Why Evangelicals Support Trump
One of the interesting questions about the 2016 Republican presidential primaries is why evangelical Christians are voting for Donald Trump. His language is salty (he had to give up swearing going into the South Carolina primary) and often impudent, he’s twice divorced – in other words, he certainly doesn’t seem to be the type of candidate evangelicals would support.
However, political polling we did 30 years ago just after I started my company provides an explanation of why he is getting so many of their votes. We found that evangelicals are drawn toward politics by messianic figures. Although Trump may not be Christ-like, the term messianic does have other synonyms such as “liberator” or “defender,” words that Trump supporters might easily use to describe him.
Our goal in that poll was to determine whether there were any particular issues that might bring more evangelical Christians into the political process. The major presumption was that they were pro-life on abortion and that that issue could be the linchpin to get them involved.
Working with Christian conservative leaders in a northern city, we designed a questionnaire to get to the heart of our presumptions. The filter questions went through long and careful steps to assure that the only people we surveyed were absolutely evangelical Christians.
The poll was designed to find out 1) what contemporary political and religious leaders they liked or disliked; 2) what issues were important to them, with the emphasis on abortion; 3) other than issues, what else might persuade them to get involved in politics; and 4) who they were demographically.
The results were fascinating. First, we found out that one of the major religious/political figures of the time was very unpopular with evangelicals. In fact, for every evangelical who had a favorable opinion of him, two had an unfavorable opinion. The credibility of the survey was validated when we shared this information with one of the major presidential campaigns and this leader “voluntarily” stepped down as the spokesperson for the Christian right.
Second, we found out that abortion was not the prime motivator for evangelical Christians. In fact, of the 400 people we interviewed, about one-third were pro-choice, something we all found surprising -- and probably the reason the results of this study were never released to the public.
Third, we found out what did draw this group toward politics: strong, decisive leaders, not issues. They got involved in politics for the same reason they got involved with their church -- because they were looking for someone to help “show them the way.” Evangelicals were drawn into politics by messianic leaders.
When you look at the presidential candidates who have won a majority of evangelicals, they have all been strong figures in their own way, some more religious than others. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and both Bushes all won a majority of these voters.
Although Carter was very religious, some might say that Bill Clinton’s lifestyle was not always Christian. But, when Clinton spoke of a special “covenant” with voters, secularists didn’t understand the term but Christians did, and they voted for him.
And, finally, we were able to determine who these voters were. They tended to be less educated with lower incomes, the same groups that were the earliest supporters of Trump 30 years after we did our research.
Donald Trump is precisely the type of candidate that would have drawn evangelical Christian voters in 1987 when we conducted our poll, and I believe that he is precisely the type of candidate that is drawing them in today. Although certainly not Christ-like, Trump is perceived to be strong and bold; a leader that will help evangelicals navigate a world they believe is too often adrift and too different from what they want.
Sen. Ted Cruz’ Iowa/South Carolina strategy would have been very successful in winning evangelicals this year had it not been for Trump. Cruz, another strong, messianic figure, one who even speaks with the cadence of a Southern preacher, would have been the recipient of the evangelical votes this year, and after he won in Iowa the Texas senator might have been on the path to securing the GOP nomination had it not been for an even stronger messianic figure, Donald Trump.
So as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and radio and TV hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Greta Van Susteren, Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly, and Sean Hannity ask why evangelicals support Trump – the answer can be found in that poll we did three decades ago. Trump is the “liberator” and “defender” they believe really will “Make America Great Again!”