November 22, 2016 at 6:00 AM
The white evangelical vote has been a focus of post-election coverage, and for good reason. If you had told the average person that white evangelicals would account for more than a fourth of the entire electorate, they may not have believed you: After all, evangelicals are often imagined as a fringe population. But they represented more than a quarter of the electorate in 2012 and 2008, and again this year.
In the 2016 presidential election, 81 percent of these voters — voters that Democrats only remember exist every four years — voted for Donald Trump, and only 16 percent supported Clinton, well below the level of support of white evangelicals for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, when he won 26 and 21 percent of white evangelical votes respectively.
I am a white evangelical, but I could not support Donald Trump. This might not be surprising: I led religious outreach for Barack Obama’s reelection campaign. Even so, I saw Trump’s candidacy as uniquely disqualifying for evangelicals. Trump will be the most secular president America has ever had. His unabashed pursuit of money, sex and power represents the kind of disordered loves that are commonly preached about in churches around the country. And a number of evangelical leaders denounced his candidacy during the primaries.
So what happened?
First, it’s a disturbing fact that safe harbors in white evangelical culture for an acceptance of or willingness to overlook racism, misogyny, xenophobia and anti-Semitism still exist. These tendencies do not wholly define evangelicalism; nor do they summarize all white evangelical support for Trump. But they still plague evangelical communities, and it is the responsibility of evangelicals who supported the winning candidate to be open to these conversations for the unity of the church.
But there are also ordinary political explanations for how white evangelicals voted. Trump’s message to evangelicals was that the challenges they face require a suspension of their values in politics — that it is now time to stop playing nice and start busting heads and disrupting the entire system. For evangelicals who feel embattled, isolated and marginalized by the onslaught of cultural change from sexual liberation to same-sex marriage to the coarsening of culture, Trump promised that he would relieve the pressure. Perhaps many of the 81 percent of white evangelicals who supported Trump were uncomfortable with his approach to winning, but there was an even firmer sense that they could not afford to keep losing.
This was on stark display at the second presidential debate, for instance, when Anderson Cooper asked in regard to the now-infamous “Access Hollywood” tape: “You called what you said locker room banter. You described kissing women without consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?” To which Trump replied: “I apologize to the American people. Certainly I’m not proud of it. But this is locker room talk. You know, when we have a world where you have ISIS chopping off heads, where you have — and, frankly, drowning people in steel cages, where you have wars and horrible, horrible sights all over, where you have so many bad things happening, this is like medieval times. We haven’t seen anything like this, the carnage all over the world.” Trump framed concern with what he characterized as typical male speech as a luxurious distraction, basic morality as a weakness in the face of evil.
Trump’s outreach to religious people consisted of telling them he was the only one who could save them and the country from what was coming — terrorism, a loss of religious freedom, the ratification of abortion as a moral good — and that he would offer them not just protection, but power. His message was to affirm conservative Christians’ sense of isolation and vulnerability, and to offer himself as the only way out. The debate line Trump used to deflect from his “Access Hollywood” comments was not new. He used it at Liberty University:
…We’re going to protect Christianity, and I can say that. I don’t have to be politically correct.
This helps us understand how a majority of Trump’s voters could question his temperament and fitness for office, and still think he’s the man for the job.
Even if evangelicals’ morality was on the losing side of the culture, which Trump’s candidacy was a walking reminder that it was, they could be protected through a more forceful exertion of power. This explains Trump’s unusual focus on the Johnson Amendment — a provision banning the endorsement of candidates from the pulpit or through the use of church resources. I have been involved in religion and politics for a decade now, and I had never before heard any mainstream religious leader prioritize the Johnson Amendment. Only a quarter of evangelicals believe an endorsement from the pulpit would be appropriate. Yet, Trump went around the country putting the repeal of the Johnson Amendment at the forefront of his outreach.
The Clinton campaign ran a campaign that employed religious references — primarily as a way to accentuate a critique of her opponent’s moral character — but it included little religious outreach from the candidate herself. Hillary never directly asked for the support of evangelicals. She never had an interview with a major evangelical publication or outlet. Her campaign decided, as Democrats have often desired to, that religious voters — with limited exceptions — did not need to be sought in order to win. This view largely applied to Catholics as well, 23 percent of the electorate, as we learned from recent reports about the campaign’s decision to avoid a St. Patrick’s Day event because “white Catholics were not the audience she [Clinton] needed to spend time reaching out to.”
Through their lack of direct outreach and relative silence on their concerns, the campaign conveyed to evangelicals that they were right to fear political loss; that the election was, in fact, a zero-sum game for them. By ignoring these voters, the Clinton campaign affirmed Trump’s message to them: Trump was the only candidate who cared, and he was the only one who could save them.
Though the national breakdown of the white evangelical vote and their percentage of the electorate were almost identical to 2012, there were some major differences in key battleground states. If Clinton had received Barack Obama’s 2012 percentage of the white evangelical vote in Michigan (where she is currently losing by about 12,000 votes), she would have received more than 125,000 additional votes. In Florida, she would have received about 141,000 more votes, surpassing Trump’s margin of victory in that state. Even in Ohio, if the evangelical breakdown of the vote between Clinton and Trump matched that between Obama and Romney, the margin of Trump’s victory would have closed by more than 275,000 votes—much more than half of Trump’s total margin. This story is replicated in states across the nation.
It’s possible to argue that since white evangelicals clearly would have never considered voting for Hillary Clinton, it would’ve been useless to waste precious time and resources reaching out to them. But this thinking is the kind of misguided calculation that has lost Democrats votes over the last several years.
First, it is political malpractice to completely write off a constituency that represents more than a quarter of the electorate regardless of the candidate’s difficulties reaching them. Second, Barack Obama ran in 2012 in support of same-sex marriage and abortion rights all while facing widespread critiques that his administration had led a “war on religion.” Outreach to these voters was not exactly a cakewalk. The simple difference between Obama’s two presidential campaigns and Clinton’s 2016 campaign is that Obama asked for the votes of white evangelicals and Clinton did not. He addressed religious freedom. He spoke to them about their shared concern for the poor and vulnerable. His campaign identified, explicitly, reasons they should vote for him.
In the face of a Trump candidacy that offered a clear and dire threat to so many communities and so many of our values, the Clinton campaign chose the arrogant, risky strategy of ideological consolidation. Instead of running a campaign as broadly appealing as possible in the face of a demagogue, they decided Trump was so crazy that it afforded an opportunity to move left, focus on their base, and rely on the fact that enough voters would be offended by Trump that they would be driven to Clinton without undergoing the indignity of asking for their votes. As the president prepares to leave office, we should remember the speech that provided hope for the party in the wake of John Kerry’s electoral loss in 2004. In it, Obama rejected those who like to “slice and dice” the electorate into groups that belong to one party or the other. Instead of Democrats depending on the U.S. Census to tell us exactly which groups and how many voters we can ignore, as Republicans have done for so long, we should embrace that speech not just for its rhetoric, but for its political advice.
Moving forward, the Democratic Party must decide if we truly are stronger together, and if that includes all of America’s religious communities — including white evangelicals. We can argue that they should have rejected Trump regardless, as I have and will continue to do, but we’d be much better off if we offered a positive vision for evangelicals’ place in 21st century America that is an alternative to that of President-elect Trump.