such a rare phenomenon that it makes it hard to get a precise estimate through any statistical analysis.

Given that caveat, can we learn anything at all about the reasons whypeople no longer identify as evangelical or begin identifying as  evangelical during this time period? There may be some suggestive evidence from tracking the partisanship of these two groups. 

Among those who became evangelicals between 2011 and 2020, there is a clear trend in their political partisanship. In 2011, 39% said that they were Democrats and 45% indicated that they were Republicans. Then, as time passed, the GOP gained a larger share while the Democratic percentage shrunk. In the last wave of the survey in 2020 just 35% were Democrats and 52% were Republicans. Take note of when the bulk of this shift occurred, though  –  between 2012 and 2016 when the share of Republicans jumped about six points. 

In terms of people who left evangelicalism, there is no partisan change story in the data. In 2011, 52% were Democrats and 29% were Republicans. Nine years later it was statistically unchanged  –  53% were Democrats and 27% were Republicans. That’s not to say that there’s no connection between partisanship and people abandoning the evangelical label. It could be that people’s religiosity just changed to match their partisanship during this time period, but there’s no evidence that their partisanship moved. 

And, just for reference, I calculated the partisanship of the never evangelicals and the always evangelicals. Among the “nevers” there’s basically no movement in their partisanship. 54% Democrats in both 2011 and 2020 and 32% Republicans. It’s worth pointing out that the percentage of people who left evangelicalism behind who identified as Democrats was statistically the same as the never evangelicals. Those groups are not politically distinct. 

There is some modest evidence that the “always” evangelicals did shift to the right during this time period. In 2011, a third of them were Democrats and 55% were Republicans. The share of Democrats dropped to 29% by 2020 and the Republicans gained about three percentage points. However, it’s worth considering that the “always” evangelicals are more Republican than those who began embracing evangelicalism  –  58% vs. 52% in 2020. There is evidence here that long term evangelicals are more likely to be Republicans than recent converts. 

But, is there anything in the data to suggest that folks who switched in to evangelicalism are different from those who left it behind? I checked out a number of demographic factors between these groups. Here’s what I found: 

On age, there was no statistical difference between the groups. 

On race, 79% of folks who became evangelical were white. Among those who left evangelicalism only 72% were white. 

On gender, there was no statistically significant difference between the groups. 

On education, there was a very surprising finding. Among those who left evangelicalism between 2011 and 2020, 40% of them had a four year college degree. For those who began embracing evangelicalism, only 23% had a four year college degree. 

Thus, there are some strands here worth following up with. White people were more likely to move toward evangelicalism, while people of color were more apt to shift away. Also, those who left evangelicalism behind were more highly educated than those who started identifying as evangelical. It’s key to point out that this is not measuring how often they attended a church, merely whether they embraced the label. 

If I could leave you all with a central takeaway, it would be this: religious identity switching is rare. In a nine year window of time, 92% of Americans answered the evangelicalism question the same way. And among those who switched, it’s not that easy to discern if the inflows exceed the outflows. This VOTER survey started with 12,000 respondents and by the end had just 300 people who switched their evangelical identification while continuing to be part of the study. Religious change of this kind is rare – and that makes it difficult to estimate/study with precision. We are going to keep trying, but these are hard problems to solve. 

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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