Generational Split Among Evangelicals Threatens Support For Trump

Oct 15, 2019
Originally published on October 15, 2019 5:18 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Do young white evangelicals have the same allegiance to President Trump and to the Republican Party that their parents do? A growing body of evidence says they do not. NPR's Jessica Taylor went to a Christian college campus in Michigan, a swing state, to ask students there what they are thinking about the 2020 election.

JESSICA TAYLOR, BYLINE: Growing up, Karsten Rees says his parents had a specific view about religion and politics.

KARSTEN REES: They used to say that, like, Christians who voted Democrat were, like, not real Christians. And the implication there is that they're, like, going to hell.

TAYLOR: But looking at President Trump, the sophomore at Calvin University in Grand Rapids began to question that idea as he dug deeper into the Bible.

REES: Loving your neighbor. The classic - whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me. And I started, like, looking at policies that were happening, like separation of children at the border, and I just didn't think that Christ would be a big fan of that.

TAYLOR: Rees isn't alone among Calvin's 3,700 students or other young evangelicals. Polling shows that while white evangelicals as a whole still approve of the job Trump is doing, the younger demographic isn't as fervent. And here in Michigan, a state Trump carried by less than 11,000 votes, any movement toward Democrats could be detrimental.

KRISTIN KOBES DU MEZ: I think that there are a lot of Christians, especially young Christians, who do feel politically homeless.

TAYLOR: That's Dr. Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a Calvin professor who studies the intersection of American history, religion and politics. She says younger evangelicals are more likely to support LGBTQ rights and refugees.

KOBES DU MEZ: I think they're much more comfortable with diversity. I think they feel a little less threatened that their way of life is under siege.

TAYLOR: Calvin is affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, which is conservative theologically but has a tradition of social justice. And the school has some pretty famous Republican alumni, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Buildings on campus bear both her maiden and married names. Professors and students say the university is about split politically, but that a majority still lean conservative, like Emerson Silvernail. He's the student body president at Calvin. He voted for Trump in 2016 after wavering.

EMERSON SILVERNAIL: My ultimate choice came down to the fact that there was going to be a Supreme Court nominee, and so that was my justification at the time. But I do not know if I would be willing to vote for him again.

TAYLOR: Senior Sarah Vroegop voted third party instead, influenced by her conservative upbringing. Three years later, she says it's a choice she deeply regrets. And in 2020, she'll be voting for a Democrat.

SARAH VROEGOP: It makes me sad because I see Christians willing to support President Trump on the basis of a few of his policies or because they are so comfortable being politically conservative, and they are willing to ignore his rhetoric and the things that he says.

TAYLOR: It wasn't until after the 2016 election that the college Democrats had a chapter at Calvin. Lorrayya Williams is the group's president.

LORRAYYA WILLIAMS: It kind of formed as a response to, like, the election of Trump because we thought it would be good to represent the liberals on campus.

TAYLOR: But Democrats still have to work on reaching out to voters of faith. Sophomore Stephanie Wynia grew up home-schooled in a conservative evangelical family but says she doesn't like what Trump represents. She's not sure who she'll vote for, but she knows what she wants to hear.

STEPHANIE WYNIA: For me, faith is definitely part of the policy decision-making process. And so if I can understand the political candidates' faith background and what they're bringing to the decisions they're making, it's going to be compelling for me to vote for them.

TAYLOR: That's something Hillary Clinton struggled to do in 2016. In 2020, Democratic candidates have a new chance to reach these younger evangelical voters.

Jessica Taylor, NPR News, Grand Rapids, Mich.

(SOUNDBITE OF LANTERNA'S "CANYONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.