Editor’s Note: Kraig Beyerlein is a sociologist and director of Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society. Mark Chaves is a sociologist at Duke University and director of the National Congregations Study. He is the author of “American Religion: Contemporary Trends” (Princeton, 2017). The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
On the eve of the 2016 election, Republicans appeared to dominate the religion-and-politics market in the United States. That year, 80% of White evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump.
And, on Trump’s watch, the GOP has delivered on promises to its Christian base, including confirming two conservative Supreme Court justices and signing executive orders on religious liberty – in both domestic and international affairs.
Republicans remain confident in their hold on evangelical voters – a confidence that was on full display last week at their convention, where Trump warned supporters that Democrats want no guns, oil or God.
However, a closer look reveals trouble in the water. Last December, Christianity Today, the flagship evangelical Protestant magazine, published an editorial from its editor-in-chief that called for Trump to be removed from office. Then, earlier last week, Jerry Falwell, Jr., one of the leading evangelical Protestant leaders to support Trump in 2016, resigned as president of Liberty University after a series of scandals. (Falwell has not been formally accused or admitted to any wrongdoing.)
Our new research, forthcoming in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, analyzes data from the National Congregations Study (NCS) – a nationally representative sample of US congregations over time – and shows further trouble for conservatives: surging political activism among religious progressives in what appears to be a direct response to Trump administration policies.
Findings from this research cast serious doubt on the Republican dominance over faith-based political action. The very congregations that should have increased their mobilization the most under Trump have, in fact, increased it the least – even on issues for which the President has strongly advocated, such as hardline immigration policies.
Consider congregation-based action on immigration. A staggering 41% of self-identified politically liberal congregations lobbied elected officials or participated in demonstrations for pro-immigrant causes under Trump, while only 5% did so under former President Barack Obama. Catholic churches were fairly active on this issue even before Trump, but the rate of pro-immigrant action significantly increased among predominantly White mainline Protestant churches – growing from 3% under Obama to 16% under Trump in less than a decade.
As for predominantly White evangelical Protestant churches, less than 1% took action on either side of the immigration issue during Trump’s administration – the same number that did so when Obama was president.
The political activity of Black Protestant churches – whose pews are overwhelmingly filled with Democratic voters and Biden backers – also spiked in the post-Obama era. We found a significant increase among Black churches in seven of the nine political actions measured over time, including participating in activities like voter registration drives, get out the vote efforts and demonstrations or marches. No such uptick across a range of political activities was found among predominantly White Protestant churches. Trump’s presidency thus far has resulted in considerably more faith-based activism in Democratic strongholds than in Republican ones.
In a move clearly aimed at encouraging more explicitly partisan political activity by his base of predominantly White evangelical Protestant churches, Trump signed an executive order aimed at giving churches freedom to do things like endorse political candidates without risking their privileged tax status. However, we found these churches were far less likely to endorse political candidates than were Black Protestant churches, and they even trailed Catholic and predominantly White mainline Protestant churches in being interested in this partisan political action if their tax status was protected.
In other words, this Trump administration initiative did not actually change anything – it just pretended to. But if it had been effective, it probably would have increased partisan political activity among congregations on the left more than on the right.
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These facts should be encouraging to those who see religion’s potential as a force for social justice. Under Trump, more progressive faith communities have become politically active, and they have done so, at least in part, to resist the President’s policies and actions. Their increased mobilization signals a refusal to let Trump and other Republican leaders hijack religion. Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign, which modeled progressive politics inspired by religion, and the many references to faith and God at the Democratic National Convention two weeks ago, send a similar message.
At the same time, politically conservative congregations far outnumber politically liberal congregations. In the most recent NCS data, 15% of congregations self-identified as more on the liberal side, compared to 46% saying they were more on the conservative side and 39% saying they were right in the middle. This means that, even with the surge in activism among liberal congregations, in absolute terms the political activity of conservative congregations probably still outweighs the political activity of liberal congregations.
But the simultaneous surge of the religious left and stagnation of conservative churches’ political activity are telling signs of a shift in religious activism under Trump’s watch that could make a difference on November 3.