While observers and the media have speculated that evangelical support for Donald Trump could drive away believers, new data tells a different story: Trump’s political presence might be driving a white evangelical revival in America.
According to the latest numbers from Pew Research Center, between 2016 and 2020 the number of white American adults surveyed who identified as evangelical rose from 25% to 29% — a 4% increase, overall.
While 2% of white American adults who embraced the evangelical label when surveyed after the presidential election in 2016 no longer identified as evangelicals after the 2020 election, a full 6% who did not identify as evangelical in 2016 had come to self-identify as such when they were surveyed again in 2020. That is to say, more white American adults began to identify as evangelicals during Trump’s presidency than those who stopped.
During the same time period, the number of white non-evangelical Protestants dropped 3%.
Pew also reported that 16% of white Americans who did not consider themselves evangelicals in 2016 but who held warm views toward Trump had, by 2020, come to embrace the evangelical or born again label, Pew reported. By comparison, only 1% of white Americans who held “cold or neutral views towards Trump” began to identify as evangelical in the same period.
“We can’t impute causality as to why the people who became evangelicals became evangelicals, but we can say, among Trump opponents, almost no one became evangelicals,” said Gregory A. Smith, associate director of research at Pew. “I thought that was a very interesting data point.”
Though 12% of white evangelicals “who expressed at least some ambivalence about Trump” shed the evangelical label between 2016 and 2020, only 7% of consistent Trump supporters did. While this difference is too small to be statistically significant, Pew concludes the report, “There is no clear evidence that White evangelicals who opposed Trump were more likely than Trump supporters to leave the evangelical fold.”
The study reinforces the increasingly close correlation between white evangelical Protestants and the Republican Party — an affinity that was crystallized during Trump’s presidency by the evangelical leaders who rallied around him. The former president also had an evangelical advisory board, which included televangelist and leader of a Pentecostal megachurch, the Rev. Paula White.
“White evangelical protestants have long been one of the most Republican constituencies,” said Smith. “In the last 25 years they’ve grown even more Republican. It’s interesting and important that you see this growing correspondence between evangelical identity and political attitudes.”
While at first glance the data may suggest that support for Trump is fueling an uptick in those identifying as evangelical, Smith said it could be more about white evangelicals rallying around the Republican Party, as was the case with Mitt Romney’s unexpected popularity with white evangelical Protestants in 2012.
The survey sample was a subset of a larger group and includes only those who participated in four surveys conducted between 2016 and 2020, but does not include people who were below the age of 18 in 2016 or 2020. “The share of white Americans identifying as evangelicals is larger than the share that stopped identifying as white evangelicals — we can say this with confidence,” Smith said.
He added that it reflects more general religious trends in America. Though the proportion of white Christians, on the whole, has been on the decline in recent decades — due to the country’s changing demographics as well as the rise of those religiously unaffiliated — white evangelicals’ numbers are holding steady or even increasing.
Pew also found that white voters who identified as evangelicals in both 2016 and 2020 were even more supportive of Trump during his reelection bid than they were when he ran against Hillary Clinton. Increased support among this group, Pew states, “is one key reason” that Trump did better with white evangelical voters in 2020 than he did in 2016.
This likely bodes well for Trump’s 2024 election prospects. Though Trump has yet to officially announce that he will run for president again, many observers believe he will. Among the signs, in addition to the money he’s already raised: Earlier this month, Trump launched a National Faith Advisory Board, which was co-founded by the Rev White.
Looking ahead to 2024, Smith said, “I can’t speculate about the future. But one thing jumps out at me from the data — there is certainly no indication that Trump lost support among White evangelicals between 2016 and 2020. If anything, he gained support among that group during his time in office.”