It didn’t originate with him, but Mark Twain famously popularized the observation that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.
I remembered his bon mot the other day after reading an opinion piece deconstructing an oft-quoted political statistic of the President Donald Trump era.
If you follow politics, you’ve might have heard that 81 percent of white evangelical Christians voted for Trump in 2016 and that they still unreservedly support him. Much ink has been given to this number, some of it here, by me.
But an opinion column I saw recently on the website Medium argues that the 81 percent statistic is a fallacy.
Evangelicals did and do make up a significant portion of Trump’s base. No doubt.
However, not nearly 81 percent of evangelicals backed Trump in 2016, says the article’s author, John Thomas, and even fewer will support him in 2020 than did last time.
Thomas is described in a biographical note as a cross-cultural Christian worker (I’m not sure what that is) whose writing has appeared at Mere Orthodoxy and Christianity Today. He edits a religion page linked to Medium called Soli Deo Gloria. An internet search didn’t turn up much else about him.
Whoever he is, his arguments about evangelicals and Trump could provide fodder for lively conversations, if nothing else.
Thomas makes five points about 2016 and 2020:
1. Eighty-one percent of evangelicals didn’t vote for Trump in 2016. The key distinction, Thomas says, is that although 81 percent of white evangelicals who voted cast their ballots for Trump, when evangelicals who didn’t vote are factored in, only about 46 percent of white evangelicals actually went to the polls for the president. Support for Trump among evangelicals was never as rabid or widespread as has been assumed.
2. Hillary Clinton won’t be running in 2020. Thomas quotes Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center, who just before the 2016 election expressed the negative effect Clinton was having on evangelicals: “Clinton appears to be the perfect storm of divergent values, dismissive advocacy, and distrusted personality that causes religious people to be repelled.”
A later survey by The Billy Graham Center Institute and LifeWay Research bore this out. It found a quarter of Trump’s 2016 evangelical voters described their votes as against Clinton rather than for Trump, Stetzer and co-writer Andrew MacDonald reported in Christianity Today.
None of the two dozen candidates vying for the 2020 Democratic nomination inspires “the same visceral hatred” among evangelicals as Clinton did, Thomas argues.
3. The Supreme Court. The seat on the U.S. Supreme Court left open by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia — and by Kentucky’s Sen. Mitch McConnell, who blocked President Barack Obama from filling the seat — motivated many evangelicals to vote for Trump. They wanted Scalia replaced by a conservative, anti-abortion justice who would help overturn Roe v. Wade.
Now that Neil Gorsuch holds that seat, and given the addition of another conservative, Brett Kavanaugh, evangelicals are less worried about the court in 2020.
4. It’s not about abortion (unless the Democrats make it about abortion). Because of Scalia’s empty seat, abortion was the dominant 2016 issue for evangelicals, Thomas says. With the court presently stacked with conservatives, that’s no longer evangelicals’ pressing concern.
If Democrats, then, make almost anything other than abortion their key plank — even racial reparations plays better among evangelicals than abortion — they can significantly cut into Trump’s evangelical support.
5. Peer pressure. If Democrats deftly use available online apps that shame people into going to the polls in 2020 — with messages that target the under-voting millennial demographic — they can woo many younger evangelicals to their side. Millennial evangelicals are way more suspicious of Trump than their elders are. If they do vote, they’ll probably incline toward a Democrat.
To me, some of Thomas’ arguments seem stronger than others.
If nothing else, his points are worth debating with your buddies at the water cooler or with your batty old Aunt Sudie over a glass of sweet tea. Try to keep your temper as cool as the liquids.