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POLL: White Evangelicals Have Warmed To Politicians Who Commit 'Immoral' Acts

Trump courted young Christians at Liberty University earlier this year.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
Trump courted young Christians at Liberty University earlier this year.

Quick: do you think politicians can still do their jobs if they've screwed up in their personal lives?

Many Americans answer this question differently now than they would have five years ago. And for white evangelical Protestants, it's especially likely their opinion has changed.

That's what a new PRRI/Brookings poll says. In 2011, 30 percent of white evangelicals said that "an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life." Now, 72 percent say so — a far bigger swing than other religious groups the poll studied.

It's just one poll, but it does suggest a sizable shift in how Americans of several religious stripes think about the connection between morality and politics. White evangelicals also are less likely than they used to be to say that "strong religious beliefs" are "very important" in a presidential candidate. That share fell from 64 percent in 2011 to 49 percent this year.

White mainline Protestants and Catholics also grew more accepting of a candidate who has committed "immoral acts," while religiously unaffiliated people barely changed. Those "unaffiliated" people in 2011 had been much more willing than the broader population to believe candidates who had committed "immoral acts" could do their jobs. Now, they are in line with Americans as a whole. (The published results did not include data on other groups.)

There is no way to know what caused these shifts. That said, it's difficult to see this outside of the context of the 2016 election, and in particular what role Donald Trump — fending off allegations of sexual misconduct — plays in it.

Some white evangelical leaders (and other Christians) have decided to stand behind the Republican nominee even as other Christians strongly condemn him. Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. told CNN's Erin Burnett, "We're not electing a pastor; we're electing a president." Meanwhile, a group of anti-Trump students at that university recently penned a statement saying that Trump "is actively promoting the very things that we as Christians ought to oppose."

Of the groups depicted in this chart, white evangelicals are by far most likely to support Trump. At the other end, unaffiliated people are most likely to support Clinton.

The data in this poll could mean that Trump has inspired some people to loosen their views on whether it's OK to vote for someone with a questionable past. Aside from the allegations of sexual misconduct, Trump also said at one point in 2015 that he didn't think he had ever asked God for forgiveness. He also drew jeers when he made reference to "Two Corinthians," which Christians normally call "Second Corinthians."

But if indeed Trump helped cause this swing in some Christians' opinions, Hillary Clinton potentially has played into it, as well. Many Republicans find her unacceptable, and it may be that some dislike her so much that they have stretched their conceptions of who it's OK to vote for.

For example, a Christian who sees abortion as absolutely wrong might be entirely unwilling to vote for Clinton, who is pro-abortion rights. That would mean they'd have to either pick a third-party candidate or be comfortable with voting for Trump, even if they don't like some of the things he has said or done in his past.

And if the swing in opinion started pre-Trump, he could still easily be benefiting from it, as some voters have (according to this poll) broadened their views of who can be an effective politician.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
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