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Mellman: Religion’s political power 

Donald Trump, hardly known as a scholar of Christian scripture, is now hawking Bibles. It is a strange story that sums up an important reality in America today.

Traditional religious practice is losing its grip on Americans overall. It apparently never had much of a grip on the former president, even if its influence has contributed mightily to the modern Republican Party. 

For decades, the U.S. was an outlier. Americans were more religious than people in any other high-income country except Ireland. That’s changing, although we are not yet Western Europe. 

In the 1950s and ’60s fewer than 4 percent of Americans claimed no religious affiliation. That number began climbing in the 1970s, reaching 22 percent last year in Gallup’s data. Other surveys put it at a somewhat higher 27 percent.   

What we euphemistically call the inexorable forces of generational replacement are likely to continue the trend. Among those under 30 years old, 35 percent claim no religious affiliation.  

Some of this change may reflect a series of modifications in Gallup’s wording of the question, but it’s far from the only indicator of Americans losing their religion.  

In 1965, 70 percent of Americans said religion was “very important” in their own lives — a figure now down to 45 percent. 

In the mid-1950s, just under half the public claimed to have attended religious services during the previous week. That’s fallen to about 32 percent. As recently as 1992, 34 percent said they attended services every week. Only 21 percent say that today. 

Gallup first asked whether respondents were members of a formal house of worship (church, synagogue, mosque, or temple) in 1937, when 73 percent replied in the affirmative. That figure remained between 65 percent and 73 percent for over two generations before it began a precipitous fall at the turn of the 21st century, sliding to 45 percent last year.   

The American National Election Study offers an insight into changing beliefs. In 1992, 45 percent of American voters believed the Bible was the literal truth, a number that had declined to 26 percent in 2020.  

While Americans generally are losing their religion, traditional belief and practice plays a central role for the Republican Party.  

While 37 percent of Democrats and 44 percent of independents consider themselves “religious,” a hefty 61 percent of Republicans say that word describes them.  

In 2020, while 18 percent of Democrats and 21 percent of independents believed in the literal truth of the Bible, among Republicans that figure rose to 37 percent. 

Similarly, twice as many Republicans as Democrats attend religious services each week. 

The continuing influence of traditional religion on politics is even more evident when we examine voting behavior as recorded in the exit polls. 

Among the 32 percent percent of voters who never attend religious services, Joe Biden won by 63 percent to 35 percent. Among those who attend services weekly, Trump prevailed by an almost mirror image, 61 percent to 37 percent. 

Americans who identify as Protestants — 43 percent of the electorate—voted for Trump by an overwhelming 20-point margin. Catholic identifiers — 22 percent of the voters — gave Trump an exceedingly narrow 1-point victory. The 13 percent who identify with some other religion supported Biden by 22 points, while the larger 21 percent block professing no religion gave Biden an immense 47-point victory. 

In other words, those affiliated with a religious stream, particularly a Christian denomination, voted for Trump, while Biden’s support came from those without religion. 

One can draw the circle even tighter.  

Twenty-two percent of voters identify as white evangelical Christians and they gave Trump a massive 81 percent of their vote, while just 18 percent cast their ballots for Biden. Among everyone else, Biden won, 58 percent to 40 percent.  

So how important are religious voters to the Republican Party? Some 38 percent of Trump’s vote in 2020 came from white evangelicals. If white evangelicals or weekly church goers did not exhibit unique voting behavior and instead voted like everyone else, Trump would likely not have won a single state in 2016 and 2020 (except Utah, where he got vast support from religious Mormons). 

Americans are losing their religion. But when Republicans hold power, it’s because of religious voters. 

Donald Trump may or may not have ever read the Bible, and Christianity Today reported, “Trump was not a regular churchgoer before he was elected president.” But he would never have been, or ever be, president without Bible-believing, Bible-buying, churchgoing voters.  

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, a member of the Association’s Hall of Fame, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.

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