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As Joe Biden emerges victorious, Martyn Whittock takes a look at the data that shows evangelical support for Donald Trump remained high in the 2020 American election
There is, supposedly, a US election officials’ prayer which goes: “O God, whatever the result, let it not be close.” Well, the 2020 presidential election result was, at one point, nail-bitingly close. And, even though Biden has now gained the necessary Electoral College votes to become the next president, it is a result that is, predictably, being challenged by Trump.
While political experts reject the validity of his accusations of voter fraud, Trump has shown himself ready to undermine the process of US democracy itself, while many Republican leaders have remained silent.
The role of US evangelicals
Over the next few months, political commentators will analyse and debate the complex dynamics of this historic election. However, one thing is already clear and this is that US evangelicals largely maintained their support for Trump.
After a slight wobble in support in the early summer, as both Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis and racial turmoil convulsed the USA, evangelicals returned to their default position of support for the man who had turned the Republican Party into a virtual cult of his personality. For them, 2020 was virtually 2016 all over again.
In 2016 some 81 per cent of white evangelicals voted for Trump; in the presidential election of November 2020, preliminary estimates from exit polls conducted by Edison Research for the National Election Pool indicate that 76 per cent of white evangelicals voted for Trump. According to the VoteCast poll by the Associated Press, this may have stood a little higher, at 78 per cent.
This return to something approaching what has become the ‘US evangelical new normal’ occurred despite, indeed because of, the kind of president Trump had shown himself to be since 2017. While constituting only about 16 per cent of the electorate, this particular group’s high turnout means they punch well above their weight. Overall, evangelicals formed a significant part of the Trump-base.
While the figures are striking, the phenomenon is not new and Trump is simply the latest (and most extreme) manifestation of the nature of the US evangelical community’s electoral behaviour. The voting in both 2016 and 2020 is simply a – particularly polarised – version of the structural pattern which intertwines US evangelicals and right wing politics. It is, as some American commentators have put it, ‘baked-in’. Expect more of the same in the future.
Conservative Supreme Court nominations (with the potential for the overturning of current abortion legislation), support for gun-rights, downplaying of science, support for a particular form of Israeli politics, strident US nationalism, the promise of economic recovery rather than lockdown, and Trump’s explicit referencing of the evangelical community has (in 2020 as in 2016) outweighed his personal behaviour, Covid-19 mortality, racial injustice, the climate change crisis, subverting international behavioural norms – and even his mocking of evangelicals in private. At best, the latter were considered acceptable collateral damage in order to achieve success in other areas; at worst, they were simply not on the US evangelical concern-list to any significant extent. All of this drove the process which culminated in the evangelical support for Trump in November 2020.
Many US evangelicals have a tendency to read political developments as signs of divine approval of the trajectory of events (an outlook not confined to the USA). This previously reinforced their confidence in what they considered to be the providential nature of Trump’s presidency and they may find it more challenging to interpret the current situation that way.
For some other evangelicals, more inclined to stress the fallen nature of the world and the complexity of events, the Trump phenomenon holds up a mirror to a broken society and a politically compromised section of the Church. In this, the wider international evangelical community remains as polarised by Trump, and what caused him, as it ever was. In that sense, it is not over; not by a long way.
Martyn Whittock is a Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England and an evangelical. As a historian, he has a particular interest in the interaction between faith and politics. His book, Trump and the Puritans: How the Evangelical Religious Right Put Donald Trump in the White House (co-author James Roberts), was published by Biteback in January 2020 in the UK, and in June in the USA.
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