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2020 Faith Vote Reflects 2016 Patterns

Evangelical voters have shown strong support for President Trump over the last four years, and 8 in 10 voted for him in the 2020 election as well.
Samuel Corum
Getty Images
Evangelical voters have shown strong support for President Trump over the last four years, and 8 in 10 voted for him in the 2020 election as well.

President Donald Trump and Joe Biden this year both looked to rally support among religious Americans, but the faith vote largely broke along familiar lines.

"The religious landscape in terms of voting has been remarkably stable," says Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. "Since Reagan, we have essentially seen this: white Christian voters have tended to support Republican candidates, and Christians of color and everyone else, including the religiously unaffiliated, have tended to support Democratic candidates."

One slight change this year was a small decline in support for Trump among white Catholics, compared to 2016, according to National Election Pool and AP/Votecast.

Ryan Burge, a political science professor at Eastern Illinois University who follows the faith vote closely, thinks the improvement in Catholic support for Biden this year was significant." White Catholics are important in places like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin," Burge says. "If you can swing them your way, that's the difference in close races."

The loss of white Catholic votes for Trump in the Upper Midwest may have been somewhat offset, however, by an apparent increase in Hispanic Catholic support for Trump in places like Florida.

A notable fact in 2016 was that exit polls showed about 80% of white evangelical Christians supported Trump in spite of his unfamiliarity with the Bible, his divorces, his vulgar rhetoric and his association with porn stars. Trump's reputation in moral terms hasn't changed all that much during his time in office, but there is little evidence of slippage among these faith voters.

Surveys of early voters and exit polls this year showed between 76 and 81% of white evangelical and "born again" voters supporting Trump, according to the National Election Pool and AP/Votecast.

"We essentially have White evangelicals, somewhere around 8 in 10, supporting the president, standing by their candidate, standing by their man," says Jones.

Pundits and politicians are most interested in those voter groups who are up for grabs. From that point of view, white evangelical Christians may no longer warrant close attention.

"I think the Democrats should stop thinking about white evangelicals entirely," Burge says. "And I think the Republicans should take them for granted. At some point, it's like, what can you do to make them change — on the Democratic side or the Republican side?"

Some of Biden's supporters did try to reach evangelical Christians this year. Jerushah Duford, an evangelical writer and the granddaughter of Billy Graham, was a leader of the group, Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden.

"I don't know if it made a difference in the election results, but that's not the only difference we were attempting to make," she says. "My goal was more about giving voice to those people who felt really uncomfortable watching evangelical leaders not saying anything and sometimes actually condoning what they were seeing in this administration."

"I think what these individuals needed was some faith leaders to come out and say, 'I know you're not hearing this everywhere, but this is not our faith,' " she says.

When the pro-Biden "Not Our Faith" group was organized, Duford joined it. "My goal," she says, "was more of an encouragement to the droves of people who are leaving the church because of the hypocrisy they've seen."

The phenomenon of Americans leaving the faith traditions in which they were raised has been well documented in recent years. The share of the U.S. population and the electorate who list their religious affiliation as "none" is growing steadily.

"I think the 'God Gap' is more and more the narrative when we think about the parties," Burge says. "Half of white liberals today identify as religiously unaffiliated, while the Right is staying very Christian."

The growth of the "nones," those with no religious affiliation, is especially notable among the youngest voter cohort, Generation Z, born after 1996.

"The Republicans have to figure out a way to peel off some of those more libertarian or fiscally conservative Generation Z 'nones,' " Burge says, "or they're going to have a very bleak future politically."

But in doing so, he warns, "They need to keep their white Christian base happy."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.