Evangelical Christian voters are more supportive of Donald Trump today than they were of Mitt Romney at a similar point in 2012, according to a new report on religion and the 2016 election.
Nearly 8 in 10 white evangelical voters (78 percent) say they would vote for Trump if the election were held today, compared to 73 percent who said the same about Romney four years ago, the Pew Research Center reported. Findings come from a poll of 2,245 U.S. adults, including 1,655 registered voters, which took place from June 15-26 and has an overall 2.4 percent margin of error.
The survey shows that evangelical support for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee runs deep, in spite of high-profile opposition to the candidate from some evangelical leaders, such as Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
White evangelical Protestants who attend church at least weekly are almost as likely to support Trump as evangelicals who attend church less often. More than three quarters of voters who fall into the former group (76 percent) say they would vote or lean toward Trump if the election were held today, compared to 79 percent of less-active evangelicals, Pew reported.
Greg Smith, Pew's associate director of research, said that this doesn't necessarily mean that Trump is an ideal candidate for evangelicals or that they think he's a devout Christian. Forty-five percent of evangelicals say they're mainly voting against Clinton, compared to 30 percent who are mainly voting for Trump.
"It's opposition to the democratic candidate that drives evangelical thinking about this election as much as it is any kind of support for or confidence in Trump," Smith said.
In addition to exploring evangelical concerns, the new survey looks at how other faith groups plan to vote in the upcoming election, highlighting support for Hillary Clinton among the religiously unaffiliated.
"Despite two very unpopular candidates, the major religious constituencies of each party are lining up behind them," said John Green, a distinguished professor of political science at The University of Akron.
White evangelical Protestants constitute about one-third of voters who identify as or lean Republican, according to Pew. They're an important voting bloc, even as their status in American culture at-large appears to be at risk.
"Nearly half of white evangelical Protestants (46 percent) say it has recently become more difficult to be an evangelical Christian in American society," compared to 18 percent of Catholics and 7 percent of the religiously unaffiliated, or "nones," Pew reported.
Trump has capitalized on evangelical fears about their waning influence on American values, noted Robert Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, in an interview before the release of his new book, "The End of White Christian America."
"Trump was in his ascendency just as that world was passing from the scene in American public life. The anxieties that many white Christians felt about that shift is something Trump tapped," he said.
White evangelicals "overwhelmingly prefer" Trump over Clinton on a variety of campaign issues, including gun policy, terrorism and the economy, the survey reported.
Nearly 8 in 10 white evangelical voters (77 percent) say that Trump would do a better job of improving economic conditions, compared to 14 percent who think Clinton has the upper hand in this area, a 63 percentage point difference, according to Pew.
Evangelical support for Trump is driven by a variety of factors, including a dislike of Clinton's stances on same-sex marriage and abortion. Religious belief may be a core aspect of these voters' lives, but they're also strongly influenced by their political worldview, Green said.
"That doesn't mean that faith doesn't matter. It means it operates through partisanship," he said. "Trump really doesn't fit the evangelical lifestyle or set of values, but the general election is a choice between the leaders of two parties, and so partisanship becomes a factor."
Some other findings from the survey:
• Shifting preferences of regular churchgoers
At this point in the 2012 presidential election, Romney enjoyed a 15 percentage point advantage over Obama among voters who attended church at least weekly. That gap has narrowed considerably.
"Currently, voters who say they attend religious services at least once a week are split almost evenly; 49 percent say they would vote for Trump and 45 percent say they would vote for Clinton," Pew reported.
The biggest shift occurred among active Catholics, researchers noted. Forty-eight percent of Catholics who attended church at least weekly supported Romney in 2012; only 38 percent of the group supports Trump today.
• Religious “nones” support Clinton
Religiously unaffiliated Americans, who constitute one-fifth of registered voters, are a key voting bloc for Democratic candidates.
"Nones are fast becoming (for the Democratic Party) the equivalent of evangelicals for the Republican Party," Green said.
Many members of this group supported Bernie Sanders during the primary season, but Pew's report shows that they're lining up behind Clinton now.
Twenty-six percent of the religiously unaffiliated strongly support the presumptive Democratic nominee and another 40 percent support her with less enthusiasm, Pew reported.
"They're less enthusiastic about Clinton, but, nevertheless, the share (of religiously unaffiliated voters) who say they'll vote for Clinton is virtually identical to support for Obama over Romney in 2012," Smith said.
• Presidential religious beliefs
Growing numbers of Americans don't affiliate with a particular religious group. This decline in church membership has been paralleled by decreasing concern about a presidential candidate's faith.
"Today, just 62 percent of U.S. adults say it is important to them that the president have strong religious beliefs, down from 67 percent in 2012 and 72 percent in 2008," Pew reported. "The share of Republicans who say it is important to have a president who has strong religious beliefs has ticked down four percentage points since the 2012 campaign."
Researchers noted that this decrease may respond to or benefit Trump, whose religious claims have been scrutinized throughout campaign season. However, they added that Republican concern for presidential faith also fell 4 percentage points from 2008 to 2012.
"In the last couple of elections, we haven't seen as many prominent discussions of religion during campaigns. That tends to de-emphasize the importance of the religious aspects of presidential candidates for many voters," Green said.
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