Contrary to many reports, born-again evangelical Christians did not make the difference in Donald Trump’s presidential election, a post-mortem study revealed. Rather, Christians who do not consider themselves “born again” — those dubbed “notional Christians” — pushed the Republican candidate over the edge in key states. In fact, Trump won a smaller percentage of born-again evangelical Christians than George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney!
“While the media have made a big deal about the prolific level of evangelical support won by Trump, the real story may be elsewhere,” a Barna Group study reported. “Barna’s research indicated that perhaps the most significant faith group in relation to the Trump triumph was notional Christians.”
Barna described notional Christians as people “who consider themselves to be Christian, typically attend a Christian church, but are not born again.” These people have not made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today,” and they do not believe that “when they die they will go to Heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior.”
In other words, these are people who consider themselves Christians and act like Christians but do not believe the key biblical doctrines of salvation. Some might call them “Christians in name only.”
According to Barna, this group has supported the Democratic candidate in every presidential election since 1996. On average, “notional Christians” have given the Democrat 58 percent of their votes. This year, Trump won this group with 49 percent, beating Clinton narrowly (she took 47 percent).
This is significant because notional Christians were the largest faith group in the electorate, providing 58 million votes. Born-again evangelical voters (who fit nine specific criteria) provided 10 million votes, while non-evangelical born-again Christians brought 33 million votes to the table. Adults representing non-Christian faiths cast 7 million ballots, while “skeptics” — atheists, agnostics, and the unaffiliated — cast 28 million votes.
Trump won in every single Christian demographic. The Republican took a solid 79 percent of born-again evangelicals, while 18 percent favored the Democrat. Trump won 56 percent of non-evangelical born-again Christians, while Clinton took 35 percent.
Clinton won every non-Christian demographic. A full 71 percent of voters with a non-Christian faith chose the Democrat, with only 20 percent favoring the Republican. Skeptics also broke for Clinton, giving her 60 percent to Trump’s 27 percent.
When the Christians were broken up by denomination, Protestants voted for Trump (58 percent to 36 percent), and Catholics split evenly, giving both candidates 48 percent. According to Barna, this is the first election in the last 20 years in which the Catholic vote was not won by the Democratic candidate.
In short, Trump won largely because of notional Christians and born-again non-evangelicals, not born-again evangelical Christians.
In fact, the 79 percent evangelical vote which Trump won is the lowest level of evangelical support for a Republican since 1996, when Bob Dole only took 74 percent. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney won 81 percent of evangelicals in 2012 — which itself was smaller than President George W. Bush’s victories and Senator John McCain’s loss in 2008.
Certain issues also propelled Trump and Clinton voters. Forty-four percent of voters identified themselves as “pro-life advocates,” and they broke heavily for Trump (64 percent to 29 percent). Thirty percent said they were “theological conservatives” and they also favored the Republican (71 percent to 23 percent). Twenty-one percent described themselves as Tea Party supporters, and they also heavily favored Trump (85 percent to 15 percent).
It should come as no surprise that liberal activists favored Clinton. 40 percent of voters surveyed called themselves environmentalists, and went for the Democrat (52 percent to 38 percent). Forty-one percent of voters said they were advocates of “LGBT rights” and swung heavily for Clinton (63 percent to 28 percent).
Meanwhile, more than half of voters (52 percent) said they “believe absolute moral truth exists,” and favored Trump (53 percent to 34 percent). Surprisingly, a whopping 71 percent of voters said they “support traditional moral values,” and they also favored Trump (53 percent to 35 percent). This is particularly interesting — as there must have been significant crossover between those who “support traditional moral values” and “LGBT rights” at the same time.
Next Page: What does this mean for future elections?
“I think the decisive factor in this election is that many religious Americans (including a slight majority of Catholics) voted in self defense,” Jay Richards, assistant research professor at the Catholic University of America, told PJ Media in an email statement. He disputed some of the Barna study’s categories but nonetheless took away some key political insights from the 2016 election.
“I suspect that the category for ‘notional Christian’ is pretty close to a cross section of the American population,” Richards argued. He disputed the idea that this group was the “key factor” in Trump’s victory, as “the margin was so tight between Trump and Clinton, if any Christian sub-group had swung just a few percentage points in the other direction, Hillary would have won.”
Richards agreed with David Bernstein, whose Washington Post op-ed argued that the gay marriage Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges cost liberals the 2016 election. Christians “may have had all sorts of misgivings about Trump, but in the end, the live alternative to Trump was Hillary Clinton and the Democratic policies she defended.”
“The relentless assaults on the religious freedom of private florists, bakers, and even nuns backfired on the Democrats,” Richards argued. “I suspect that it had an effect even on these ‘notional Christians’ who supported Trump. Many may have supported same-sex marriage, but still didn’t like seeing an elderly florist forced to participate in such marriages or lose her business.”
David Lane, president of the American Renewal Project and an activist for pastors getting involved in politics, listed all the positions which President Obama took that likely pushed Christian away from his party. He included the Obergefell case, as well as “ejection of pro-life Americans from the Democrat Party,” the veto of a bill defunding Planned Parenthood, the Iran nuclear deal, the transgender directive to public schools, and the betrayal of the nation of Israel.
Lane told PJ Media that the election was less about Hillary Clinton’s lies than about Barack Obama’s radical liberalism. Indeed, Trump’s victory among all the Christian groups and Clinton’s victory among all non-Christian groups represent a radical shift in American politics, and one which might marginalize the Democratic Party.
Richards highlighted Clinton’s troubling reliance on non-Christian voters. “The Democratic Party is in danger of becoming the party for anti-Christian secularists and skeptics, regardless of the fake window-dressing of a ‘devout Catholic’ vice presidential candidate,” the Catholic University professor declared.
Next Page: What “notional Christians” can teach us about the state of the Church in America today.
Richards argued that instead of using “born again” and “evangelical” as categories, the Barna study should have measured votes by church attendance. “I’m quite certain, for instance, that Catholics who frequently attend daily Mass swung more strongly for Trump than Catholics that go to Mass less than once a week,” he argued.
If true, this trend would directly reverse the evangelical voting pattern of the primaries. This suggested that, contrary to stories focusing on Trump “winning the evangelical vote,” his success relied on Christians who attended church less frequently.
Similarly, in the general election, Trump lost some of the born-again evangelicals, even while winning more notional Christians than other Republican candidates. Radical positions advanced by Democrats pushed every Christian group into Trump’s camp, but many born-again evangelicals nevertheless fell away.
In this way, Barna’s categories tell a story that matches the data from the Republican primary. The categories do actually suggest a higher church attendance — or at least a closer agreement with biblical doctrines — among the born-again evangelical group.
Barna only considers a man an evangelical if he has a personal commitment to Jesus Christ and believes that his faith is important, that he will go to Heaven because he accepted Christ, that salvation is by grace and not works, that the Bible is accurate in all it teaches, that he must share Jesus with non-Christians, that Jesus lived a sinless life, that Satan exists, and that God is an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and rules it today.
The Bible arguably undergirds all of these claims, and while not every born-again evangelical might answer these questions this way on a survey, these criteria do suggest an accurate litmus test of the older definition of “evangelical” — a Christian who believes in preaching the saving grace of Jesus Christ, earned not by works, which saves believers from Hell and will join them with God in Heaven at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.
A non-evangelical born-again Christian says he has made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in his life today” and believes that he will go to Heaven because he has confessed his sins and accepted Jesus Christ as his savior. Catholics, many Christians in mainline denominations, and others very much fit into this category.
The fact that “notional Christians” who disagreed with all of these statements form the majority of American Christians is a harrowing sign of the times. A September study from LifeWay Research revealed 12 lies American evangelicals believe, and many of these statements are directly contrary to the Bible.
Trump arguably won the Republican primary due to the sad state of American Christianity, and he won the general election because, whatever the misgivings of Christians about Trump’s personal morality, each Christian group was more afraid of a Clinton presidency.
Clinton lost the election because Christians as a whole turned against her, and she was forced to rely on non-Christians and skeptics.
As a whole, this analysis should chasten American Christians — too many of our brothers and sisters do not know and believe the Bible — but it should terrify Democrats. Unless America becomes a majority non-Christian country, the solid Christian support for Republicans could bode very ill for the Democrats in the future.