Talking Points

How 'white evangelical' became a synonym for 'conservative'

White evangelicals are the most reliable supporters of the Republican Party and its presidential candidates. In 2020, around 80 percent of them gave their votes to Donald Trump. Noting specific promises to "protect Christianity," some analysts argued Trump cultivated a particularly intense bond with white evangelicals. In fact, his share of the white evangelical vote in 2020 was about the same as in 2016 — and the share won by every Republican nominee since 2004.

Association with GOP leaders hasn't cost white evangelicals in public identification, either. A new study by the Pew Research Center finds that the number of whites who described themselves as evangelical actually increased during the Trump administration. 

The report pours cold water on hopes for a revival of so-called Mainline denominations. Some "exvangelicals" have left politically conservative churches. But the Pew study suggests that their numbers are balanced or outweighed by those who embrace the label. 

The characteristics of white evangelicals may be changing, though. For one thing, "evangelical" no longer has a clear meaning, if it ever did. According to scholar Ryan Burge, "the term ... has broken away from its roots as a sub-genre of Protestant theology and has now morphed into a social, cultural, and political term that stretches far beyond the boundaries of Christianity." When people describe themselves as evangelical or born-again, they're telling you more about how they see their place in American life than about what they believe.

The term is also losing its association with religious practice. In a tweet, Burge presented data that the percentage of self-described evangelicals who report never or seldom attending church increased by 10 points between 2008 and 2020. The portion who report attending weekly or more declined by almost the same amount.

It's hard to know exactly what's happening here. Perhaps less devout people are embracing the evangelical label, perhaps due to its political associations. Or maybe evangelicals are being more honest about their behavior, resisting the desirability bias that encourages survey respondents to say what they think researchers want to hear. 

Either way, recent scholarship suggests the fusion of white evangelicalism with partisanship isn't going anywhere. Republicans shouldn't worry about losing these voters, who are the rock solid basis of their coalition. And Democrats seeking new sources of support should look elsewhere.