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Unchurched election

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Unchurched election

Key support for Donald Trump came from evangelicals who don’t go to church

Pundits have written abundantly about evangelical support of Donald Trump, but they’ve mostly gotten it wrong. WORLD’s running survey of evangelical leaders in 2015 showed almost zero initial support for Trump. Not until his ascension left him as the only alternative to Hillary Clinton did he pick up broad support from church-going evangelicals, and the reason was obvious: the Supreme Court. 

But weren’t evangelicals his key supporters during the crucial months in late 2015 and early 2016? Here’s where some fascinating work by Timothy Carney in his new book, Alienated America (Harper, 2019), breaks down the data and exposes the mistake that has taken hold. Carney’s summary: “The best way to describe Trump’s support in the Republican primaries—when he was running against the likes of Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich—would be: white evangelicals who do not go to church.

Crunching numbers from the Voter Study Group, Carney and his research assistant Nick Saffran broke down by church attendance Republican voters in caucuses and primaries. Two out of 3 of the most frequent church attenders voted against Trump, but nearly 2 out of 3 of those who call themselves evangelicals but never go to church (a contradiction in terms) voted for him.

Carney compares the rural Iowa counties of Fremont and Winnebago, where the populations have similar incomes, similar educational attainment, similar unemployment, and similar crops, mostly corn and soy. One big difference: Winnebago, packed with churches, is one of the Top 10 Iowa counties in religious adherence, while Fremont, where churches were closing in 2013 and 2014, is 84th out of 99. Early in 2016 Trump received 19 percent of Winnebago’s votes, 43 percent of Fremont’s.

Trump’s worst county in Iowa, worse even than the counties housing the liberal University of Iowa and Iowa State, is highly churched Sioux County, which houses Dordt College. As dean of the World Journalism Institute, which holds our intensive college course at Dordt during the last two weeks of May every year, I’ve seen what a tight-knit place Sioux County is. Many residents are not looking for a Nietzschean superman to save them: They have a superman in their own homes—a faithful, hard-working dad—and they know a Superior Being looks after them.

Watch the evangelicals filling Sioux County churches on Sunday, and it’s no surprise that Trump did poorly there. Drive by closed or mostly empty churches in Buchanan County, Virginia’s little bit of Appalachia, and it’s no surprise that Trump did great in Buchanan. A Pew survey in March 2016 showed Trump down by 16 percentage points among white evangelical voters who attended church weekly, and up by 19 points among those who did not. Trump’s strongest support came among those unlikely to be in church but highly likely to say religion was important to them.

Carney points out how economic and religious institution collapse have followed parallel tracks in America. He cites a study by sociologist Brad Wilcox aptly titled “No Money, No Honey, No Church” and notes Wilcox’s finding that white Americans are less likely to attend religious services when they are unemployed: They’re also more susceptible to divorce.

It’s all part of a vicious cycle: Absent strong job prospects, fewer adults form families. Fewer weddings, fewer baptisms, fewer kids to teach about right and wrong: One result is less church involvement and a give-up attitude that among 10 percent of the populace worsens job prospects.


Alex Kershaw’s The First Wave (Penguin Random House, 2019) vividly shows the courage of the D-Day warriors 75 years ago. Joe Wheeler’s Abraham Lincoln: A Man of Faith and Courage (Howard Books, 2019) is a good book for homeschoolers. Palau: A Life on Fire (Zondervan, 2019) is the memoir of godly and honest evangelist Luis Palau. Michael Card’s Inexpressible (IVP, 2018) skillfully excavates the meaning of the Hebrew word hesed, often translated as “lovingkindness.” —M.O.


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    Posted: Thu, 05/02/2019 05:06 pm

    If 2 out of 3 of the most frequent church attenders voted against Trump, who did they vote for or did they not vote at all?

  • Laura W
    Posted: Sun, 05/05/2019 07:08 am

    I know some sat out this election because they couldn't stomach either choice.

  • Rich277
    Posted: Sun, 05/05/2019 08:41 am

    He’s talking about the early part of the primary, not the general election.

  • Phil W's picture
    Phil W
    Posted: Sat, 05/04/2019 10:43 pm

    I've seen push-back on this idea before, so there are likely conflicting studies. Plus it's difficult to say these voters aren't faithful church members with such vocal Trump supporters as Robert Jeffress and Franklin Graham.

    To answer James's question from 5/2, I voted for the independent, but I'm sure many faithful members of my church voted for Trump, b/c nobody wanted Clinton. And though I appreciate many things Trump has done this term, I want a new GOP candidate. The character of the president matters.

  • John Kloosterman
    Posted: Sun, 05/05/2019 02:37 pm

    Amen.  I went for Evan McMullin.  I understand the lesser of two evils argument--I have used it myself before.  This time, there was barely enough moral difference between the two for the argument to have any weight.  One was as loathsome as the other.

  • My Two Cents
    Posted: Sun, 05/05/2019 09:12 am

    I voted for Ben Carson in the primaries. In my state, that registered me as a Republican. In the general election I wrote in Darrell Castle of the Constitution Party. I cannot sign a petition to get my candidate on the ballot because I voted in the primaries. That means I will not vote in the primaries any more because I am fighting duopoly. I am independent and deeply resent that I have to choose a party to vote for other issues and offices. Election rules are created by the two major parties, and the individual vote doesn't count. I will no longer vote for a candidate JUST BECAUSE they have an R behind their name. 

  • John Kloosterman
    Posted: Sun, 05/05/2019 02:39 pm

    Nor should you.  Republicans have grown fat on using the abortion issue to manipulate evangelicals into voting for them regardless of their other qualities.  They no longer stand for fiscal responsibility, limited government, or free trade, and with the rise of Trump, they can no longer even be said to stand for "family values."

  • John Kloosterman
    Posted: Sun, 05/05/2019 02:35 pm

    This, at least, encourages me.  The fact that evangelicals showed greater support for a three-time adulterer (who claimed to be a Christian yet said he needed no forgiveness from Christ) than they did for a happily-married Mormon has led me to question everything I was taught about the importance of character.  I never thought Christians would so quickly abandon the importance of God in government, until I heard so many people stressing that Trump was not a pastor (and thus could not be expected to refrain from bragging about groping women).

    Christians being absolutely panic-stricken by Hillary is the only way I have ever been able to understand the 80% support Trump received. Anyone who supported him in the primaries, I am convinced, regardless of their church attendance, were more political than Christian.

  • My Two Cents
    Posted: Sun, 05/05/2019 06:29 pm

    John, I absolutely agree with you. I could not believe the same people condemning Bill Clinton for his lack of moral fiber were the same ones excusing Trump for the same thing. I had no beef with someone who voted for Trump. I did, however, strongly object to the so-called evangelical leaders who issued imperative pleas to the masses that if you call yourself a Christian you MUST vote for Trump because he alone was ordained of God to save America. By that same argument, couldn't God have used Hillary (another flawed candidate) to save America? God doesn't save nations, He saves PEOPLE who turn to Him by faith. And He will continue to save the lost and the perishing in spite of who occupies the White House. 

  •  Xion's picture
    Posted: Sun, 05/05/2019 08:04 pm

    I love Mr Olasky, but let's be honest here.  He really, really, really, really doesn't like Trump and has never had a nice thing to say about him.  He expended barrels of ink writing against him in the elections.  To find a book that compares two counties in Iowa and draws a general conclusion that only people who don't go to church voted for Trump is beyond ridiculous.  The only alternative was a Clinton.  The best Christians can do is vote for the lesser of evils.  Trump, with all of his sins, has done more in line with a Christian worldview than any president in decades. 

  • Postmodern Redneck
    Posted: Tue, 05/07/2019 10:59 am

    After reading this article three times, I think there is another question that would be worth looking into by World and others--how did the evangelical churches lose the white working class (recognized from the first as a major part of Trump's base)?

    Historically, some denominations have mostly catered to the elite--the Episcopalians have a long history of this; even in the early 1800s the Methodists and Baptists tended to attract more of the lower classes.  But it seems now most churches are losing working-class whites.

    I am 69 years old.  When I was a teenager the church my family attended was a mix of white-collar and blue-collar people, and the elders and deacons were a mix as well.  During my lifetime this has been changing, at least in the Midwest area where I have lived--Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and the areas between.  From my own experiences it seems the problem largely began with the pastors of my own generation, and has gotten worse with the younger ones.  I have seen too many pastors who visibly kowtow to the more affluent members of their congregation, but it is also happening with some of the members as well.  There are signs that the "prosperity gospel" has taken hold in a lot of non-charismatic churches, with less affluent people being told they do not prosper because of their secret sins (this has happened to my grown kids).

    Some of this may also be a sorting that began with the rise in college attendance that resulted from the GI Bill after WWII.  But the gulf was not that wide in the '60s--the WWII generation college grads knew they were the first of their families to have a chance at college.  Their children and grandchildren seem to have taken it for granted, and widened the division.  Before WWII, in most places the only educated people in a community would be the preachers, the doctors, and the lawyers--they had to rub shoulders with the less educated because they were so few in any place.  Now educated people live in different neighborhoods and send their children to different schools from the blue-collar people.

    Yes, some of these things are just what has been going on in our society.  But instead of noticing and dealing with the problem, the leadership of our churches, at the local level and clear to the top, has ignored the problem and contributed to it.


  • nevertheless
    Posted: Tue, 05/07/2019 11:10 am

    The perfect candidate for evangelical voters was Ted Cruz but it was clear to me that he would not be able to win in a general election; evangelical voters are a minority in the general electorate. Ted Cruz had negatives that church going evangelicals would have been willing to overlook in an election, except the one BIG one, that he would not win against HC. I am glad that God saw to it that Donald Trump became our president in spite of the bad advice and example of evangelicals leaders who valued their personal conscience over the consequences of leadership for the country as a whole. 

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Tue, 05/07/2019 01:37 pm

    How does what you wrote square with Romans 14?

  •  Shelley Tuttle's picture
    Shelley Tuttle
    Posted: Tue, 07/02/2019 03:59 pm

    My man was Ted Cruz as well, and it was shocking to me that he wasn’t the #1 favorite for the nomination. This is why I didn’t believe a lot of evangelicals really did care that much for character, as Cruz would have trumped all other candidates. Also, many were strong church goers who voted for Trump. I know of several just in my corner of the town who are and did. I would never go back and undo my vote, either. 

  •  Xion's picture
    Posted: Tue, 05/07/2019 11:10 pm

    There is a fundamental question for Christians which I have never heard discussed anywhere.  Olasky takes the position of many Christians that the best presidential candidate would be a moral Christ follower.  That is a good and valid argument.  However, if you are in a violent storm on a plane or ship, would your main concern be whether your pilot is a Sunday School teacher or the best pilot for the job?  Who would you prefer in a fight, a brawler like Trump, or a choir member?  The kingdoms of this world play by different rules than the kingdom of heaven.  Shouldn't Christians be able to discern the difference?

  • John Kloosterman
    Posted: Mon, 05/13/2019 08:23 pm

    Of course they should know the difference.  Primarily so that they DON'T PLAY BY THEM.

    If the rules of the kingdom of heaven are only meant for heaven, why do we bother teaching them at all?