Poll results reveal what evangelicals believe about politics and civility

September 27, 2019

As part of an effort to learn more about how American evangelical Christians might contribute to healing political and cultural divides in America, the Fetzer Institute commissioned  “Faith and Healthy Democracy,” a report produced by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).

While the full report includes an opinion poll, what the researchers heard from their interviews with evangelical thought leaders, and information from academic and historical work on evangelicals and American politics, this article highlights only the findings of the poll, which were included throughout the 72-page report.

Here are the poll results broken out by category:

Civility in the Public Square

• More than a fifth of respondents believed that civility in political conversations is not productive, rising to almost half of those aged 18 to 34.

• About 1 in 4 said that if a political leader they supported insulted an opponent, they would be inclined to believe such insults were justified.

• About 1 in 3 admitted to engaging in “whataboutism,” or responding to a critique by citing examples of wrongdoing on the other side.

• Around 40% said they had spoken up publicly to disapprove of someone on their side for unacceptable words or actions.

• More than half of evangelicals believed that if their political opponents were able to implement their agenda, democracy would be in danger.

• More than half said they trusted news more if delivered by someone with similar views on social and political issues.

• Two-thirds said they tend to believe their political opponents’ motivations are good (this was especially true among Southerners and Hispanics), but a majority did not believe the other side extended the same charity to them.

• More than half report they do not reveal their political beliefs in environments where those beliefs are unpopular.

• More than a third said they simply ignore disagreeable political comments in conversation rather than engaging them

• Women are more likely to self-report being civil than men, and seniors more civil than youth.

• Agreement with the statement, “Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin,” was associated with greater civility.

• Having a political worldview founded on the belief in the inherent and equal dignity of all was associated with higher levels of civility.

• Having friendships with people of a different income or a different religion was associated with higher levels of civility.

• Concern for religious liberty as a primary issue was associated with higher levels of civility.

• A belief that the stakes of our political disagreements are existential was associated with lower levels of civility.

• Agreement with the statement, “If those I disagree with politically are able to implement their agenda, our democracy will be in danger” was associated with lower levels of civility.

• Obtaining one’s news primarily from social media or other online image- or video-based sources, especially YouTube, was associated with lower levels of civility.

• Evangelicals who said that prominent Christian leaders have influenced their political views scored self-reported lower levels of civility.

• Evangelicals who said they prefer to follow others on social media with whom they agree on social and political issues self-reported lower levels of civility.

• Evangelicals who prefer to get their news from someone with whom they already agree self-reported lower levels of civility.

• Evangelicals who said they are single-issue self-reported lower levels of civility.

Consumption of News Media and Social Media

• Three-quarters of respondents said they regularly get their news from television—half from Fox News alone.

• Almost 40% regularly get their news from websites (again, with Fox News’ website the leader by a wide margin) and from social media websites, such as Facebook and Twitter.

• Just over 1 in 4 regularly get their news from a print newspaper or magazine.

• Half of all respondents check Facebook several times per day, and one-quarter visit YouTube with the same frequency.

• More than half said television and news websites made public debate less respectful.

• Nearly two-thirds said social media made public debate less respectful.

• Almost two-thirds felt print news media made public debate more respectful.

• Two-thirds claimed never to engage with others about social or political issues over social media.

Engagement in Non-Religious Civic Activity

• Less than 15% said they participated monthly in any type of organization (not counting church), including sports clubs, hobby clubs, affinity groups, neighborhood associations, non-profit organizations, veterans’ groups, and more.

• Over 70% said they did not participate in any nonreligious civic activity.

Political Identification, Engagement, and Issue Prioritization

• Half of our respondents self-identified as Republicans, with weekly church attendance being correlated with Republican identification

• Older and whiter evangelicals, especially in the South and West, were more likely to identify as Republicans.

• Almost a third of those espousing evangelical beliefs identified as Democrats, but only a quarter of those who self-identified with the evangelical label did so.

• Northeastern and African American evangelicals were far more likely to identify as Democrats.

• Three-quarters of respondents claim to have voted in the 2016 primary, 2016 general election, and 2018 mid-term election. Older and more educated evangelicals voted in even higher numbers.

• For around 40% of respondents, voting was their only political activity.

• Less than 15% report having donated money to a campaign, attended an event with a candidate, or campaigned for a candidate.

• About 1 in 3 report doing research before voting, and almost 40% watch televised debates.

• Between 75 and 85% said the Bible informed their political views; that they look for biblical principles to apply in political issues; and that their faith influences how they engage others politically.

• More than half said that the teachings of their local church or a prominent Christian leader influenced their political views.

• About 80% said they cared about several issues compared to less than 10% who identified as single-issue voters.

• More than half agreed they would only support a candidate who was pro-life.

• More than half agreed they would only support candidates who would fight racial injustice.

• Between 85 and 90% said they would only support candidates who demonstrate personal integrity.

• Between 66 and 70% said that they would only vote for a candidate they believe is a Christian.

• The top public policy issues they were concerned about were healthcare, the economy, and national security, followed by immigration.

• One-third of evangelicals listed religious liberty as a top concern, falling to 28% of the youngest cohort and 13% of black Protestants.

• Whites, older respondents, those with graduate degrees, and those who attend church at least once per week were more likely to list religious liberty as a top concern.

• Two-thirds of evangelicals said it is important to advocate for religious liberty for Muslims and other non-Christians.

• Less than 30% listed abortion as their top concern.

• Between a fifth and a quarter said providing for the needy or working for racial justice was a top concern.

• White evangelicals were far more likely to list abortion, religious liberty, national security, or immigration as a top concern.

• African Americans were more likely to list helping the needy, healthcare, and racial injustice. (In comparison, 11% of white evangelicals say racial injustice is a top concern.)

• Evangelicals who attend church most frequently were least likely to say that helping the needy is a top concern.

• About 90% of respondents agreed that their political views are informed by the idea that every human being has equal and inherent dignity.

About the survey

The opinion poll consisted of an online survey of evangelicals conducted November 14 –23, 2018. Respondents were screened to include both those with evangelical beliefs, and Protestant or nondenominational Christians who self-identify as evangelical (there were small divergences because some people who profess evangelical beliefs nonetheless do not call themselves evangelicals).

Evangelical Beliefs were defined using the NAE LifeWay Research Evangelical Beliefs Research Definition based on respondent beliefs. Respondents were asked their level of agreement with four separate statements using a four-point, forced choice scale (strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, strongly disagree). Those who strongly agree with all four statements were categorized as having Evangelical Beliefs:

• The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.

• It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.

• Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.

• Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24