Values and voting
No-one likes a hypocrite. So when we hear that evangelical Christians in America are voting for Donald Trump , in great numbers it’s easy to get pretty scornful, pretty fast. Trump’s behaviour on the campaign trail has been appalling—he’s even encouraged people at his rallies to use violence on protestors. His policy is vacuous, many of his public comments are best characterised as insults, and while he claims to be a “strong Christian” he’s a long way from demonstrating the kind of values you’d expect an evangelical to share.
So why are evangelicals voting for him? Actually, it turns out that they’re not, or at least not the way you’ve been told. First, it’s true that many people who categorise themselves “evangelicals” are voting for Trump. But when you look at the data, you see that many more of them are voting for a different candidate. Take South Carolina as an example, where 33% of “evangelicals” voted for Trump, meaning 67% of them voted for someone who’s not Trump. And when you ask those voters to say what matters most to them, Trump’s support drops to just 11% among voters who say a candidate’s values matter most.
An even bigger problem is that the data relies on self-identification. Someone’s counted as an evangelical if they say they are, but that doesn’t distinguish between nominal and practising evangelicals. In fact, when “evangelicals” are limited to those who actually hold evangelical beliefs, or say they attend church frequently, they are less likely to vote for Trump.
It’s true, though, that some evangelicals, actual or nominal, are voting for Trump. One explanation is that they care more about other issues than having shared values with their candidate. Trump has recognised a huge, and legitimate, discontent among sections of the American public who have been left behind over the last “forty years of hurt,” and he’s exploiting it with his promise to “Make. America. Great. Again!”
Another, related, explanation is that Trump’s supporters are angry, that they’re ready to “smash things,” feeling that they’ve been betrayed by the Republican establishment who have taken their support for granted and ignored them. Trump is their wrecking ball, their way to send a message to Party elites.
This shows that the relationship between values and votes is complex and imperfect. A candidate’s values matter more to some voters than others, and probably not much at all to voters who are ready to “smash things.” The available choices also matter—if you don’t like the other candidates, you might still vote for the guy with problematic values.
So we shouldn’t be too quick to assume hypocrisy, and we should care about a candidate’s values, because we have to rely on the character and judgment of the people who will make big decisions for the country. While politics is often called “the art of compromise,” it’s good to know that many people will still vote in accordance with their values. In fact, it’s not as unusual as you’ve been told.