- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 14, 2016

A new survey shows evangelicals and atheists are sharply divided over which presidential candidate to support in 2016.

The Pew Research Center study released Wednesday finds nearly four out of five white evangelicals back Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, while two-thirds of atheists or agnostics plan to support Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee. Each constituency makes up about one-fifth of registered voters.

Ken Blackwell, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council, said the data suggest the political parties are becoming increasingly polarized on religious grounds. He attributed the phenomenon to the Obama administration’s effort to drive faith from the public square, drawing a backlash from evangelicals with a broader view of what religious liberty entails.

“I think without question the Obama administration has been very aggressive in trying to relegate the practice of religion to the four corners of houses of worship,” Mr. Blackwell said. “Therefore, the resistance to that sort of narrowing of the concept of religious freedom has grown more intense on the other side.”

Nearly half of white evangelicals report that it has become more difficult to live their faith in the last several years. And 82 percent of white evangelicals who say it’s harder to be an evangelical today support Mr. Trump, while 72 percent of those who say it isn’t more difficult to be an evangelical support the GOP candidate.

Meanwhile, 66 percent of atheists and agnostics said they’re backing Mrs. Clinton, which is consistent with the number of secular voters who supported President Obama in 2012.

But the religiously unaffiliated strongly supported Mrs. Clinton’s Democratic primary rival, Sen. Bernard Sanders, and don’t appear overly enthusiastic about the former secretary of state. Just 26 percent said they “strongly support” Mrs. Clinton, while 40 percent are tacitly backing her.

That number is down from 2012, when 37 percent of religiously unaffiliated voters said they strongly supported Mr. Obama in his re-election bid.

Despite questions about the billionaire businessman’s biblical acumen and concerns over his multiple divorces, evangelicals appear to be backing Mr. Trump in greater numbers than they did Mitt Romney, a devout Mormon, in 2012. The poll found 36 percent of evangelicals “strongly support” Mr. Trump in the presidential race, up from just 26 percent who said the same of Mr. Romney four years prior.

Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said it’s difficult for evangelicals to rationalize supporting Mr. Trump on scriptural grounds.

“To me, it confirms something I’ve said and believed for decades, and that is that the religious right comes to its ideological positions and then kind of encrusts some religious verbiage on top of it,” Mr. Lynn said. “So they decide guns are good or gays are bad and then they decide to find some alleged connection to Scripture to bolster that argument.”

But Mr. Blackwell, who was among a group of evangelicals to meet with Mr. Trump in New York last month, said one does not have to agree with Mr. Trump theologically in order to support his political prescriptions.

“When I was part of the group that met with him in New York, I wasn’t necessarily looking for him to agree with me 100 percent theologically,” he said. “I was looking to see if I could glean from what he said that he was truly committed to the classical notion of religious liberty, and I came away from it that he was.”

Although Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton have said their favorite book is the Bible, the need for religious pandering from the chief executive may be drawing to an end. Just 62 percent of Americans said having a president with strong religious beliefs is important to them, the survey found, down from 67 percent in 2012 and 72 percent in 2008.

That trend comes as Americans are increasingly suspicious of whether churches and other houses of worship should become involved in politics.

A plurality, 49 percent, said the church should not delve into political matters, compared to 47 percent who said it should. And just 29 percent said churches should take the additional step of endorsing political candidates for office.

Despite the significance the survey attributes to religion, data suggest that race still plays a more important factor in determining one’s political preference.

While white Protestants overwhelmingly support Mr. Trump, 89 percent of black Protestants and 77 percent of Hispanic Catholics said they would vote for Mrs. Clinton if the election were held today — numbers consistent with racial voting patterns regardless of faith.

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