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White, Evangelical And … Progressive

Welcome to Political Outliers, a column that explores groups of Americans who are often portrayed as all voting the same way. In today’s climate, it’s easy to focus on how a group identifies politically, but that’s never the full story. Blocs of voters are rarely uniform in their beliefs, which is why this column will dive into undercovered parts of the electorate, showing how diverse and atypical most voters are.

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There aren’t many people like Taylor Bird in today’s Democratic Party. A former megachurch employee who has worked with various evangelical churches and organizations for the past decade, the 32-year-old from Lake Forest, California, is a politically progressive white evangelical Christian who believes in addressing systemic racism, protecting the vulnerable by masking up during the COVID-19 pandemic, tackling climate change and making it as easy as possible for immigrants to become U.S. citizens — both as a matter of faith and politics.

Bird told me Jesus was “the ultimate progressive” because he “cared especially for marginalized groups like the poor, ethnic minorities and others who have been oppressed by society.” That’s why in 2015 and 2016, when evangelicals largely started to accept Donald Trump as their preferred presidential candidate, Bird felt as though he were living in an alternate reality. “I was looking at people I really respected as faithful Christians embracing this political candidate who was saying all these racist, authoritarian and outrageous things,” Bird said.

Bird has since chosen to distance himself from what he calls “the evangelical mainstream.” To be sure, though, he — and white evangelicals like him — remains in the minority. White evangelicals in the U.S. are on the decline, however, making up just about 14 percent of Americans overall, per a 2020 Public Religion Research Institute census of American religion. But despite people like Bird, white evangelicals are still the single largest ethnic-religious group among Republican voters. In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that 77 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump; in 2020, that number jumped to 84 percent.

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In fact, some evidence suggests that as white evangelicals solidified their religious beliefs during Trump’s presidency, the number of religiously affiliated Democrats declined. Per Pew’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, 54 percent of religiously unaffiliated people were Democrats or leaned that wayup from 20 percent in 2009

Beyond Trump’s influence on the Republican Party, I wanted to understand why some white evangelicals have gravitated toward the Democratic Party, especially since they must wrestle with positions that can challenge their faith — like supporting abortion rights. I looked at polling data from past elections, researched issues important to evangelicals and spoke with five white evangelicals who identify as progressive or Democratic-leaning independents and learned that some of them haven’t fully fleshed out their views on certain reproductive health issues that have not only long guided Republican policy decisions but even prompted many Christians to support the GOP in the first place. Of the five people I spoke with, a few are former Republicans themselves or previously voted for Republican presidential candidates but think Trump’s antidemocratic policies and racist rhetoric went too far; plus, a few say they don’t believe enough members of the Republican Party are doing enough to stand up for values that have been traditionally important to Christians. Yet despite often being more progressive in their views than other white evangelicals (largely thanks to Trump and Trumpism), a few told me that they’d consider voting Republican again should the party undergo a major facelift and disavow the former president.

White evangelicals’ devotion to the GOP is often treated as gospel, but this is a relatively new phenomenon. For a long time, evangelical Christians weren’t really active in American politics. But that changed when Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, ran for president in 1976 with his Christian faith front and center. He was largely recognized as the first “born-again” president and ran his campaign on the promise that he would “never knowingly lie to the American people,” which fueled a brief but powerful emergence of a progressive evangelicalism movement. 

In fact, many political scientists credit evangelicals with helping Carter win the presidency. That era of goodwill was short-lived, however. Disillusioned with Carter’s handling of certain social issues, many evangelicals switched their allegiance to Ronald Reagan, the Republican presidential nominee four years later. 

“You cannot understand the movement of white evangelicals into the Republican Party without understanding their larger sense of cultural grievance,” said Steven M. Gillon, a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma. “There were lots of specific issues that pushed them to get involved in politics — whether it be taxes, race or abortion — but the driving force that led them to abandon Carter and the Democrats and embrace Reagan was a sense that their cultural and political power was under assault by groups — women, gays and African Americans — that were now firmly entrenched in the Democratic Party. White evangelicals and the Republican Party had the same enemies. It is the one constant feature in their relationship from Reagan to Trump.”

And since Reagan’s presidency, evangelicals have been consistently loyal to the GOP. As of 2020, nearly 34 percent of Republicans (including those who lean toward the GOP) were white evangelicals, compared with just 7 percent who identified as or leaned toward the Democrats. 

Gillon attributes white grievance politics and social issues like abortion with keeping white religious conservatives politically engaged and overwhelmingly Republican. According to a December 2019 poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, abortion remains a major issue for most white evangelicals. Sixty-seven percent told AP-NORC that they supported significant restrictions on abortion except in cases of rape, incest or a threat to the mother’s life, compared with just 37 percent of all Americans who felt the same way. Moreover, 80 percent of white evangelicals said religion should have “a lot” or “some” influence on the government’s abortion policy. By comparison, just 41 percent of Americans said the same. 

But abortion wasn’t as cut-and-dried for the progressive evangelicals I spoke with. Bird, for example, said that his views on abortion had evolved over time but he ultimately believed in a woman’s right to choose; as a man, he said he didn’t feel comfortable weighing in on health decisions that didn’t affect him directly. A chief financial officer for a major religious organization who prefers to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution for his political opinions told me that he hadn’t fully grappled with his beliefs on abortion rights.

“From a moral standpoint, I think it is wrong for a person to choose to have a fetus removed from their body. But I also think it’s probably wrong for a government to do anything about a person who chooses to do that,” he said. “God designed the process the way he designed it for a reason: While the choice a person makes might not be the one God wants them to make and may not be the optimal moral choice, I’m not sure the government should have a say in the process, either.”

Kristi Robertts, a 43-year-old from Lindenhurst, Illinois, holds a similar stance on the issue. She says it has been a journey for her to figure out where she stands on abortion. She is not sure she’ll feel the same way years down the line, but as of today, she considers herself “holistically pro-whole life.” Robertts told me she finds abortion “grotesque” and wishes no woman would ever have to get one, but she also said she’s “pro-woman” and recognizes a woman’s right to have autonomy over her body. “I don’t believe we’ll ever reduce abortion by restriction and oppression,” she said. “This is not a black-and-white issue.” Meanwhile, Jordan Parshall, 24, from Chicago, said he doesn’t spend much time thinking about abortion but  added that while he “doesn’t necessarily like abortion,” it’s not his place to judge those who have had one. 

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Of course, these stances on abortion are not the norm among white evangelicals: A solid majority say they support making abortion illegal in most cases. In fact, some of the progressive evangelicals I spoke with said they had friends or family members who supported Trump in 2016 and 2020 because he had promised to usher in a conservative Supreme Court that could potentially dismantle Roe v. Wade

But abortion wasn’t what mattered most to the people I interviewed. Instead, the two parties’ positions on health care, racism, climate change and immigration mattered more and, in many cases, led them to support Democratic candidates — although Trump’s presidency also played a significant role in turning them away from the GOP. Over the past five or so years, they said, pro-Trump Republicans had become more antidemocratic, and as a result, Democratic candidates now aligned more with their own political beliefs. Thirty-year-old Jason McCormick, for example, even moved to New Zealand shortly after Trump was elected in 2016 and has no immediate plans to return to the U.S., either. Robertts said she left the GOP in 2016 because of Trump’s presidency and held fairly progressive views now, especially on immigration, health care and racism and reparations. 

In this sense too, the white evangelicals I spoke with were unique in their stances. For most white evangelicals, the top issues as of 2016 were national security and government corruption. But among those who had moved away from the larger evangelical community, many attributed this departure to Trump’s attitudes and policies toward immigrants or his handling of the protests that rocked the world following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020.

“I’ve been shifting left on race issues over the last few years, but obviously what our country went through last year with George Floyd was horrific,” said the chief financial officer who wanted to remain anonymous. “Now that I live in a major metropolitan area … and have more friends of all different colors and backgrounds, I just think it’s egregious the ways in which the Republican Party and evangelicals seem to ignore and dismiss issues of race from the public discourse. That is unequivocally something that Jesus would have been bothered by.” 

At this point, though, none of the white evangelicals I interviewed expressed concerns that they were abandoning their religion by siding with the Democratic Party. In fact, many said they saw their politics and religious identity as going hand-in-hand. “All of my beliefs come down to my conviction that Jesus laid down his life for humankind, so his followers are called to lay down their lives,” Bird said. “In other words, to sacrifice our own needs, wants and comfort for the sake of others.” 

Indeed, disdain for the current GOP, or for Trump, seems the bigger motivator for those I spoke with to go against the GOP as opposed to social issues motivating them to vote for Republicans — as is often the case with religious voters

That said, these progressive evangelicals’ disdain doesn’t mean they aren’t critical of Democrats. In fact, since some of the evangelicals I spoke with cited Trump as the main reason why they hadn’t voted Republican, at least one said he might consider voting for the GOP again should the party eventually distance itself from Trump. 

It doesn’t seem as if the GOP is headed in that direction anytime soon, though, but the CFO I spoke with stressed that parties change over time. “If I didn’t say that I’d least consider Republicans moving forward, then I would not be a critical thinker and I’d be a closed-minded person,” he said. “Both the Republican and Democratic parties now are much different than they were 60 years ago.” In the near term, though, he’ll probably continue voting for Democrats. Other progressive evangelicals I spoke to, like Parshall and Robertts, said they were far less inclined to ever support the GOP again. 

To be sure, these white evangelicals are still very much in the minority. During Trump’s presidency, more white Americans adopted the evangelical label than shed it: Among all white adults whom Pew surveyed in both 2016 and 2020, the share who described themselves as born-again or evangelical Protestants jumped 4 percentage points — from 25 percent in 2016 to 29 percent last year. Yet some of the progressive evangelicals I spoke with were optimistic that there were more white evangelicals like them than we might realize. “There was a point in my life when I didn’t know anybody like me and would actually sit back in judgment and say you can’t be a ‘real Christian’ and progressive at the same time,” Robertts said. “But in the last five to six years, I have seen how extraordinarily untrue that is and met people who are like-minded. And I think that, in time, our little section will grow and grow and grow.”

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Alex Samuels was a politics reporter at FiveThirtyEight.