Even as evangelicals are now divided over the Republican presidential nominee, a handful of leaders and the majority of white evangelical voters still support Donald Trump. Surprisingly, many of them have abandoned the rhetoric of morals and values and have made a pragmatic turn to expectations about Supreme Court nominees and policies that embody conservative political principles. Somehow, these conservative Christian leaders and voters still attempt to couch that maneuver in meaningful Christian theological and ethical language, but, I think, there’s a lot wrong in those efforts to make Donald Trump right for conservative Christian voters.
1. The role of the church is not to impose its beliefs and values through government. Of course, the attempt to use government to enforce particular kinds of morality by the Christian right is nothing new. They had hopes for the alignment of government with Christian right values during the Reagan and Bush I and II administrations, especially on so-called “family values” issues like abortion and sexuality. Yet, even though Reagan and both Bushes spoke the language of family values to conservatives, the truth is their presidencies did little to advance the causes so dear to the right at the federal level.
While Christian citizens should certainly engage in the political process, what’s missing for some is an understanding that government is for all the people, not a select Christian subset.
Both Jerry Falwell, Jr., and Ralph Reed have said that, more significant than Donald Trump’s morality, is the importance of his appointment of Supreme Court justices that will further the agenda of the Christian right. James Dobson and Pat Robertson have joined the chorus suggesting that Trump’s character is irrelevant, as long as his policies align with the Christian right’s agenda. Perhaps most astonishing is new research that shows a majority of white evangelicals now believe a person who acts immorally can still be ethical in a political position. This is a huge shift for the population who supported the impeachment of Bill Clinton.
While Christian citizens should certainly engage in the political process, what’s missing for some is an understanding that government is for all the people, not a select Christian subset. When some Christian voters see the role of government as imposing their particular vision of a theocratic United States, we have moved beyond a democracy that values and protects minorities toward a kind of authoritarianism that demands adherence to a defined set of conservative Christian propositions, behaviors, and policies. Trump’s willingness to say the words certain Christian right leaders want to hear has convinced them that somehow, despite his lies, unethical business behavior, overt racism, contempt for women, and lack of basic understanding of Christian beliefs, he will usher in a Christian government in line with their conservative vision.
2. Love of political power is not an expression of the Gospel. In many ways, the Christian Right has had an outsized influence on American politics, giving its leaders raw political power. While some of this political power has been wielded to try to force changes around conservative Christian moral issues like abortion, in this election we’ve seen that for some of the Christian right love of political power extends way beyond religious issues. For example, Jerry Falwell, Jr. supports Trump, arguing, “The bigger point is he is going to appoint the right justices to the Supreme Court. He’s going to control immigration. He’s going to bring our country back to a position of strength again. And that is why I’m supporting Donald Trump.” Falwell has now added immigration control and national strength to his religious agenda.
The Bible clearly warns against love of political power. It’s also pretty clear about its mandates for welcoming the stranger, freeing the oppressed, distrusting the wealthy, and embracing meekness, gentleness, and self-control.
3. Sexual assault is not a moral issue. It’s a crime. And it should not be overlooked for political expediency. Despite his earlier condemnation of Trump’s comments about groping women, Wayne Grudem still encourages evangelicals to vote for Trump. He explains, for example, “Yes, it is morally evil to commit adultery. It is also morally wrong to approve of committing adultery. But that does not mean it is morally evil to vote for someone who has committed adultery. In a world affected by sin, voting for morally flawed people is unavoidable. Voting for the candidate you think will be best for the country (or do the least harm to the country) is not a morally evil action, so this objection does not apply.”
The problem is Trump has not only committed acts the Christian right (as well as the Christian Left) would find morally objectionable, such as adultery. In the recently released Access Hollywood video, he describes sexual assault—groping women, forcing himself on them, because he can, because he’s rich and famous. Grudem and others claim he’s a changed man, he’s asked for forgiveness, it was just locker room talk, but now we have at least 10 women who have come forward saying Trump did to them exactly what he described in that video. And his response is to slander them and threaten to sue them. That hardly sounds like the response of a changed Christian heart to me.
4. Evangelical acceptance of Trump’s misogyny did not come from nowhere. While at last a number of evangelical leaders, including some important women, have spoken out about Trump’s sexism, they have not acknowledged the role they have played in creating a climate in which misogyny thrives. Many of these leaders have spent decades telling women they are responsible for the Fall, they are to submit to their husbands, they are to keep silent in the church, they are responsible for men’s sexuality, that their place is in the home. That so many evangelicals are willing to overlook Trump’s misogyny should not come as a surprise to any of these leaders. They marketed a slightly more subtle version of this misogyny for years, and their followers and congregants internalized the message. If they really want to challenge Trump’s misogyny, they need to challenge their own.
5. Racism still runs deep in white evangelical Christianity. Recent research suggests that evangelicals who support Trump express more racist views than other evangelicals. In many ways, the Christian right has yet to come fully to terms with its racist history. A great deal of white evangelical involvement in politics arose in opposition to the Civil rights Movement in the South. Trump’s race-baiting holds great appeal for white evangelicals voters already primed with a long history of theological justification for racism. So although a number of evangelical leaders have denounced Trump’s bigotry, a much longer history of covert and overt racism in the church informs evangelical voters who choose Trump.
Somehow, despite all of the problems with Trump’s candidacy for conservative Christians, some evangelical leaders still choose to believe he’s the best choice for evangelical Christians. For people who have held themselves up as moral authorities, in this time of genuine religious turmoil, these leaders have abandoned Christian principles of love and justice in the name of political expediency for ends that have more to do with their own political agendas than the gospel. I do appreciate those evangelicals who have spoken out against Trump—they will have much greater influence than people like me with these voters. As a former evangelical—and I do credit much of my passion for justice, equality, and peace to my evangelical roots—I hope this division can lead to some much-needed soul-searching among evangelicals about who they are and what they should be doing in the world to live the good news they proclaim.