Evangelical political divide seen in LifeWay Research survey

Americans with evangelical beliefs share a great deal in common. They trust in Jesus alone, evangelize their neighbors and believe the Bible is the final authority in their lives.

But when it comes to voting, race and political affiliation still divide evangelicals, according to a survey from Nashville-based LifeWay Research taken from Sept. 27-Oct. 1, before the second presidential debate.

Overall, fewer than half (45 percent) of those with evangelical beliefs planned to vote for Donald Trump, according to the survey. A third (31 percent) said they would vote for Hillary Clinton. Fifteen percent were undecided. One in 10 (9 percent) supported a third-party candidate.

White Americans with evangelical beliefs favored Trump (65 percent) over Clinton (10 percent). Sixteen percent were undecided. Eight percent planned to vote for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate.

African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans with evangelical beliefs supported Clinton (62 percent) over Trump (15 percent). Thirteen percent were undecided. Seven percent supported Gary Johnson.

LifeWay Research also found that party affiliation is a much stronger predictor of voting preferences than faith. Three-quarters of Republicans with evangelical beliefs planned to vote for Trump. Though a smaller sample, 75 percent of Democrats with evangelical beliefs planned to vote for Clinton.

Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research, said the divides among evangelicals will remain regardless of twists and turns in the election season.

"This group of Christians shares the same core beliefs—but they don't vote the same way," McConnell said. "There are significant cultural and political divides among evangelicals that will remain long after the election is over."

Politics more unifying than faith

The online survey asked 1,000 representative Americans four questions about core evangelical beliefs—the Bible, the crucifixion of Jesus, salvation and evangelism. Those who strongly agreed with all four (17 percent) qualified as having evangelical beliefs.

The idea is to define evangelicals by belief rather than self-identified religious affiliation, McConnell said.

"The evangelical label has picked up political and social overtones that mask any patterns that are actually tied to evangelical religious beliefs," he said.

For example, many political surveys look only at self-identified white evangelicals who have tended to support Republican presidential candidates, including Trump. The pool of Americans with evangelical beliefs, however, is more diverse. Four in 10 Americans with evangelical beliefs are African-American, Hispanic-American, Asian-American or other ethnic minority. Six in 10 are white. Those with evangelical beliefs also have more diverse political views, according to LifeWay Research.

As part of the survey, researchers looked at how people with evangelical beliefs and churchgoers see the issues at play in the 2016 election. Topics like personal character, abortion and religious liberty—often identified as key evangelical issues—matter less in this election. Other pragmatic concerns like the economy and national security are more influential.

For Americans with evangelical beliefs, a candidate's ability to improve the economy mattered most (26 percent), followed by national security (22 percent) and personal character (15 percent). Few emphasized Supreme Court nominees (10 percent), religious freedom (7 percent), immigration (5 percent) or abortion (4 percent).

For self-identified Christians who go to church at least once a month, the economy (30 percent), national security (23 percent) and personal character (15 percent) topped their concerns. Likewise, few prioritized Supreme Court nominees (10 percent), religious freedom (6 percent), immigration (4 percent) or abortion (3 percent).

Overall, the economy (30 percent) was the top concern for Americans regardless of religious affiliation in the LifeWay Research survey. National security (17 percent) and personal character (17 percent) also were significant. Supreme Court nominees (10 percent), immigration (5 percent), religious freedom (2 percent) and abortion (1 percent) were less important.

"For churchgoers and those with evangelical beliefs, their pocketbook and personal safety are paramount," McConnell said. "Moral issues aren't a priority for many of them."

Religion plays a role

Still, religion does seem to affect voting patterns.

Self-identified Christians who go to church at least once a month favored Trump (41 percent). A third (34 percent) planned to vote for Clinton. Eighteen percent were undecided. Six percent supported a third-party candidate.

Americans who skip church were more likely to support Clinton (46 percent). A third (31 percent) planned to vote for Trump. Fifteen percent were undecided. Eight percent favored a third-party candidate.

Those without evangelical beliefs also favored Clinton (45 percent). Thirty-two percent planned to vote for Trump. Sixteen percent were undecided. Eight percent planned to vote for a third-party candidate.

A previous LifeWay Research poll of Protestant pastors found that most clergy don't expect Christians to vote the same way. Two-thirds (65 percent) disagreed with the statement, "Christians who truly vote their conscience will vote for the same candidate." Less than a third (29 percent) agreed. Six percent were not sure.

McConnell said neither major party in the United States has a monopoly on biblical values. So it's no surprise, he said, that evangelicals who value the Bible will vote differently.

"Until one party or one candidate embodies everything that evangelicals believe, there is no reason to expect them to vote the same way," he said.

Still, McConnell worries that the polarizing rhetoric of the 2016 election will spill over into churches. The Christian faith is supposed to unite people "from every nation, tribe, people and language around Jesus Christ, not a politician," said McConnell, citing the New Testament book of Revelation.

"Christianity includes peoples from different political parties as well," he said. "Sometimes I think evangelicals forget that."

Methodology:

LifeWay Research conducted the study Sept. 27-Oct. 1. The survey was conducted using the web-enabled KnowledgePanel, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. Initially, participants are chosen scientifically by a random selection of telephone numbers and residential addresses. Persons in selected households are then invited by telephone or by mail to participate in the web-enabled KnowledgePanel. For those who agree to participate, but do not already have internet access, GfK provides at no cost a laptop and ISP connection.

Sample stratification and weights were used for gender by age, race/ethnicity, region, metro/non-metro, education and income to reflect the most recent U.S. Census data. The completed sample is 1,000 surveys. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 3.1 percent. Margins of error are higher in subgroups.

Evangelical beliefs are defined using the NAE LifeWay Research Evangelical Beliefs Research Definition based on respondent beliefs.

Respondents are asked their level of agreement with four separate statements using a four-point, forced-choice scale (strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, strongly disagree). Respondents are categorized as having evangelical beliefs if they strongly agree with all four statements:

• The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.

• It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.

• Jesus Christ's death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.

• Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God's free gift of eternal salvation.

Bob Smietana is senior writer for Facts & Trends magazine (factsandtrends.net).

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