The Corner

The GOP Primary Is Revealing Fault Lines in the Evangelical Movement

Over at FiveThirtyEight, Farai Chideya takes a crack at analyzing Trump’s strong showing with South Carolina’s Evangelicals. She accurately notes that Evangelicals “aren’t necessarily voting on their faith:”

Trump’s win among evangelicals was a bit of a surprise to the media — the cable networks hammered away at the issue, and on Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” Chuck Todd peppered Cruz with questions about why he lost the group that had supported him in Iowa. But the South Carolina results show evangelicals are a diverse group with sometimes differing priorities. Trump did well among less-conservative evangelicals but not among those who want a candidate who shares their values. And after all, two-thirds of South Carolina evangelicals voted for one of the other candidates instead.

“Diverse group with differing priorities” indeed. I’m glad to see Chideya note that Evangelicals — especially in the South — are hardly a monolith. Unlike the Northeast, West, and parts of the Midwest, in the South there is no social stigma to labeling yourself an Evangelical, and in some communities non-Evangelicals are in a decided minority. That’s not to say, however, that the Evangelical movement here is culturally dominant. There is a significant gap between those who proudly declare themselves to be Christian and those who actually go to church or participate in church in any meaningful way. And amongst church-goers, there are wide variations in belief and approach. Denominations still matter down here.

At the risk of over-generalizing, I’d argue that the Trump/Cruz/Rubio divide exposes the fault lines in three main cultural threads of southern evangelicalism (the branch I know best).

Trump is drawing those voters who are Evangelical but don’t see themselves as “Evangelical voters.” In other words, they’re not imposing faith-based litmus tests on candidates, they don’t care about candidates’ personal lives, they’re less concerned with social issues, and they’re more in line with old-school Southern populists. Oh, and they really, truly don’t like being told what they “should” be doing and strongly dislike moral scolds — especially politically-correct moral scolds. Many of these voters were equally comfortable going for Clinton in 1996 and Bush in 2000. 

Cruz is pulling more from the voters who define themselves as true-blue (I’m sorry, true-red) Evangelicals and who are craving someone who shows that he has the courage to confront the establishment and the liberal media without compromising one inch on core principle. If you’re talking to a voter who’s concerned first and foremost not just with a candidate’s faith but also with their moral and political consistency, then you’re likely talking to a Cruz voter. If you’re talking to someone who feels like the GOP has exploited Christians for votes, only to abandon the fight at the first sign of resistance, you’re likely talking to a Cruz voter.

Rubio, by contrast, is getting his share of voters who look primarily to a candidate’s faith, but he’s also drawing substantial numbers from Evangelicals who care deeply about a candidate’s manner. They want to see their candidate not just as a faithful Christian but as someone who can defend that faith in the public square in a particular way. They also tend to be more ambivalent about immigration — concerned about border enforcement, to be sure, but less closed to legalization. If you’re talking to an Evangelical who believes that their candidate can break down walls and expand the Republican constituency, you’re likely talking to a Rubio voter.

These differences are one reason why I’m a bit skeptical that the SEC primary will clarify whether Cruz or Rubio will emerge as Trump’s principal competitor. The differences between the Evangelical constituencies are real — with Cruz voters proud of his alienation from Washington and Rubio voters troubled by his apparently divisive personality — and the numbers are substantial enough on both sides to keep both men in the hunt past March 1. Look for the three-man race to continue, in large part because southern Christians are just as divided as the rest of the GOP.

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