American evangelicals, believing in the literal truth of the Bible, personal salvation and strict moral code, are key targets in Donald Trump’s election campaign.
In 2016, 81 per cent of white evangelicals voted for him, a higher proportion than for each of the previous three Republican candidates. Now he is courting their vote once more.
The way evangelicals are being mobilised in the United States and their overwhelmingly Republican leanings contrast with how British evangelicals get involved in politics and the explanation of the difference, was the subject of a Religion Media Centre zoom call.
Michael Wear, former faith adviser to Obama White House, said white evangelicals made up 27 per cent of the electorate, so their vote was of crucial value in swing states.
He predicted Trump would continue to win the white evangelical vote, but he said the importance of the black and Hispanic evangelical votes could not be underestimated. The black vote would go to Biden, he said, and in the states of Arizona or Florida, which had large Hispanic communities, their vote is key.
Andrea Hatcher, professor of politics at the University of the South in Tennessee, who has written books on evangelicals in the UK and US, said white evangelicals had traditionally voted Republican in large numbers. However, when Trump was Republican candidate in 2016, only 16 per cent of white evangelicals backed him, but once he was selected, they solidified behind him.
She described this as a transactional relationship — they do not like the man, Trump, but he will give them judges who will overturn the Roe v Wade judgment and end the scourge of abortion in their land.
The religious vote in the presidential election turns on abortion. Professor Hatcher said evangelicals act as if abortion were the most important issue. Televangelists were telling their audiences they must not vote for a baby killer.
In fact, Michael Wear explained that Joe Biden is a loyal Roman Catholic who acknowledges personal discomfort with abortion and expresses great moral nuance on the issue, taking “shots from both sides”. The televised debates will be crucial as he answers these difficult questions.
Professor Hatcher said Hillary Clinton’s campaign had mistakenly ignored broad swathes of religious voters, but Biden’s campaign was keenly interested and was expected to pick up some percentage points.
The place to look for movement in religious bloc votes is among white Roman Catholics and Hispanics, she suggested. In the white Catholic vote of 2016, where Trump led by 23 per cent over Hilary Clinton, but that lead was now reduced to five per cent against Biden.
Andy Flannagan, from the UK’s Christians in Politics/Christians on the Left, said there had been countless discussions on how to explain the differences between American and British evangelicals. In the UK, evangelicals supported all political parties; there was no bloc vote as in the States. His organisation was trying to foster dialogue and greater understanding rather than power-plays between opposing views. There were moments, he said, when a progressive response was required, and moments for a conservative response. This contrasted with the kneejerk response of a tribe and allowed discussion.
But he was finding that the American tribal isolation and political polarisation was slipping into British culture, with Brexit, the 2019 election and social media having an impact.
The Rev Mark Woods, the former editor of Christian Today, agreed, saying it was interesting that the church response to places of worship closing was the social damage on the worshippers, not the right of Christians to worship.
He suggested the non-partisan approach of British evangelicals may be because they were part of the Anglican church, which has to engage in society because it is part of the operation of the state and encompasses many ideas and beliefs.
He said there were some evangelical groups in Britain that were counter-cultural, producing incendiary press releases, but they were not mainstream.
Professor Hatcher had observed that evangelicals in the UK do not want to be seen as an ‘out group’. They feared being mocked and did not continually fight cultural war battles like their American counterparts.
Instead, when asked what the main issues were in society, they described social justice issues such as hunger, food banks, poverty and human trafficking. There was a sense, she believed, that battles over abortion and same-sex marriage had been fought.
Michael Wear suggested it was important to understand who the white evangelicals were in the States. The name described a culture rather than a set of beliefs. The place of religion when understanding the evangelical bloc vote should be understood — it was not, he said, the overriding definer of the vote: the culture was.
That was not to lessen the importance of faith, but it was to understand that religious communities created culture that in turn, created ways of looking at society and politics.
Here, he said, lay the danger of Christian beliefs being manipulated to reinforce or exacerbate issues of gender, race and nationalism.
As the discussion drew to a close, Mr Flannagan reflected that the American political scene offered important lessons for the left in this country. Should Labour become a narrow, progressive, mainly metropolitan movement, or a group representing working people with a spread of opinion on social issues?
View our zoom briefing on YouTube