Baylor University’s survey profiling the religious wave that catapulted real-estate magnate and reality TV star Donald Trump into the presidency in 2016 isn’t so much a revelation as a stunning confirmation of what must be clear to anyone who digests news daily. Findings: Religious folks behind Trump tend to belong to white evangelical Protestant churches; view the United States as a Christian nation (separation of church and state be damned); believe in an authoritative god actively involved in world happenings (such as hurricanes); deem Muslims from the Middle East a threat; and oppose gay and transgender rights.
More stunning: Researchers’ conclusion that many evangelicals may well allow their politics to shape their religion, rather than vice versa. This may explain why biblical cherry-picking is increasingly rampant. Example: those quick to invoke Leviticus 20:13 in condemning homosexuality, yet ignore Leviticus 19:33-34, which demands Christians take a compassionate approach to immigrants — presumably including Dreamers whose studies and careers have lately been thrust into uncertainty.
Paul Froese, BU professor of sociology and director of BU religion surveys, said results suggest it’s hard to nail down one’s ultimate motives in religion: “When religion and politics come together like this culturally, you never know: Is this person presenting himself as either very religious or not religious based on their beliefs about the supernatural or based on their political beliefs?” More of us probably should be asking this question of ourselves.
What makes all this more confounding is Trump, whose rhetoric, lifestyle and attitudes have never suggested religious devotion or any grasp of what were once deemed Christian tenets. Yet he neatly fits the seeming need of some people for a strongman who, whatever his sins, will dutifully rein in a federal government deemed too large, too invasive and too onerous.
“Here’s the interesting thing about Trump,” Froese told me. “He’s unusual in that he doesn’t have very detailed policy agendas and these apparently change almost by the day. I think in general his supporters trust him as an individual. They trust his judgment and his strength and seemingly don’t care much about certain details. In a major way, he’s more of a charismatic figure than somebody who you’re just voting for because they share all of your policy preferences.”
Responding to a letter we received about Trump voters (versus Trump supporters — there can be a difference), Froese acknowledges the survey profile doesn’t define every Trump voter: “But what’s interesting is our data is strong, it’s showing Trump voters in general have the kind of attitudes we reported. Now clearly you can have a Trump supporter who disagrees with all that. But that doesn’t change our numbers.”
Baylor findings suggest this segment of Trump’s support “tend to think of God as a male, as being very active in the world,” he said. “And in fact this data correlated with things like people who don’t believe in climate change because they think God is controlling the weather.”
One wonders if this belief has encouraged those evangelical figures who proclaimed Hurricane Harvey God’s punishment for Houston’s electing an openly gay mayor — a verdict that ignores other folks along the battered Texas coast who didn’t or couldn’t vote in that race. An acquaintance who is a diehard Trump supporter of great religious zeal interprets recent hurricanes as God’s “judgments” on a “beast system.”
And what defines the unworthy Hillary supporter? The survey suggests almost everything else, including evangelicals who are not white. But the answer may go beyond this and involve how some today perceive people who identify themselves as “Christians.” Perceptions have changed.
“What you see in the data is that political conservatives are more likely to say they’re very religious, even if they don’t go to church a lot or read the Bible a lot,” Froese said, “whereas political liberals are more likely to say they’re less religious, even if from their other answers they seem to be very religiously active. What that tells me is the concept of being ‘religious’ in our culture has political overtones so that a conservative person maybe feels the need to overemphasize their religiosity whereas a liberal person wants to downgrade it a little because it might profile you on your politics.”
Is this Trump movement transformative in the long term? The answer likely mixes many factors — basic economics, schemes of foreign powers, the faith of Trump’s disciples and Trump’s insights beyond self-glorification and ratings. God also might have something to say about it.