By Paul A. Djupe, Denison University
One of the questions looming over the 2022 elections is whether people will accept the results. That’s especially true of Republicans because of the widespread belief among identifiers that Trump lost the 2020 election due to fraud and the continuing assertion from Republican office-holders and seekers of the same. That means that 60 percent of Americans will have an election denier on the ballot.
Not all Republicans are cut from the same cloth, however, and support for the election-denier position varies considerably. One of the common threads connecting deniers is the set of religious beliefs that they hold – belief that God communicates to humans to let them know his intentions, otherwise known as a belief in prophecy. I’ve given an overview of the prophetic tradition in previous posts, so I’ll get to the link here. Prophecy believers are likely to adopt Trump’s fraud claim because they strongly believe in the rightness of their choices as anointed by God. In fact, they believe that explicitly about Trump – that he was anointed by God to be president. When events do not go their way, prophecy believers are likely to ascribe the adversity to the forces of evil – demonic forces were in control and drove events in an untoward direction. That’s true for them on the macro scale with presidential elections, as well as in the quotidian sins of everyday life. Last, religious elites associated with the prophetic tradition as well as conservative politics have been making and reinforcing this connection for two years now. Take a disposition to believe in widespread evil, the rightness of the cause and candidate, and substantial, regular reinforcement and you have a recipe for widespread denial of the legitimacy of the 2020 election.
I was “in the field” surveying almost 2,100 self-identifying Republicans with Amy Erica Smith and Alex Tuckness for another project in the last two weeks (through Lucid). One of the features of the survey was an extensive array of questions about religion and people’s beliefs about religion and politics. I measured prophecy beliefs with the same three measures I’ve used previously (making an index averaging the three):
- God reveals his plans for the future to humans as prophecy.
- God has given some people the power to heal others through prayer and the ‘laying on of hands.’
- God is in control over the course of events on Earth.
The election belief item is a simple one: “President Trump lost the election because of electoral fraud.”
In our sample, 54% of Republicans agree that Trump lost due to fraud – that’s a bit lower than recent estimates, which makes sense since our sample had a higher proportion of “Republicans” compared to “strong Republicans” (ours had 52 percent Republicans and 38 percent strong Republicans compared to 23 percent Republicans and 52 percent strong Republicans in the 2020 Cooperative Election Study).
Are prophecy believers more likely to believe the Big Lie? Yes. Agreeing that Trump lost due to fraud is basically flat for those with low levels of belief in prophecy, but once such beliefs cross the midway point, agreement with the Big Lie grows tremendously. About 40 percent more prophecy believers buy the Big Lie (82 compared to 42 on average for the non-prophecy believers). But some of this effect may be due to differences in partisanship, which I’ll examine next.
One sensible thought is that those with a stronger partisan identity would have a harder time swallowing the idea that they lost fair and square, especially when their own elites are trumpeting the opposite. We can see evidence of this among non-prophecy believers in the graph below – the baseline rises with the strength of partisanship – from 25 among independent Republicans to the upper 30s among Republicans, to above 50 percent among strong Republicans. What is remarkable, therefore, is that prophecy believers adopt the Big Lie at the same rates regardless of their partisan strength. They all top out at about 80 percent (plus or minus a few percent). Now, they are all Republicans of some stripe, so I would not expect to see Democratic prophecy believers adopting this rate of agreement with the fraud claim. Still,this is strong evidence that this religious ecosystem is doing some work here.
Those last two analyses put together should suggest that prophecy beliefs are widespread in the Republican Party and about equally so. That’s what the following figure shows explicitly. Each level of partisanship averages over 0.5 on the 0-1 scale and while there is some intensification of belief (Ind-Reps at .54, Reps at .57, and strong Reps at .64), it is not huge. While not universal, then, the Republican Party is substantially influenced by the dynamics of prophecy beliefs and the prophecy community – we can see some of that in the Reawaken America Tour, the popularity of people such as Lance Wallnau, and of course the coterie of prophetic leaders supporting Trump (though dressed up as the Evangelical Advisory Council).
There are lots of ways to think about what those dynamics might entail. That’s beyond the scope of a blog post and I also want to save some material for future posts. But one might be a commitment to the figure at the center of this political drama – Donald Trump. Our data support that view. For this analysis, I broke the prophecy belief scale into quartiles, showing the percent of each that are inclined to support one of a long list of candidates for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Most received little support, so I collapsed the choices to Trump, Desantis, Pence, and others. Among non-prophecy believers, Trump holds the lead, but it is not commanding and he does not hold majority support. That changes steadily across prophecy belief so that his support almost doubles by the time we reach the top quartile – from 39 to 68 percent. Notably, Pence’s and DeSantis’ levels of support are cut in half (10-5 for Pence and 28-13 for DeSantis) across the prophecy scale. Perhaps this is why DeSantis recently released a video suggesting that God made him a fighter.
There is so much left to say about these believers but I’ll leave it at this. This is not just Christianity, it is not just Christian nationalism (though it is highly correlated with CN), and it is not just Republicanism at work. Prophecy belief is a powerful force of its own that grants an extraordinary level of self-righteousness and efficacy to the believer. It surely undercuts uncertainty and deliberation and promotes forthright action for one’s chosen aims as well as against the demonic forces working against those aims. Because if they are not with you then they are against you and we all know who opposes God’s work on earth. Exactly how American democracy withstands such a group inimical to compromise and debate is what observers and participants will be wrestling with for some time to come.
Paul A. Djupe directs the Data for Political Research program at Denison University, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of religioninpublic.blog. Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter (at least for now).