With one week to go before the U.S. mid-term election, new research may shed light on how evangelicals will vote. The Billy Graham Center Institute at Wheaton College and LifeWay Research in Nashville, Tenn., released an extensive study in October on how evangelicals voted in 2016, and how they feel about their decisions today.
The study explored the voting habits and political motivations of three groups of Americans: evangelicals by belief, self-identified evangelicals, and those who are not evangelical by belief or self-identity. (Evangelicals by belief are those who hold to four key theological statements developed by LifeWay Research and the National Association of Evangelicals.)
Among the findings: 53% of evangelicals by belief characterized their vote in the 2016 presidential election as being for a candidate, while smaller percentages said they cast their vote against Hillary Clinton (18%) or Donald Trump (15%). That only half of evangelical voters said they voted for their candidate in 2016 led researchers to conclude that evangelicals are “more issue-oriented than candidate-focused,” Christianity Today reported.
“I see no reason that focus on issues won’t be repeated next month,” said Ed Stetzer, referencing the Nov. 6 election. The executive director of the Billy Graham Center Institute overviewed the research in a press release. “In 2016, many evangelicals chose to look past a candidate as an individual to vote for a specific issue, platform, or party a candidate represented, seeing the candidates more like objects of representation than as individuals whose values and ideals fit theirs,” Stetzer said.
According to the research, two-thirds of evangelicals by belief agree committed Christians can benefit from a political leader even if that leader’s personal life does not line up with Christian teaching.
The 2016 election
In the 2016 presidential election, 9 in 10 evangelicals agree they felt strong support for their preferred candidate, with 69% strongly agreeing. And little has changed two years later. Today, 88% agree they feel strong support for who they voted for in 2016, with 70% strongly agreeing.
Among evangelicals who voted, most did so for Donald Trump. More than half of evangelicals by belief (58%) and self-identified evangelicals (53%) cast their ballot for the Republican nominee. Slightly more than a third of evangelicals by belief (36%) and self-identified evangelicals (38%) voted for Hillary Clinton.
African-American voters with evangelical beliefs overwhelmingly voted for Clinton (86%), while more than three-quarters of white voters with evangelical beliefs voted for Trump (77%).
Around half of younger voters with evangelical beliefs cast their ballot for Clinton—47% of those 18 to 49. A majority of voters 65 and over who have evangelical beliefs voted for Trump (72%).
The survey also measured the issues at play in the 2016 presidential election. Both evangelicals by belief and self-identified evangelicals said an ability to improve the economy was the most important reason for voting the way they did, followed by positions on health care and immigration.
Few evangelicals by belief (5%) and self-identified evangelicals (4%) said abortion was the most important issue in deciding their 2016 vote. And 7% of evangelicals by belief and 6% of self-identified evangelicals chose likely Supreme court nominees as the most important reason.
Working across divides
Most evangelicals by belief and self-identified evangelicals say the 2016 election brought to the surface some underlying divisions among Christians. Yet, most evangelicals also believe someone in the opposing party can be a devout Christian.
When evangelicals encounter someone using biblical beliefs to justify political views that are opposite of their own, few question their political opponent’s faith. Evangelicals by belief are most likely to say they are hopeful they can find common ground biblically.
“Jesus is not coming back on a donkey or an elephant,” said Stetzer. “We have to acknowledge that people vote for different and complex reasons and that Christians can differ on politics and agree on the gospel.”
– From LifeWay Research, with reporting by Christianity Today