Religious Voters May Lean Republican, But Feel Conflicted About The Candidates

Sep 21, 2016
Originally published on September 21, 2016 6:32 pm

Researchers seeking to predict how Americans will vote have for years identified an important clue: The more religious you are, the more likely you are to lean Republican.

Conversations with more than two-dozen self-identified "faith" voters in Boone, N.C., suggest that pattern is holding this year, even while revealing the same high level of voter disenchantment evident across the country.

"I've always felt that the Republicans align with my beliefs," said Judith Martinez, 51, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Mexico. An evangelical Christian who leads the Spanish-language ministry at Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Boone, Martinez's opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage are decisive factors in determining which party and candidate to support. "The Bible is very clear in telling us the way we should live," she said, "and we are not respecting that." She expects to vote for Donald Trump.

Among Hispanic voters, Martinez is in a minority. A recent ABC/Washington Post poll showed Republican candidate Donald Trump trailing Hillary Clinton by 25 to 40 points among Hispanic voters in various battleground states. That advantage, however, may diminish when religious beliefs are considered. Voting analyses carried out by the Pew Research Center on the basis of exit poll data in the 2000, 2004 and 2008 elections identified a strong correlation between religiosity and Republicanism.

"How often you attend church services is at least a good predictor [of how you vote] as your level of education, your gender, your age, your union membership, or the region where you live," said Alan Cooperman, Pew's director of religion research. "The only thing stronger is race." (The recent ABC/Washington Post poll showed Trump drawing only about 5 percent of the African-American vote, regardless of religious affiliation.)

The pro-Trump "faith" voters interviewed in Boone, a small city in the western Carolina mountains, have decidedly mixed feelings about his candidacy, however. Judith Martinez says her religious beliefs ultimately may dictate a vote for Trump, but she is deeply troubled by his harsh characterization of Mexican immigrants.

"He's very crude," Martinez says. "Mexicans are some of the people here who work the hardest. He doesn't value their efforts."

Nationwide, nearly half of Trump's supporters are "very enthusiastic" about his candidacy, according to the ABC/Washington Post poll, with about a third of Clinton supporters saying the same of her. Of the religious voters interviewed in Boone, however, not one was a hard-core supporter of either Trump or Clinton.

"I will not vote for anybody," said Jack Lawrence, 67, a retired optometrist and founding member of an interdenominational church in Boone called The Heart. "I will cast a vote, but it will not be for anybody. It will be a negative vote." In his case, he says, it will be a vote against Clinton.

Lawrence was one of six members of The Heart congregation who agreed to meet with NPR to discuss how their Christian commitments are influencing their thinking about this year's presidential election. Three were undecided, including Kristine Martin, 36, who moved to Boone two years ago when her husband took a position at Samaritan's Purse, the evangelical Christian charity founded by Franklin Graham.

"It's a scary election for me," Martin says. "There's part of me that wants to check out."

All six Heart members describe their Christian beliefs as central to their lives. "That's where we find our identity, first and foremost," said David Cuthbert, 41, chief executive officer of Wine to Water, an organization in Boone that promotes access to clean water around the world. "At the end of the day," he says, "it's what shapes every aspect of our lives."

That commitment, however, may be of little help in guiding the election decisions at The Heart this year. Cuthbert says he remains undecided.

One of the two Heart members leaning to Clinton, 35-year-old Dejah Miranda-Huxley, says her preference is a reaction to what she sees as Trump's "exclusivist" attitude toward minorities and immigrants. "Neither side reflects my faith," she said.

Whether the Republican advantage among religious voters in places like Boone will hold in future elections is unclear. Renee Miller, 34, who was raised in a strict Pentecostal household near Boone, found her loyalty to the Republican Party challenged after going through a yearlong addiction treatment program at Hospitality House, a community shelter in Boone serving people in the midst of poverty-related crises.

"I came here homeless and pregnant and addicted to drugs," Miller says. "This place has been really helpful as far as getting treatment. I now have a healthy baby, a beautiful little girl, and I'm a completely different person." A registered Republican, she attributes her political identity largely to her religious upbringing. "I definitely want a leader who believes in God," she says. A year at Hospitality House, however, has left her unsure of her political loyalties going forward.

"At this point, I would probably vote for Trump," she says, "because I just have a lot of mistrust for Hillary." But she is not convinced her instincts are entirely correct. "Being in this position has made me rethink my political values," she said. "People ask me why I'm Republican, when it's the Democratic Party that mostly supports programs like this that help people. I'm conflicted." As are many religious voters in Boone, and voters around the country.

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In a typical election, religious identity is a big factor at the polls. Surveys show that people who are more religious are more likely to vote Republican. But Donald Trump is not a typical Republican presidential nominee. So NPR's Tom Gjelten went to North Carolina to find out how some religious voters are choosing between two candidates they're not thrilled about.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: We can all identify in different ways - by our age, perhaps, or by our gender or ideology or ethnicity.

JUDITH MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GJELTEN: Judith Martinez - a U.S. immigrant from Mexico, newly married, 51 years old, devout Christian.

MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Speaking Spanish).

GJELTEN: She's preaching this evening to about 25 Latino men and women in the basement of Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Boone, N.C. This is her ministry.

MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GJELTEN: "Don't think you can accomplish something without Jesus," she says. "You might say, I can stop drinking on my own, but without Jesus it won't work."

MARTINEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GJELTEN: Judith herself is a naturalized U.S. citizen. The immigrant men and women to whom she ministers have only temporary work permits.

MARTINEZ: (Through interpreter) Many of them are worried. They wonder what will happen after the election. They are afraid they'll be deported. And they're afraid they'll be separated from their families.

GJELTEN: The election worries them because the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, says he wants to deport immigrants here illegally. Last year, he said many of the Mexicans who've come are bringing drugs and crime. Judith doesn't like Trump.

MARTINEZ: (Through interpreter) He's crude, very crude. Mexicans are some of the people here who work the hardest. He doesn't value their effort.

GJELTEN: And yet, Judith is a registered Republican. And when the election comes around, she expects to vote for the Republican candidate - for Donald Trump. She says her religious beliefs, her opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, influence her thinking.

MARTINEZ: (Through interpreter) I've always felt that the Republicans align with my beliefs. The Bible is very clear in telling us the way we should live, and we're not respecting that.

GJELTEN: Judith's inclination to support Donald Trump in spite of what he has said about Mexicans holds with a pattern identified by the Pew Research Center. How religious someone is can predict how they're likely to vote. The more religious lean Republican, the less religious, Democrat, regardless of age, gender or education.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Let your voice be heard.

GJELTEN: Here in Boone, N.C., that brings some surprising voter preferences.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi, is your voter registration up-to-date? Would you like to register...

GJELTEN: Volunteers are staffing a voter registration table at this community shelter serving people who are homeless or experiencing other poverty-related crises. It's called Hospitality House.

RENEE MILLER: And I am finished with my voter registration.


MILLER: Awesome, thank you so much.


GJELTEN: Among the Hospitality House residents prepared to vote this fall is Renee Miller, a 34-year-old single mom.

MILLER: I've been here a year. I came here homeless and pregnant and addicted to drugs. And the Hospitality House has really been helpful. I have a healthy baby - beautiful girl.

GJELTEN: Hospitality House gave her a free place to stay, three meals a day and enrolled her in a treatment program. In politics, Renee leans Republican, even while acknowledging a Republican president like Donald Trump might be less likely than Hillary Clinton to support government spending for places like Hospitality House.

MILLER: At this point, you know, if I had to vote today, I definitely probably would say I would vote for Trump. And that still scares me because it's the Democratic Party that I feel like reaches out for these programs, you know, and stuff. But I just have a lot of mistrust for Hillary right now.

GJELTEN: In part, it has to do with her Christian upbringing in a conservative Pentecostal tradition.

MILLER: I definitely want a leader who does believe in God or, you know, believe in the higher power that's out there, you know. And I want people to be able to have religious freedom.

GJELTEN: Hillary Clinton is a Christian and speaks often of her faith. But for Renee, as for others, religion goes with Republicanism. That's the pattern Pew Research found. Now, there is an important exception. One factor weighs more than religion - race.

FRED BROWN: African-Americans, you say? I think they're going to vote for Hillary.

GJELTEN: Fred Brown, a black man, is another Hospitality House resident.

BROWN: I don't like Trump at all, can't stand him. He got a big mouth, you know. And he hides behind his money. I don't like that. I don't like any man that hides behind his money.

GJELTEN: Brown says he loves and respects the Lord, but with African-Americans, whether they're religious doesn't really predict their vote. Recent surveys show Donald Trump getting only about 5 percent of the African-American vote regardless of religious affiliation. For others, a strong faith does go with a slight Republican tilt. But here in Boone, N.C., this year may be a little different. What a strong faith seems to predict here more than anything else is disenchantment.

That's a widely shared feeling in the electorate this year, even with nearly half of Trump supporters feeling very enthusiastic about him, according to a new ABC/Washington Post poll. A smaller share of Clinton supporters, about a third, say the same of her. But it's hard to find any enthusiasm among religious voters here in Boone. Indeed, of a more than two dozen religious voters we interviewed here, including Judith Martinez and Renee Miller, not one is a hardcore supporter of either Trump or Clinton.

JACK LAWRENCE: It's a real shame to me that with the country that we have that this is the best we can do.

KRISTENE MARTIN: I think it's a scary election for me. And there's part of me that wants to check out.

DAVID CUTHBERT: I'm struggling very much in this election. And I don't necessarily think that the values that I hold dear are necessarily represented.

GJELTEN: Jack Lawrence, Kristene Martin and David Cuthbert - members of an interdenominational church in Boone called The Heart, committed Christians who say their faith is central to their decision making. This is David.

CUTHBERT: That's where we find our identity first and foremost is being a Christian. It's not an extra ingredient or a separate aspect of our life. It is our entire identity.

CUTHBERT: Of the six people gathered at The Heart this evening, two say they'll probably vote for Hillary Clinton, one for Donald Trump, three are still undecided. None has found their Christian beliefs dictating a clear choice. Dejah Miranda Huxley says the question is who she votes against.

DEJAH MIRANDA HUXLEY: That's a tough way to look at it. But I know neither side will reflect my faith. I know that. I totally understand that.

GJELTEN: She'll vote against Trump. And here is Jack Lawrence.

LAWRENCE: I'll tell you this, I will not vote for anybody. I will cast a vote. But I will not vote for anybody.

GJELTEN: In his case, a vote against Clinton. Guided in life by their faith, but not finding it much of a guide in this election. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Boone, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.