The nomination of Amy Coney Barrett in the White House Rose Garden was supposed to be a triumphant moment for a longstanding alliance between Republican presidents and conservative Christians.
At the Sept. 26 nomination, popular evangelical leaders sat in the rows behind Barrett’s family. Catholic leaders from the University of Notre Dame, where Barrett teaches, filled more seats. Other attendees included members of conservative advocacy groups that grew out of the Moral Majority Movement initiated by white evangelicals.
A prominent segment of that faith group had worked for decades to build enough political influence to advocate effectively for right-leaning appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court. Barrett would be Trump’s third such appointment.
“For white evangelicals, who have become largely single-issue voters, this is the moment they have been waiting for,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a presidential politics researcher from the University of Houston. “They want to see the court turn and they want, in particular, for Roe v. Wade (and the constitutional right to abortion) to be overturned. This changing seat is the key to that.”
But the Sept. 26 event gained widespread public attention for a different reason.
At least 14 people in attendance – including the president himself – tested positive for COVID-19 within two weeks of the celebration, according to USA TODAY reporting. Photos show few wore masks and most ignored federal guidelines for social distancing. In total, at least 34 cases have been linked to the White House outbreak, including people who visited for different events.
Instead of showcasing what Trump delivered for conservatives of faith, the Rose Garden gathering was a snapshot of his crumbling support among swing Christian voters. Numerous polls, including figures released Monday, show that as people’s confidence in Trump’s pandemic response declined so did the percentage who said they would vote for his re-election.
“The picture of contrast at that event is notable,” said Andrew Lewis, a political science professor from the University of Cincinnati who wrote a book about conservative Christian politics. “They are not taking precautions for people in the room and their family members, which is in stark relief to the potential for a Supreme Court decision to protect the lives of the unborn.”
At first, Christian approval for Trump’s pandemic response mirrored the 2016 turnout.
In late March, 81% of white Evangelicals said he was doing a good or excellent job of managing the coronavirus crisis compared to the 77% who voted for him in 2016, according to surveys by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center and the group’s study of validated votes. This spring, 62% of white Catholics approved of Trump’s pandemic response compared to 64% who voted for him four years ago.
But by early August, ratings of Trump’s pandemic decisions had slid 11 points among white evangelicals and 16 points among white Catholics.
In the two weeks before the Rose Garden event, the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) asked a similar question. The poll’s results, released Monday, found that the same share of white evangelicals approved of the president’s coronavirus response. But the white Catholic support registered its lowest point this year: 40%.
Reduced confidence in Trump’s pandemic leadership could influence how some white Christian voters cast their ballots.
In early August, 83% of white evangelical Protestants said they would vote for Trump, but that dropped to 78% by early October, according to Pew surveys. Support slipped even more – from 59% to 53% – among white mainline Protestants, and from 59% to 52% of white Catholics.
Experts in politics and religion said the Rose Garden event symbolizes why Trump’s support among white evangelicals remains strong even as it erodes among other conservative and moderate Christians.
For white evangelical Protestants, abortion is a top voting issue. But other Christians, including some who lean Republican, emphasize the full arc of life as sacred, and abortion is not polling as a priority for this election. Since the spring, that could be driving a split among Christians about whether the president has handled the pandemic sufficiently to protect all lives.
In particular, the shift provides a contrast between white Evangelicals, whose religious identity is tightly woven with politics, and white Catholics, who have become an increasingly important swing vote in presidential elections.
If Trump’s support among conservative Christian voters drops more, Rottinghaus said it would be “a difficult path for him to win the White House back.”
Polls show that self-described white, non-Hispanic evangelical Protestants account for about one-quarter of all registered voters in the United States. For decades, the group has strongly supported Republicans.
That makes them the nation’s largest voting block by faith, race and ethnicity.
White evangelical voters are key to GOP candidates in national elections, but their influence is waning as America’s demographics shift.
White Christians from all branches of the faith accounted for nearly six in 10 registered voters in 2008 but less than half today. The slide is primarily driven by a growing number of young Americans who say they are not religious.
Over the last decade, a growing number of white Catholics have described themselves as independent or Republicans. Since the 2004 presidential election, political analysts have said this group holds particular influence over the outcome in swing states.
Non-white Christians have remained about one-fifth of registered voters in the past decade and are more likely to vote for Democrats than the white families from the same faith traditions. That makes them a small target and less interesting to GOP strategists.
Polls show that a majority of non-white voters, regardless of faith, have supported Democrat Joe Biden throughout the spring and summer with little variation.
And that’s why the success of Trump’s campaign could hinge on the decisions of white Christians – and how they weigh his pandemic leadership against other issues.
History and identity
The contrast between staunch white evangelical support for Trump and the slipping support from white Catholics it tied to the evolution of each group’s political identity.
For decades, to be a white evangelical has been to be Republican.
“It really goes back, at least in the modern era, to 1948 when the Dixiecrats walked out of the Democratic convention,” said Marty Wiseman, a retired professor of history at Mississippi State University who led the John C. Stennis Institute of Government.
The delegates from Southern states, most of whom were white evangelicals, opposed the party adding a civil rights plank to the platform. Until that point, the American South – where the majority of white evangelicals lived – had voted solidly Democrat.
More white evangelicals joined the Republican Party after the Supreme Court deemed racial segregation of public schools unconstitutional in 1954. They felt even less welcome among Democrats when the party supported civil rights reforms in the 1960s and again with the 1973 Supreme Court decision that recognized abortion as a constitutional right.
At the end of the 1970s, Rev. Jerry Falwell, Sr., founded the Moral Majority, a movement that sought to turn conservative white evangelicals into an organized voting block focused on ending abortions. Unlike other prominent evangelicals of the era, he argued that faith and politics had to be deliberately blended. The Republican Party welcomed the influx of new voters and catered its platform to them, strengthening the link between white evangelicals’ religious and political identities.
That same history is not seen among white Americans who belong to mainline Protestant or Catholic traditions. The groups have tended to lean Democratic, but polls show that both have remained divided politically. While they sometimes have organized around particular policy issues – such as Catholics who advocate to abolish the death penalty – they have not built ties with a singular political party.
“Most of Catholic voting history is one of shifting back and forth between the two political parties,” said Leege, the politics and religion scholar from Notre Dame.
All that history and those identity politics play out in responses to the pandemic today. Beyond being a public health issue, the coronavirus has become a strategic tool and talking point for both parties.
Even when polls show they are divided about which public policies are best for managing the pandemic, they continue to staunchly defend Trump.
“They’re just taking their cues and aligning their views with the president,” said Robert Jones, who founded and leads the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute.
Role of government
The development of churches themselves also inform political sensibilities and responses to the pandemic.
In American Protestant traditions, people are in charge of their own salvation and their own interpretation of the Bible. White evangelicals, in particular, attend independent churches without the hierarchical structure seen in mainline traditions.
Lewis, the professor from Ohio, said those religious views have historically led white evangelicals to prefer limited government. Translated to GOP speak: Social problems are best solved by taking individual responsibility, not by expanding a government nanny state.
“For American Catholics … there is less emphasis on the individual and more focus on community life, providing different sorts of impulses for how they approach politics,” he said.
In Catholic tradition, serving “the body of Christ” – the entire community – sometimes requires personal sacrifice. And the hierarchical structure of the church reinforces the idea that institutions are important tools for good. Additionally, parishioners rely on the expert opinions of the Pope, bishops and other ordained church leaders to make sense of the Bible rather than being encouraged to make their own interpretations.
Those differing attitudes show up in polls asking people about their adherence to public health orders and who they trust to give them advice about the pandemic.
Polls show white evangelical Protestants are the Americans least likely to wear masks, but 63% still say they do so in public, according to the September PRRI survey. Both 78% of white Catholics and Americans overall said they wear masks at all times in public.
The popular evangelical leaders seen at the Rose Garden nomination event for Barrett are among the conservatives who have staunchly defended the president’s lax approach to pandemic precautions.
Contrasting with evangelical attendees, the Rev. Paul Scalia admitted his decision not to wear a mask contradicted the requirements of the Catholic parish where he preaches.
Experts agree that attendees from the Catholic research university Notre Dame were there to support Barrett, a fellow professor, and not as a political statement.
Still, the public reaction to Catholic leadership of the university not wearing masks at the event contrasts with the evangelical response. Among other criticisms and demands, Notre Dame students called for their president to resign. He apologized.
Less than a day after returning to the White House from the hospital where he was treated for COVID-19, Trump again compared the coronavirus to the flu and falsely claimed it was “far less lethal.” Researchers agree that COVID-19 kills people at least five times as often as the flu.
“Are we going to close down our Country (for the flu)?” the president said on Twitter earlier this month. “No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid.”
Life as sacred
The mounting tally of deaths from COVID-19 – and the president’s dismissal of their significance – could weaken his support among some Christians, depending on how their faith defines “life issues.”
Fundamentalists – such as evangelicals and some conservative Catholics — prioritize unborn children for protection because they are seen as the least able to defend themselves.
Barrett – who has repeatedly asserted that her personal faith will not influence her judicial decisions – is a Catholic, but also a member of a conservative wing that shares a strong anti-abortion stance with evangelicals.
Even in the broader church, Catholics have been divided for decades about the legality of abortion, according to polls. The official church position is to oppose them.
Most Catholics – as well as mainline Protestants — take a more holistic view of life as sacred than do white evangelicals.
The secular phrase “social justice” originates from Catholic “social teachings.” The doctrine calls believers to action on matters of human dignity and common good in society, stretching from conception to natural death.
That wider view of life as important could be driving differences in who considers the pandemic a voting issue.
About 60% of the country says that the coronavirus pandemic is a “critical” issue in the presidential election, including 58% of white Catholics and 55% of white mainline Protestants, according to the PRRI poll released Monday. Even more Hispanic Catholics (72%) and Black Protestants (79%) said it is.
In sharp contrast, only 35% of white evangelical Protestants say the coronavirus pandemic is critical. They were the only group polled by PRRI to have a majority say abortion is a critical issue. And they were the only group not to list the pandemic as a top-three concern.
Jason Shelton, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Arlington who co-wrote a book about the political views of faithful Americans, said that voters who don’t prioritize the coronavirus might still change their vote.
“My neighbor (in Arlington, Texas) told me she was going to vote Democratic for the first time in her entire life,” Shelton said. “Clearly, a lot of folks are feeling the weight of the future of the country like they have not seen in the course of their lives. And they could be voting in a way they have never voted before.”
Although white Catholics might continue to slide to the left, Jones said, he would be surprised if anything in the final weeks before Election Day could shift the white evangelical vote away from Trump.
“Rank and file evangelicals are really strongly supportive of the president,” he said, reflecting on favorability ratings over the last year. “Impeachment didn’t move it; 215,000 dead Americans didn’t move it. It really is remarkable to see the allegiance.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump delivered on SCOTUS. But coronavirus cost him Christian support.