How The White Evangelical Protestant Voting Bloc Impacts Elections In Oklahoma

A voting sign points to a polling booth inside Emmanuel Tabernacle in Oklahoma City, Okla. (Natasha Farris)

The white evangelical Protestant voting bloc has historically played an important role in elections in Oklahoma since according to the Pew Research Center, about half of the state’s adult population identifies as evangelical Protestant. This has generally benefited the Republican Party, but the evangelical bloc is not monolithic.

Alan Noble, an evangelical Protestant who attends a Presbyterian church in Shawnee, said his decision to write for national publications about why he opposes President Donald Trump has received mix reactions from people in the evangelical community.

He received a postcard — the front of which pictured a cartoon, bright red devil with the text of a Bible verse over its face — from a stranger who was upset about Noble’s disapproval of some of Trump’s policies and behavior.

“So there are people who absolutely hate me,” Noble said. “And there are many people who love me and disagree. And there are a lot of people who think I’m misleading evangelicals, and that I’m causing division in the church.”

Even though a recent Pew Research Center survey shows support for Trump among white evangelical Protestants like Noble has fallen since August, 78% of white evangelical Protestants in the U.S. are expected to cast ballots for Trump.

But what exactly is evangelical Protestantism?

“To be an evangelical Christian is really to hold certain theological claims,” Samuel L. Perry, a sociology professor at the University of Oklahoma, said. “To believe the Bible is the literal word of God – or at least is his authoritative word – to live that out, to believe that Jesus died for your sins and that you have to be born again. To believe that you should share your faith with other people.”

Over time, Perry says the values of white evangelical Protestants and the Republican party have practically merged together. Pew finds that over the past 25 years, white evangelical Protestants have seen one of the biggest shifts toward the GOP, making them the most solidly and consistently Republican major religious groups in the country.

This is in line with the findings of a recent online survey conducted by OU Poll as part of Oklahoma Engaged related to what influences the voting behavior of Oklahomans. When asked about the influence of social, cultural, political and demographic factors on voting decisions, Republicans rated religious affiliation significantly higher than Democrats, Independents and those who don’t identify with a party.

Ann-Marie Szymanski, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma, says evangelicals became increasingly aligned with the Republican Party from the late 1970s through the mid-1980s.

“So the real turning point was in 1980, and almost every Republican candidate for the presidency since then has courted the Christian right vote,” Szymanski said. “And part of it has to do with, to some extent, also the Democratic Party’s abandonment of issues that Orthodox Christians supported. And so as the Democratic Party moved more to kind of the secular realm and seemed hostile to evangelical Protestants, evangelical Protestants doubled down on the Republican Party.”

The south is where white evangelical Protestantism is strongest, Szymanski said, while white Catholics play a bigger role in midwestern states.

Szymanski said she thinks some white evangelical Protestants support Trump because of shared cultural beliefs, such as economic individualism, but she thinks many evangelicals are making a short term transactional bet that things will be better with Trump as president in terms of protecting religious liberty.

When it comes to the issue of abortion, Perry said many white evangelical Protestants feel obligated to vote for the candidate that is anti-abortion.

“Abortion has become kind of this identity marker,” Perry said. “‘If you are a good Christian, how could you possibly vote for abortion?’ So it puts the evangelical Christians in this position where even if they don’t like Trump, the abortion thing kind of locks them in, or they feel morally obligated as a culture.”

Elizabeth Hurlbutt, an evangelical Protestant in Stillwater who regularly attends church with her family, said she will be voting for Trump in the 2020 election and has attended numerous rallies and events in support of him. Even though she doesn’t always approve of Trump’s behavior, Hurlbutt said she favors his anti-abortion policies and support of the military and law enforcement.

“We aren’t voting on the person, we’re voting on policy,” Hurlbutt said. “It should always be what your policies are, and I feel like Trump’s policies are more of what Christians would value over what Biden values.”

Even though the way evangelical Protestants view Trump differs depending on who you ask, it’s an important voting bloc that can determine the outcome of elections in Oklahoma.

This report was produced by Katelyn Howard for Oklahoma Engaged, an election project by NPR member stations in Oklahoma supported by the Inasmuch Foundation, the Kirkpatrick Foundation, and Oklahoma Humanities.