In another divisive election year, here’s one demographic that personally feels the strain of the nation’s partisan tensions: white evangelicals who plan to vote for Joe Biden.
The Pew Research Center recently found few Americans, Republicans or Democrats, have many close friends who support a different presidential candidate in the 2020 race. In religious breakouts provided to Christianity Today, evangelical Biden supporters emerged as the exception. Just under half say their close friends disagree with them over the upcoming election.
These longtime Democrats, former Republicans, and previous third-party voters represent an increasingly rare group straddling partisan lines, a position they’re in largely due to their faith.
White evangelicals who back Biden are about twice as likely (46%) as Biden supporters overall (22%) to say that many of their close friends plan to vote for Trump. And they are three times as likely to have close friends who support a different candidate as their fellow white evangelicals who plan to vote for Donald Trump (16%).
“Most of my family, friends from home, and a decent number of friends from college are Trump supporters,” said Clayton Job Myers, who graduated from Oklahoma Baptist University in May. He plans to vote for Biden this year because of his opposition to Trump’s rhetoric and what he sees as religious posturing. “I do my very best not to let that change how I view them and how I treat them.”
As the country becomes more polarized, Americans may be drawn to the idea of friendships that overcome political divides. Many read and shared accounts of the unlikely relationship between Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg after her passing a week ago.
For Christians, there are theological reasons to want to rise above political divisions. Some have spoken up to advocate for unity in Christ over partisanship in the church. Southern Baptist Convention president J. D. Greear has made a mantra of the phrase “gospel above all,” for example. But in practice, even for believers, it can be a challenging ideal.
Many white evangelical Biden supporters come from Republican-leaning, Trump-supporting communities. Myers, for example, lives in Norman, Oklahoma, where Trump is leading Biden by almost 25 points in the state polls. Overall, 82 percent of white evangelicals plan to vote for Trump, compared to 17 percent for Biden.
It can be isolating to feel like their political convictions put them in the minority not just in their state, town, or church but also within their own group of friends.
One in ten white evangelical Biden supporters (10%) say “a lot” of their close friends support Trump. By comparison, just 1 percent of white evangelical Trump supporters say they have a lot of friends who will vote for Biden.
Fifteen evangelicals who shared their stories with CT for this article described personal interactions ranging from awkward and tense to unsettling and faith-shaking as a result of their disagreements over who should be president.
For Anna Caudill, a pro-life Independent living in Franklin, Tennessee, church is now “a lonely place, and it doesn’t feel like home as it did for the first 43 years of my life.”
She has been disappointed to see Christians around her continue to align with Trump despite his policies and remarks on black lives, separated families, refugees, and disabled people. “I’ve had to stay away from a lot of social media feeds and be selective about spending time with people,” she said. “I’m more guarded about conversations than I ever was.” She hasn’t talked much about her decision to vote for Biden.
As a Biden supporter, Kelley Mathews in Dallas feels like her relationship with Trump supporters has become strained during his presidency, as she has to either brace for comments on her position or keep politics off the table.
“Some of them are kind but condescending, making my objections seem petty and merely a reaction to Trump’s ‘abrasive personality’ rather than substantive,” she said. “Others are openly hostile, so with long-term relationships in mind, I choose not to engage with them on the topic.”
Mathews expressed a sentiment that came up among many Biden supporters, including at an Evangelicals for Biden panel discussion put on by the campaign’s faith outreach team last week: They worry fellow evangelicals see a vote for Biden (particularly because of his pro-choice position) as a move away from the church.
“The genuineness of our faith is called into question,” said Steven Harris, one of a dozen Christian leaders appearing on Wednesday’s Zoom panel.
A PhD candidate at Harvard Divinity and a former staffer at the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Harris challenged the assumption on two fronts—first, saying a political requisite contradicts justification by faith alone (Rom. 5:1) and, second, bringing up the robust gospel witness of African American Christians whose political beliefs have long contrasted with white evangelicals’.
Black Protestants and white evangelicals share many theological convictions, but black Protestants are currently more likely to vote against Trump than white evangelicals are to vote for him.
Harris, who attends Anacostia River Church in DC, told CT while he feels the tension over the evangelical label as a Democrat and black believer, “I do not want to concede all of evangelicalism to the Republican Party.”
Though Trump has been the Republican candidate both years, for many evangelical voters, 2016 is a lot different than 2020. As CT previously reported, Trump’s evangelical supporters feel more confident and justified in their votes, knowing the president’s track record on abortion, religious liberty, and judicial appointments in his first term.
And his evangelical detractors have likewise shifted. Some have gone from reluctantly or quietly opposing the president to voicing outspoken dissent. Lisa Sharon Harper, evangelical writer and activist, said during the Evangelicals for Biden panel that 2020 was her first time endorsing a candidate in the presidential election.
Others say after voting Republican or third-party, this year would be their first time voting for a Democratic candidate for president. Republican Voters Against Trump has promoted stories of Christians who oppose Trump’s re-election on religious grounds.
Despite the personal strains on their relationships, many white evangelicals supporting Biden say they are working to maintain their cross-partisan friendships. Some have seen encouraging signs of respectful disagreement and serious conversation.
“I’ve openly shared my support with family and friends. Their response has been much more understanding and open than 2016 when they fiercely opposed [Hillary Clinton’s] candidacy,” said Justin Gillebo, an evangelical in Seattle who says he is supporting the Biden/Harris ticket after voting third-party in 2016. “Many have still signaled that they will support the current president, but they’ve been more open to debating policy rather than simply focusing on the candidates themselves as they did in 2016.”
Brandon Helderop, a Michigan evangelical who wrote last month about his departure from the Republican Party, has also seen constructive dialogue among his friends who stand by the president.
“It can be awkward at times,” he said, but “I most appreciate those [friends] I’m able to have respectful dialogue as well as find unity and commonality with.
“My biggest prayer is for our country to have empathy for each other. We may not understand why people we disagree with feel the way they do, but their opinions still matter, and they have value.”