Why Ultraconservative Christians Vote for Trump

Gert Pickel. Photo: Swen Reichhold, Leipzig University

Gert Pickel. Photo: Swen Reichhold, Leipzig University

For the two candidates in the United States presidential campaign, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, it is hardly worth trying to change voters’ minds: this is the view of researchers Dr Alexander Yendell and Professor Gert Pickel from Leipzig University. In a blog post for the University’s Research Centre Global Dynamics (ReCentGlobe), the sociologist and religious sociology expert analysed the voting behaviour of US citizens. In our interview, Gert Pickel explains why the role of ultraconservative evangelicals is so important.

Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden seem to have focused their campaign strategies on those voters who are already likely to vote for them. Why might this tactic, which excludes many other groups, pay off?

This can be difficult to understand from our European perspective. But it’s important to remember that for a long time the US has had a complex two-party system. Many families have voted for the same party for generations, so they are either Democrat or Republican. Even though the situation is constantly changing, these people remain loyal to their party. So it is less worthwhile for the two candidates to woo new groups of voters than to mobilise those who are already more likely to vote for them - especially since US voter turnout often barely exceeds 50 per cent. It’s about getting your own people to the ballot box.

Donald Trump is focusing strongly on evangelical Christians, who account for some 23 per cent of voters in the United States. Can he count on their support?

American evangelicals are not comparable with the moderate Christians we know from Germany. They are very conservative. Mostly they are anti-migration, anti-abortion and against ‘too much’ modernisation - especially when it comes to conventional gender roles. This has traditionally resulted in a strong bond with the Republicans. They reject liberal Democrats. On a visit to the US, someone once told me that he thought New York Democrats were the devil.

Trump may be a Republican, but he is also a divorced man who made some of his money from casinos, has been publicly linked to a porn star, and used to be pro-abortion. What do evangelical Christians see in this man?

This was indeed a problem for his first candidacy in 2016, because Donald Trump is known not to lead a particularly religious lifestyle. Many American Christians preferred candidates like Ted Cruz, a conservative Baptist. Since then, however, Trump has done a lot to win over evangelicals. He is now seen more often with a Bible, has appeared at anti-abortion demonstrations and, crucially, nominated Amy Coney Barrett, a strict Catholic, to the US Supreme Court. So highly conservative Christian voters see that they get something if they vote for him - unlike with Joe Biden.

We probably often imagine evangelicals to be white, but there are also many Latino evangelicals. Most of them also support Trump, even though he has often disparaged immigrants from Latin America. Do some people consider religion more important than nationality or ethnicity?

There is indeed cognitive dissonance here, resulting from the incompatibility of two contrary positions. This can cause voters to consider the issue at length, and usually ends with two options: either not to vote at all, or to make a decision of which they are all the more convinced in retrospect. Psychologists often explain this phenomenon with the example of the ‘red Beetle and the blue Ford’: someone who at first believes both cars to be equally good, but then buys the blue Ford, will usually be convinced weeks later that their car has always been much better than the red Beetle.

What do you think the outcome of the election will be?

If I were to hazard a guess, I would say Trump will lose by a narrow margin. And that this will be because of the voters who choose not to vote. My guess is that this time moderate Republicans will decide the outcome. They may not vote for Joe Biden, but by staying away from the ballot box they could tip the scales in his favour. All other groups which we can distinguish based on religion and ethnicity, have had fixed voting habits for decades. This prognosis is valid as long as the Democrats can mobilise enough of their own voters.

Pia Siemer


Stabsstelle Universitätskommunikation

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