Donald Trump Exposes the Split Between Ordinary and Elite Evangelicals

The faithful have reportedly been either dismayed or infatuated with the Republican frontrunner. Could both narratives be true?

Jerry Falwell Jr. guides Donald Trump to his seat during a campaign event in Iowa. (Patrick Semansky / AP)

Do evangelicals love Trump or loathe him? The answer depends on which headlines you’re reading.

After Liberty University’s president Jerry Falwell Jr. endorsed Donald Trump this week, some media outlets reported that Trump’s “outreach to Christians is bearing fruit,” that his campaign got “an evangelical boost,” and “is winning evangelical support.” Other media outlets reported “many evangelicals are upset that Falwell chose Trump” and that some believers “expressed surprise, dismay, and even embarrassment” over the endorsement.

Which narrative is true? Both, actually.

Articles claiming evangelical support for Trump mostly rely on public-opinion polls, while articles showing evangelical opposition to Trump draw from interviews with prominent leaders. Many in the media have flat-out missed it, but there is a growing divide between ordinary evangelicals and evangelical leaders. This fissure is shaping public policy at the highest levels and may play a role in selecting the next commander-in-chief.

This division was first popularized in Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite, by Michael Lindsay, who was a sociologist at Rice University at the time. After conducting hundreds of in-depth interviews with American evangelicals, Lindsay concluded that the movement could be divided into two classes. He now says that this rift is as relevant as it was when he first explored it.

What he termed “populist evangelicals” are the faithful masses you might see profiled on cable television. They are more likely to reside in rural or suburban areas, probably watch a fair amount of Fox News or listen to conservative talk radio. They probably don’t hold seminary degrees or know anyone who does—besides their pastor, of course. They are working-class Americans who are pragmatic in their politics.

“Evangelical populists look like most populists in that they respond well to mass movements, bumper-sticker theology, and sound bites,” Lindsay says. “They were the evangelicals that rallied behind Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and the Moral Majority in the 1980s. But they certainly don’t represent the evangelical ‘movers and shakers’ today.”

Somewhere around the end of the last century, a new class of believers coalesced within the evangelical movement. These “cosmopolitan evangelicals” are cultural elites. They hold prominent positions in business, media, academia, and politics. Their influence shows up from Harvard to Hollywood, from Washington, D.C., to Wall Street. Many of them sit atop America’s most influential Christian organizations or serve on their boards. They are well educated, well read, and more likely to live in urban centers. Their views are more nuanced, and their rhetoric is less bombastic than evangelical populists. Rather than show up in B-roll snippets on cable news, they may spread their opinions in a column for The Wall Street Journal or an interview with a prominent news outlet.

Lindsay says the evangelical cosmopolitan-populist divide is absolutely behind the dual narratives of support for and anger over Donald Trump’s candidacy, and the data seems to bolster his assertion.

Among ordinary evangelicals, as many as 37 percent say they support Trump—more than any other candidate. But when you just survey evangelical leaders, the numbers differ dramatically. According to an informal survey by World magazine, high-ranking evangelical leaders favor Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, and are concerned about a Trump presidency. A gathering of religious-right leaders endorsed Cruz after a near tie with Rubio with no notable momentum behind Trump.

It makes sense then that when Falwell jumped on the Trump train, the dissenting voices were mostly high-level religious leaders and not masses of ordinary voters.

One article detailed the dismay of prominent Liberty alums, including Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America and a former Pennsylvania state representative. The editor in chief of Christianity Today, a highbrow religious publication that tends to stay out of partisan debates, even penned an editorial arguing that Trump threatens to capsize the Christian gospel.

“Cosmopolitan evangelicals are more in support of Marco Rubio—unlike Falwell’s endorsement of Trump, which pleased the populists,” Lindsay says. “The only candidate that embodies many of the characteristics of cosmopolitan evangelicals but is able to appeal to populists may be Ted Cruz.”

The 2016 election is not the first time this divide has shown up in American political debates. In 2013, a broad coalition of prominent evangelicals called for “a bipartisan solution on immigration” that included “a path toward legal status and/or citizenship.” Supporters of the so-called Evangelical Immigration Table included the National Association of Evangelicals, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, and the political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. With near unanimity among top-level leaders, news outlets such as The Wall Street Journal reported, “Evangelicals push immigration path.”

The problem with evangelical leaders’ open-armed, grasstops effort was that ordinary evangelicals were not nearly as supportive. Depending on how poll questions were phrased, evangelical support varied. The same year that the Evangelical Immigration Table was formed, a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute reported that 63 percent of evangelicals said they believed America “should make a serious effort to deport all illegal immigrants back to their home countries.” Nearly 70 percent of evangelicals said “the American way of life needs to be protected against foreign influence.” While cosmopolitan evangelical leaders offered a clear call for immigration reform, the faithful masses seemed to exhibit more resistance and nuance.

Perhaps there was a time when the masses of ordinary evangelicals marched in lockstep with their respective leaders, but if so, that time has passed. American religious communities have grown more skeptical of their leadership. This is probably true for a host of reasons ranging from televangelists’ disgraces to prominent pastors’ moral failings to Roman Catholic sex-abuse scandals to the general distrust of institutions common to this post-modern era. As a result, one can no longer assume that the opinions of high-ranking evangelicals fully reflect those they claim to represent.

“The media makes a mistake when they take the opinion of an evangelical leader or leaders and assume this implies broad evangelical support,” Lindsay says. “Evangelical political support is splintering and has spread across the political spectrum.”

American evangelicalism is not now, nor has it ever been, monolithic. There are often divisions along conservative-political lines and across generational lines. And there is now also a growing rift between everyday evangelicals and their leaders. So when you hear Christian leaders speaking out today, don’t focus on their voices. Look over their shoulders instead, and see if anyone is following.