SALT LAKE CITY — When voters evaluate a candidate’s religious beliefs, political affiliation seems to speak louder than actions or words.
Seventy percent of U.S. adults who identify as or lean Democratic believe Joe Biden is “very” or “somewhat” religious, according to recent Pew Research Center data. Just 12% of Democrats say the same thing about President Donald Trump.
GOP voters hold very different assumptions. More than 6 in 10 adults who identify as or lean Republican (62%) describe Trump as religious. Only around one-third (37%) believe Biden is being sincere when he talks about his faith.
These findings help explain why Biden and Trump’s efforts to connect with faith communities on the campaign trail are often polarizing. Members of different political parties respond to the same candidate appearances and speeches in contradictory ways.
When Biden met with black church leaders on June 1, Democrats praised his outreach efforts, while many Republicans questioned his motives. When Trump posed with a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church later the same day, the opposite was true.
It’s not new for voter reactions to be guided more by preexisting biases than a candidates’ actual behavior, wrote Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., in an email.
If Biden and Trump try to address faith-related misconceptions, their appeals will fall on deaf ears more often than not.
“Each side’s partisans tend to view factual claims through the prism of their loyalties,” Olsen said.
Despite the high likelihood of skepticism from members of other parties, Olsen doesn’t expect Trump and Biden to stop talking about their faith and appearing in houses of worship anytime soon. Religious outreach will help them solidify support among voters who are already leaning their way.
“Biden’s church visits will likely include calls for a return of character in office and an end to racism, while (we can) expect Trump to attend services ... to urge those congregants to prioritize social issues on which they lean GOP over other concerns,” he said.
In general, faith talk is more likely to improve a candidates’ chances to get elected than decrease them, according to recent research. Democrats and Republicans may disagree on which candidates are religious, but members of the two parties share the sense that it’s good for politicians to be moral people.
More than 9 in 10 U.S. adults (94%) say it’s “very” or “somewhat” important to them for a U.S. president live an ethical life, Pew reported earlier this year.
A smaller majority (52%) of Americans, including 65% of those who are or lean Republican and 41% of Democrats, want the commander-in-chief to have strong religious beliefs of some kind. Nearly 7 in 10 U.S. adults (69%) say it’s important for the president to stand up for people who share their own beliefs.
These figures help explain why candidates typically want to be seen as religious. Biden has released campaign ads focused on his Catholicism and attended Mass in-between official speeches. Trump gives interviews on his faith and goes to pastors for policy advice.
“Trump’s coalition is heavily tilted to regular churchgoers, so efforts to convey that he’s on their side are crucial to his reelection bid,” Olsen said. “Biden’s coalition is more secular, but many do still attend religious services, especially in the black community.”
Some experts on religion and politics have argued there’s even more at stake than that in Biden’s religious outreach over the next few months.
Trump’s high-profile moral slip-ups, such as when he had the police forcibly remove peaceful protesters from the street before his June 1 photo-op in front of a church, increase the odds that Christian voters won’t vote for him this year, as Michael Wear, who previously worked on faith outreach for President Barack Obama, tweeted earlier this month.
“If the Democratic nominee makes the case, I believe Christians from all backgrounds will play their part to ensure this president is defeated and defeated soundly in November,” he said.
But polling on Trump’s favorability among religious voters somewhat undermines that claim. Throughout his first term in office, faith groups’ support for the president has been remarkably stable, said Natalie Jackson, who serves as research director at PRRI, a survey firm focused on politics and religion.
“With President Trump, we don’t see a lot of things impact his numbers heavily,” she said.
Most surveys taken in the past 3.5 years have shown that around two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants view Trump favorably and that around half of white mainline Protestants and white Catholics feel the same way.
Events like the coronavirus outbreak or impeachment trial cause slight fluctuations, but the overall average has remained about the same, Jackson said.
However, PRRI’s latest favorability poll, released June 4, captured what could be the early signs of a notable drop in white Catholic support for Trump. In May, this group of religious voters was 12 percentage points below their favorability average for 2019, Jackson said.
“White Catholics could be experiencing higher rates of coronavirus transmission and more of the related economic impacts” because the regions of the country where they’re concentrated, she noted.
If white Catholic support for Trump remains relatively low for the next few months, it could create an opportunity for Biden.
“Where white Catholics could be a factor is in the Midwest, in states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, which Trump won somewhat surprisingly in 2016. Losing support among white Catholic groups in those states would be something (for Trump) to worry about,” Jackson said.