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Who Will Win Ohio’s Evangelicals?

The evangelical vote is the “Heart of it All.”
by Jim Swift
August 23, 2021
Who Will Win Ohio’s Evangelicals?
Josh Mandel, candidate running in the Republican primary for Ohio’s U.S. Senate seat open in 2022, pictured in 2012. (Photo by Joel Prince / Washington Post / Getty)

The Ohio GOP primary race for the U.S. Senate seat up for grabs in 2022 seems to be a contest of demagogic fakery between two former Marines. Among the voter blocs crucial to winning: evangelical Christians. According to the Pew Research Center, evangelicals comprise 29 percent of the state’s adult population, with Catholics and mainline Protestants at 18 and 17 percent respectively. Moreover, evangelicals make up a whopping 39 percent of Ohio Republicans, nearly double the percentage of Catholics and mainline Protestants (20 and 21 percent).

Republicans tend to put forward candidates who look like them—and pray like them, too: 99 percent of Republicans in Congress identify as Christian. The other 1 percent are Jewish. In fact, there are more Republican Mormons in Congress (9) than there are Republican Jews (2). This is nothing new, but it does suggest that politicians who aren’t some flavor of Christian may have trouble winning office as Republicans.

Which is why Josh Mandel, who is Jewish, has been doing a lot to cater to the evangelical crowd in Ohio. On Instagram and Twitter, he posts chummy photos with voters, usually with the name of their church on the sign conveniently highlighted. He’s tweeted “America was founded on the Bible” (it wasn’t) and that if elected he will “always make my decisions based on the Bible and US Constitution.” And it really is a smart play to highlight the deep ties between evangelicals and Israel when you’re running for higher office.

J.D. Vance, however, has a different story. Born and raised an evangelical, Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy pre-electoral work was honest about his experience in the church. Writing in the New York Times in 2016, Vance criticized the “fusion of religion and politics” in America and had some harsh words for evangelicals:

A Christianity constantly looking for political answers to moral and spiritual problems gives believers an excuse to blame other people when they should be looking in the mirror. . . .

The most significant evangelical contribution to fiction in the past 20 years was the apocalyptic “Left Behind” series. The books are riveting, but their core message is that corrupt, evil elites have gone to war against Christians. Some version of this idea — whether delivered in church or on TV — finds its way into many topics in a modern evangelical sermon: Evolution is a lie that secular science tells to counter the biblical creation story, the gay rights movement usurps God’s law. Recently, a friend sent me the online musings of a televangelist who advised his thousands of followers that the Federal Reserve achieved satanic ends by manipulating the world’s money supply. Paranoia has replaced piety.

This was not a one-time critique of evangelicals. Three weeks later, Vance told Michael Smerconish while promoting Hillbilly Elegy that, although he is “somewhat conservative” (uh-oh!), he thinks that the message of modern evangelicalism “can be very alienating” and that evangelicals have become “extraordinarily political.”

Here’s the exchange:

SMERCONISH: Final question for J.D. Vance. Then why has this support for the white church—for lack of a better descriptor—dropped off? I mean, is it because the church leadership has been hijacked, had their role usurped? You point out that now, the most important institution of our lives—if it exists at all—encourages us to point a finger at faceless elites in Washington.

Who, or what, is to blame for that?

VANCE: So, I think it’s extraordinarily complicated, I think that part of it is just the rise of the megachurch as an institution, which, you know, may be good in some ways. But, at the end of the day, it doesn’t provide the sort of community support and the local, the local groups that older institutions and older churches provided.

I think a big part of it is that the church is becoming extraordinarily political. So, it’s hard to sit in a modern evangelical church these days unless you’re a very devout Christian conservative.

As someone who is both a Christian and somewhat conservative, I think I understand the appeal of that message. But I think it also can be very alienating for people. So, there are a lot of—and there are a lot of other factors, I think, at work here. But I do think the politicization of the church and the deinstitutionalization of the church—the fact that it’s moved online, on TV, and into megachurches—are two really big explanations.

You understandably won’t hear J.D. Vance on the campaign trail in Ohio complaining about evangelicals like that. Yet he doesn’t appear to be courting them either, at least not in the same manner Mandel is—exploiting his campaign appearances at every rural church with a crucifix and an illuminated sign.

Maybe that’s in part because, in 2019, Vance converted to Catholicism. American evangelicals have complicated views of Catholics and Catholicism. Although the worst excesses of anti-Catholicism among American Protestants are thankfully behind us, you can still occasionally meet evangelicals and fundamentalists who deny that Roman Catholics are truly Christian. Since the mid-1990s, conservative Catholics and white evangelicals have joined forces in a variety of political fights, but in recent years that coalition seems to have spun apart.

Most Ohio evangelicals would probably voice no serious qualms about Vance becoming a Catholic, but he may have calculated that it is safer for him not to say much explicitly in public about his faith. Still, while being Catholic might not help Vance’s chances with evangelical voters, he at least speaks their “language.” Josh Mandel’s hard campaigning for the evangelical vote seems a little forced—understandably. Although the primary is still months away, it will be interesting to watch how these two candidates compete for this outsized electoral bloc.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.