Eight years after polls began highlighting Christian support for then-candidate Donald Trump, this question still comes up, especially in more liberal circles:

Are the Christians who vote for Trump, a twice-divorced man who engages in name-calling more often than he quotes the Bible, actually religious — or do they just describe themselves that way?

Greg Smith, associate director of research at Pew Research Center, can answer that question in one of two ways.

He can highlight polling showing that Christians who support Trump are just as religiously observant — if not more so — than Christians who don’t.

Or he can challenge the whole concept of being Christian in name only.

“It’s a mistake to think there’s no religious content to these labels,” he said.

How Christians rate former President Donald Trump

Are there nonreligious Christians?

Pew, like most polling firms, asks about religion in a variety of ways.

Survey respondents give their present religion — Are you Catholic? Jewish? Hindu? — as well as details on how often they attend religious services or pray.

Responses to the questions can then be analyzed on their own or combined with other faith-related answers to create a religiousness scale.

Pew’s most commonly used scale is built around church attendance, prayer habits and people’s description of how important religion is in their lives.

In this scale ...

  • Adults who attend religious services at least weekly, pray at least daily and say religion is “very important” in their lives are considered highly religious.
  • Americans who say they seldom or never attend church, seldom or never pray and that religion is “not too” or “not at all” important show low religious observance.
  • Everyone in between, whether because they pray only weekly or attend religious services once a month, falls into the moderately religious group.

Smith cited that religiousness scale to explain why he thinks it’s a mistake to assume that most Christians who support Trump aren’t actually religious.

If you sort self-described Christians in the U.S. into the three levels of religiousness, just 4% fall into what could be called the nonreligious Christian camp, he noted.

“It’s not a group that’s large enough that a political candidate would really be able to rely on it — at least not by itself — as the core of a major constituency,” Smith said.

Most Republicans think Donald Trump is a person of faith. We asked why

Christian support for Trump

What Pew’s religiousness scale can’t do, at least by itself, is debunk the more specific claim that Trump’s Christian supporters are mostly unchurched.

The New York Times put a spotlight on that theory in a widely shared January article called “Trump is connecting with a different type of evangelical voter.” It started with a description of Trump voter Karen Johnson, who identifies as an evangelical Christian and prays daily — but never goes to worship services.

“I have my own little thing with the Lord,” Johnson told the Times.

Political scientist Ryan Burge cited that story in a January interview with the Deseret News in which he talked about the broader decline in church attendance across the country and the rise of using faith-based labels as cultural signifiers instead of religious ones.

“Evangelicalism is not primarily a religious term anymore. It’s about politics,” Burge said.

While Smith acknowledges that political interests can certainly drive people’s religious beliefs and identity, he said that studies show self-described evangelicals are still more religious — on a variety of measures — than members of other faith groups.

“They attend religious services at twice the rate of the general public,” Smith said.

He also highlighted a new analysis from Pew that found that Christians who attend worship services monthly or more are much more likely to support Trump in the 2024 presidential campaign than President Joe Biden.

“Overall, 62% of Christian voters who say they go to church at least once or twice a month support Trump over Biden. Among Christians who go to church less often, 55% would vote for Trump if the election were today,” Pew reported.

Pew’s report doesn’t explore why that might be the case, but the Deseret News and other outlets have previously reported on likely explanations, including that Trump is seen by many Christians as someone who is willing to use his power to protect people of faith.

Calling yourself Christian

The bottom line, whether you’re debating politics or just making small talk, is that when someone describes themselves as Christian, it usually does tell you something about their religious routines.

People who claim that label tend to do religious things more often than those who don’t, Smith said.

“There are exceptions ... but the people who identify with religion but don’t do religious things tend to be the exception rather than the rule,” he said.