Why White Evangelicals Are Feeling Hopeful About Trump

They’re worried about poverty, hunger, drug addiction, and the “softness” of the country. And they’ve got high expectations for their president.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Updated at 8:30 a.m. on December 1

Right now, a large group of Americans are feeling very hopeful about Donald Trump’s presidency. In polls, they show up in different demographic categories: They’re Republicans; they’re Trump voters; they’re of all different ages and from every geographic region. But the group that stands out—the label that best seems to characterize people in the U.S. who are feeling better than they did three weeks ago because of Trump—is white evangelical Christians.

A new survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic found that 39 percent of self-identified evangelicals who are white feel that the quality of life in their local community is about to get better following the election. The poll is a follow-up to an even bigger survey taken about a month before the election; at that point, only 24 percent of white evangelicals who still live in their hometown said their communities had gotten better since they were young. It’s not the same question, and only offers a rough comparison point. But it speaks to the fact that white evangelicals are feeling much more hopeful in Trump’s America than their peers: Only a fifth of people who are religiously unaffiliated, a quarter of white mainline Protestants, and less than a third of Catholics feel like lives in their communities are about to improve. This is also clear in how people are feeling about the election: Two-thirds of white evangelicals said they’re “excited” or “satisfied” about the outcome, compared to less than half of white mainline Protestants and white Catholics and less than one-third of people who are religiously unaffiliated.

Specific poll questions suggest that some white evangelicals are intensely concerned about the health of their communities. They were more likely than other groups to say that hunger and poverty are major problems where they live: 39 percent identified these issues as significant, compared to a third or less of other groups. They were also more likely to express concerns about drugs: 57 percent said they see addiction as a problem in their communities, while no more than half of other groups said the same thing. In general, they are worried about America becoming weak: 64 percent of white evangelicals “completely” or “mostly” agreed that “society as a whole has become too soft and feminine,” compared to 48 percent of white mainline Protestants, 40 percent of Catholics, and 35 percent of people who are religiously unaffiliated.

In other words: White evangelicals see big problems in the world around them. It may be that the people included in this survey live in communities where hunger, poverty, and opioids present unusual challenges; that they’ve worked with people who struggle with these problems through their churches; or that they’re dealing with some of these issues themselves. Polls give only a limited snapshot of different groups’ views, and they offer no insight into the reasons behind those views; in-depth conversations are the best way to understand people’s motivations, and even that kind of reporting can only provide a partial understanding of why people feel a certain way.

But some things are clear from other sources. America has been experiencing intense gender anxiety in recent years, and this is particularly true in conservative evangelical communities. White evangelicals’ ambient concern that the country is becoming “too soft and feminine” speaks to that anxiety, and to a deeper concern that the foundations of life in the United States are changing. The PRRI/Atlantic poll and other studies suggest that white evangelicals are more likely to be part of the working class and make less than $50,000 per year compared to white Americans who are members of other religious groups. They are less likely to have college degrees than white Americans who are part of other religious groups or who don’t go to church; and they are significantly more likely than other Americans to be over 50 years old.

None of these qualities particularly speak to white evangelicals’ theological views. Rather, they suggest that self-identified white evangelicals are a distinctive demographic group whose members tend to share certain qualities. Their shared life circumstances might affect their perceptions about what’s going wrong in American society, along with what ought to get better. Race may also be a determining factor here; the survey does not provide specific figures for black or Latino evangelicals, or racial minorities in general, likely because the sample sizes for those groups were too small.

Right now, it’s not clear how Trump’s policies will affect people who struggle with drug addiction, don’t have enough to eat, or can’t find a place to live. It’s not clear whether he will make Americans feel their country is strong or “masculine,” whatever that means to respondents. But at least for their part, white evangelicals are feeling optimistic: In their eyes, November 8 was one affirmative step toward Making America Great Again.