Four Out of Five Conservative Pastors Voted for Trump Despite Misgivings about His Character

While much has been made about the refusal of most theologically conservative pastors to use the pulpit to teach biblical perspectives on current issues, one thing is clear: they had little hesitation to personally support the more conservative candidate in the presidential election. An election-night survey by the American Culture & Faith Institute (ACFI) shows that 80% of those pastors voted for Donald Trump and only 5% voted for Hillary Clinton – the same proportion that voted for Evan McMullen. In addition, 7% voted in the November 8 contest, but did not vote for a presidential candidate.

That level of support for Donald Trump represented an uptick from June of this year, when 70% of theologically conservative pastors had planned to vote for GOP nominee. During that same time period, SAGE Cons – the politically and theologically conservative Christians who are engaged with both their faith and the political environment – increased their support for Donald Trump from 75% in June to 94% on Election Day.

Misgivings about Both Candidates

The ACFI survey revealed that while some pastors warmed up to Donald Trump over the past year, they never did come to appreciate Hillary Clinton.

Despite early reservations about Mr. Trump, half of all theologically conservative pastors (50%) wound up having a favorable impression of him by the time of the election. (The same proportion – 50% – admitted to having an unfavorable opinion of him.) That thawing of opinion did not occur for Mrs. Clinton, who began the campaign season with low marks from conservative pastors and saw them remain low. On Election Day, when the survey was conducted, only 4% had favorable impressions of her while 95% held an unfavorable opinion of her.

Pastoral opinions of the Vice Presidential candidates were even more bifurcated. Almost nine out of ten theologically conservative pastors (88%) had favorable opinions of Mike Pence. In contrast, just 7% had a favorable image of Timothy Kaine, the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate, while almost three-quarters (72%) had an unfavorable impression of him.

The legacy of Barack Obama did nothing to help the Democratic candidates in the eyes of theologically conservative pastors. Just one out of ten of them (11%) had a favorable opinion of the incumbent president while the other nine out of ten (89%) held an unfavorable view.

The ACFI research indicated that the backing of Donald Trump by theologically conservative pastors was not a foregone conclusion. Barely one-third of these clergy (37%) said that they are “loyal to the Republican Party.” The survey also discovered that their support for the New York businessman was in spite of his character. Although past election studies show that the character and morals of a candidate is usually the primary reason that pastors back a candidate, in this election fewer than one out of ten theologically conservative pastors said Mr. Trump’s character and morals were a compelling reason to vote for him. Further, seven out of ten of the pastors interviewed felt that neither Mr. Trump nor Mrs. Clinton were people whom they respected and admired.

Critical Issues

Similar to what happened among SAGE Cons, theologically conservative pastors experienced a shift during the course of the campaign in the issues they deemed to be the most serious challenges facing America.

At the start of the Trump-Clinton face-off, theologically conservative pastors were most likely to mention the nation’s moral decline (25%), abortion (21%), marriage and family (19%) as the major issues. By Election Day, both the ranking of specific issues and the percentages of pastors identifying those issues as significant had changed noticeably. By November 8, the most frequently cited issue was abortion, listed by (34%), followed by the Supreme Court nominations (21%). This reordering of priorities coincides with the messaging efforts undertaken by several dozen Christian non-profit organizations that were part of the United in Purpose coalition that sought to bring the importance of those particular issues to the attention of Christian conservatives during the last three months of the campaign.

Several issues that are faith-related never caught on as major considerations among theologically conservative pastors. For instance, the June survey showed that only 15% felt that religious freedom was a serious national challenge; 4% mentioned Middle Eastern policies, including the Israel-Palestine conflict; and just 9% identified understanding Islam and how to respond to Islamic aggression as a major threat. On Election Day, the numbers remained virtually unchanged: 13% mentioned religious freedom, 5% listed Middle Eastern foreign policies, and 4% said responses to Islamic aggression.

Being Informed Mattered to Them

The ACFI survey found that theologically conservative pastors were interested in staying informed about the candidates. One indication was that four out of five of them (81%) watched one or more of the three Trump-Clinton debates. Nearly one out of five (18%) credited those debates with influencing their candidate selection.

The survey also pointed out that about three-quarters of these pastors (73%) said that they consulted one or more voter guides before voting. In many cases, those guides were most helpful in giving them insights into other races or initiatives that appeared on the ballot in their state.

More Personal Conversations

The survey also discovered that theologically conservative pastors were more likely to engage in persuasion conversations with potential voters than they had expected. In June, just 23% of these pastors said they were likely to interact with people who planned not to vote or to vote in a way that differed from their own leaning in order to persuade them to support their preferred candidate. Most of them (75%) planned to avoid such a conversation with those people.

However, by Election Day, twice as many (46%) had actually undertaken such exchanges with people who planned to not vote or to support a different candidate than the pastor was supporting.

The Campaign Lured Them In

George Barna, who directed the research study for the American Culture & Faith Institute, stated that as the campaign progressed it drew pastors in, despite their plans to stay at arms-length. “Early on, most theologically conservative pastors indicated that they would personally be attentive to the race for the White House but would not get personally involved in the process. By the end of the campaign season, the intensity and the stakes involved caused a greater number of them to engage with the process. While most theologically conservative churches remained somewhat removed from the election process, many pastors were drawn to the race in ways even they did not expect.”

Barna pointed out that one out of every six theologically conservative pastors (16%) personally contributed money to one of the candidates and nearly one-third of them (30%) tried to get unregistered voters they knew to register. “That kind of participation is encouraging,” Barna commented, “and gives some hope that in the future they might allow that interest to affect their ministry at the church, as well.”

About the Research

The research described in this report is part of the Conservative Clergy Canvass™, a longitudinal survey among theologically conservative pastors of Christian churches. The survey undertaken for this report had a sample size of 500 qualified pastors and was conducted online by the American Culture & Faith Institute on the night of November 8, 2016.

ACFI estimates that there are between 95,000 and 110,000 theologically conservative Christian churches in the United States.

The American Culture & Faith Institute is a division of United in Purpose, a non-partisan, non-profit organization. The mission of United in Purpose is to educate, motivate and activate conservative Christians related to the political process, in ways that are consistent with the gospel of Christ. The organization does not support or promote individual candidates or political parties.

Additional information about this study and related research is accessible on the American Culture & Faith Institute website, located at To receive a free copy of these newsletters, visit the website and register for the SAGE Con Weekly newsletter.