White Evangelical Christians and Expression of Populist Attitudes


In June 1979, Reverend Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority to stop America’s alleged moral decline. The Moral Majority galvanized the once politically latent evangelical Christians. The Moral Majority opposed shifting values in America, explicitly opposing homosexuality and abortion. The Moral Majority, and more broadly, white evangelical Christians, feared losing their country to modern values. Ronald Reagan shared their “distaste for modern whirls of social change,” resulting in the Moral Majority backing Regan’s candidacy. In the forty years that have followed, white evangelical Christians have wielded significant political influence in the Republican party (Hetzel, 2009). In recent years, some have labeled white evangelical Christians as a voting block waning in power. This assertion may be incorrect. In half of the states that composed 2016’s early presidential primaries, half of registered Republicans are evangelical Christians. This means that evangelical Christians influence the early momentum of Republican presidential candidates and potentially their viability as a candidate overall.

Simultaneously, there is a growing concern over populism in the United States (Norris & Inglehart, 2020). The rhetoric of populists is broadly opposed to the political establishment, and they are reluctant to share power with out-groups, such as racial minorities. Scholars Norris and Inglehart theorize that the increase in populist sentiment results from a “cultural backlash” (Norris & Inglehart, 2020). A cultural backlash occurs when older members of a society begin to feel left behind and that their beliefs are no longer valued. These sentiments are very similar to the views expressed by evangelical Christians. The Moral Majority was explicitly motivated to correct what they believed to be moral degradation. Connecting evangelical Christians to cultural backlash is simple; evangelical Christians and their leaders discuss their dissatisfaction with America’s direction. However, simply establishing that evangelical Christians are dissatisfied with America’s direction does not mean their views are consistent with populism.

In this blog post, I analyze data from the Grinnell College National Poll concerning the attitudes of white evangelical Christians. Using a battery of questions designed to measure populist sentiments, I investigate the link between white evangelical Christians and populism. The analysis establishes a positive correlation between respondents identifying as white evangelical Christians and scores on a populism index. Additionally, my analysis does not find a correlation between other religious denominations or religious attendance and populism. My findings suggest that white evangelical Christian’s populist sentiments are unique among religious groups. Finally, white evangelical Christians respond to a survey experiment regarding religious schools in a manner that suggests viewing other religions as an outgroup.


This analysis utilizes two iterations of the Grinnell College National Poll, the March 2021 and the March 2023 Poll. Selzer & Co., a polling firm based in Des Moines, Iowa, conducted each poll. The Grinnell College National Poll records respondents’ demographics, political preferences, and attitudes concerning contemporary political issues. Selzer & Co. utilized telephone sampling to conduct the polls. The March 2022 Poll comprised 1,002 U.S. adults, with 196 respondents identifying as white evangelical Christians. The March 2023 poll included 1,004 U.S. adult respondents, with 162 identifying as white evangelical Christians. Responses were weighted by age, sex, and race in the March 2022 and 2023 Polls.

White Evangelicals and Populism Index

To investigate potential links between white evangelical Christians and populist sentiments, I hypothesized that a positive correlation would exist between being a white evangelical Christian and scores on a populism index. Using the Grinnell College National Poll’s demographics questions, I created a variable that includes all white evangelical Christians. To make a single measure of a respondent’s populist sentiments, I created a populism index. The populism index is composed of respondents’ answers to three questions. Respondents were asked whether they strongly agree, mostly agree, mostly disagree, or strongly disagree with three statements: people with high levels of education and expertise do not understand the problems of ordinary people; ordinary people elected to office will do a better job of governing than professional politicians; and, too many immigrants are coming to the U.S.  Each question probes a specific dimension of populist rhetoric. The three components are distaste for the political elite, distrust of experts, and animosity toward outgroups. Combining these three questions into a single index resulted in a populism index ranging from zero to nine, with zero indicating the lowest support of populist sentiments and nine the highest support of populist sentiments.

After creating the populism index, I utilized linear regression to test for a relationship between white evangelical Christians and scores on the populist index. White evangelical Christians are the independent variable of interest, while the populism index is the dependent variable. This regression analysis also tested party identification, ideology, education, income, race, age group, and gender. By including these demographics in the regression, I isolated the impact being a white evangelical Christian had on scores on the populism index.

Figure 1 illustrates the findings of this regression analysis. The horizontal blue line represents a correlation coefficient and its ninety-five percent confidence interval. A ninety-five percent confidence interval indicates that if this regression and poll were repeated one hundred times, with identical methodologies, ninety-five times the correlation coefficient would be inside the interval. In other words, there is a five percent chance that these results are due to random chance. These results are statistically significant if these blue confidence intervals do not cross the red “zero” line. If the confidence intervals cross zero, the correlation coefficient may be zero, indicating the relationship between the two variables could be non-existent. The numerical value of white evangelical Christian’s correlation coefficient is .435. This value shows that independent of a respondent’s other demographics, being a white evangelical Christian increases their populism index score by .435 points. This confirms my hypothesis; a positive correlation exists between being a white evangelical Christian and scores on the populism index. This finding supports my hypothesis that white evangelical Christians hold views consistent with populism.

Figure 1. Religiosity and Denominations

The attitudes of white evangelicals appear to be distinct relative to other groups defined by their religiosity. I additionally tested the relationship between the frequency of religious service attendance with populism and non-evangelical religious denominations with populism. More frequent attendance of religious services does not correlate with scores on the populism index. White Evangelical Christians are also the only religious denomination to return a positive correlation with the populism index.

I completed the following to test for the correlation between denominations and religiosity. I utilized the question “How often do you attend religious services?” with responses “never, less frequently than once a year, a few times a year, a couple of times a month, and at least once a week,” to create a religiosity index ranging from one to five. There was no statistically significant correlation between religiosity and scores on the populism index. This finding controls for the possibility that increased religious attendance corresponds with expressing populist sentiments. Figure 2 illustrates that the 95% confidence interval crosses zero, meaning the correlation between religiosity and the populism index may be zero. Additionally, the correlation coefficient is .05, meaning its magnitude is small if the relationship exists.

My regression testing Protestants, Other Christians, Muslims, Jews, other religions, and religious nones for correlation with the populism scale all failed to return a statistically significant result. Notably, Protestants returned a p-value of .063, meaning the results were close to being significant. The coefficient is .43. However, it could be zero as the 95% confidence includes zero. There is likely a significant overlap between the protestant and white evangelical groups. Jewish respondents returned a correlation of -1.69***. Religious denominations do not seem to make respondents more disposed to populist sentiments. However, in the case of Jewish respondents, it does appear that respondents are less likely to express populist sentiments. Figure 3 displays these results graphically.

Figure 2

Figure 3. Religious Schools

Finally, I wanted to test if white evangelical Christians responded differently to a survey experiment conducted in the March 2022 Grinnell Poll. The survey experiment was designed to test whether support for using public funds to support private religious schools changed when respondents were informed that non-Christian schools would receive state funds. Half of the respondents received the control question: “Some states are considering using taxpayer money to support students who wish to attend private religious schools. These schools often provide religious instruction in addition to a standard curriculum. Do you strongly agree, mostly agree, mostly disagree, or strongly disagree with the use of taxpayer money to support students who wish to attend religious schools?” While the other half received the treatment version: “Across the United States, there are private religious schools affiliated with the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian traditions. Some states are considering using taxpayer money to support students who wish to attend private religious schools. These schools often provide religious instruction in addition to a standard curriculum. Do you strongly agree, mostly agree, mostly disagree, or strongly disagree with the use of taxpayer money to support students who wish to attend religious schools?” Utilizing these response options, I created a scale of one to four, with one indicating low support for tax funding of religious schools and four indicating strong support. I then separated the responses by white evangelicals and not white evangelical respondents and compared each group’s mean support.

A difference in white evangelical Christians’ mean support between the control and treatment questions would reveal an aversion to outgroups. In order to compare if the treatment impacted the mean response of each group, I performed a T-test. T-tests test for a difference in the means of each group. The T-tests indicate no significant difference between the treatment and control groups for the not white and evangelical respondents. The control not white and evangelical respondents returned a mean of 2.12, while the treatment not white and evangelical respondents returned a mean of 2.06. The T-test indicated that the difference between these two means was not statistically significant. This lack of a difference indicates that the treatment’s wording did not significantly impact not white and evangelical respondents.

The T-test for white evangelicals does indicate a statistically significant difference in means between the treatment and control groups. The white evangelicals that received the control group had a mean score of 2.87, while the treatment group had a mean of 2.51. The T-test indicated that the difference between these two means is significant. The T-value for this test was 2.36, indicating a p-value of .0097**. These results indicate that reminding evangelical respondents that state funds would go to non-Christians schools reduced the support of this group for providing these funds. By moving from a mean score of 2.87 to 2.51, white evangelical Christians move from leaning toward supporting taxpayer funding for religious schools to near ambivalence towards the proposal. In the context of populism, these findings are fascinating. The survey experiment was designed to see if including non-Christian faiths would result in different responses. The anticipation was that most respondents would assume that the religious school would be Christian unless told otherwise. The decrease in support among white evangelical Christians indicates a lack of tolerance towards out-groups, in this instance, other religions. A bar chart comparing the treatment and control groups is presented in Figure 4.

Figure 4


As discussed earlier in this blog post, white evangelical Christians are an essential block of Republican voters. They are motivated by their belief that America is in a moral decline and is no longer what it once was. The analysis presented in this blog post establishes a linkage between being a white evangelical Christian and holding populist sentiments. The results of the survey experiment also indicate a lack of tolerance for outgroups. Additionally, it indicates that white evangelical Christians are evaluating policy decisions through a populist lens. As America grapples with encroaching populist rhetoric and politicians, there is value in understanding white evangelical Christian’s political attitudes. Motivated by a changing America, white evangelical Christians have developed populist sentiments. These sentiments will translate into support for candidates with policies catering to these attitudes.

Tim Murphy ‘23.5 is a political science and theater double major, and research assistant for the Grinnell College National Poll.

Note: this post was edited for publication by Associate Professor Peter Hanson.


Heltzel, P. (2009). Jesus and justice: Evangelicals, race, and American politics. Yale University Press.

Norris, P., & Inglehart, R. (2020). Cultural backlash: Trump, Brexit, and authoritarian populism. Cambridge University Press.