Opinion writer

Jerry Falwell Jr. shakes hands with Donald Trump during a campaign event in Sioux City, Iowa, on Jan. 31. (Dave Kaup/Reuters)

According to exit polling, about 80 percent of evangelical Christians voted for President-elect Donald Trump, a man who personifies none of the values evangelical Christian leaders say they embrace. 

That 80 percent figure can be misleading, however. “To clarify, 80% of white people who voted and call themselves ‘evangelical’ or ‘born again’ voted for Trump,” explains evangelical activist Eric Teetsel, who has been an outspoken critic of Trump. “This is a sociological category more than a theological one. Consider that just 56% of voters who said they attend religious services ‘weekly or more’ voted for Trump.'” Nevertheless, in an email Teetsel observes that a lot of sincere Christians backed Trump. “Now that the election is over, all Christians must remember that we are not to be known by our voting patterns,” he cautions. “Rather, our reputation is to be one of selfless love for others. This means standing with Jesus on the side of the poor, sick, and marginalized and for public policies that recognize the dignity of every human being.”

Conservative scholar and former adviser to President George W. Bush Peter Wehner argues that evangelical Christian voters now have a special burden. “Trump voters — the fully committed and the partially committed — made his presidency possible, so they have part ownership in it. We’ll see the level of competence and honor and toxicity that will characterize the next four years.” He adds, “Appointing Steve Bannon to be chief strategist and senior counselor in the Trump White House is quite a worrisome development. Bannon, after all, has described himself as a ‘Leninist’ who wants to ‘bring everything crashing down’ and gave a platform to the malicious ‘alt-right’ movement while he was executive chairman of Breitbart News.”

For evangelicals, in particular, Wehner urges that “those who supported Trump will have the integrity, if and when it is necessary, to speak out against him, just as those of us who vehemently opposed Trump need to be willing to praise him if he does things that warrant it.” In an email, he emphasizes, “The point here is that our allegiances have to be to things beyond party and tribe and ideology; there needs to be an allegiance to truth, as best as we mere mortals can discern it – and in the case of Evangelical Christians, an allegiance to a Lord who asks of us to act justly and to love mercy. He adds, “One of the things that really concerns me as a Christian is how in the political arena our faith has become weaponized, how our political loyalties disfigure our faith commitments rather than our faith commitments shaping our politics. I’m as susceptible to that as anyone else; it’s a temptation we all must all strive to resist.”

Going forward, evangelical Christians will find a changed landscape, one in which their influence may be vastly reduced. “The idea that Trump’s most vocal supporters will in the future weigh in on the importance of character in public leaders is risible,” Wehner says. “That argument is now gone, at least for a time. Many Evangelical Christians marched under the banner — some even helped raise the banner — for a man whose personality is characterized by vindictiveness, cruelty and coarseness.” He explains, “They rallied behind a man who in my estimation embodies a Nietzschean ethic rather than a Christian one, and there’s a price that will be paid for that. Trump supporters would say it was worth it in order to prevent a Clinton presidency.”

Where that leaves evangelical Christians, both Trump supporters and opponents, is uncertain. Teetsel says withdrawal from public life is not an option. “The responsibility to love our neighbor and seek the welfare of our communities remains, no matter who is president.” That said, how they engage may change. They would be wise to start out by reflecting on their non-Christian and nonwhite brothers and sisters. Wehner says, “Trump supporters need to think about how they would view things if they were Muslim or Mexican and felt unfairly targeted — or an African American, knowing that the thing that really catapulted Trump into politics was peddling a racist conspiracy about Barack Obama not being born in America.” He muses, “In many ways empathy and sympathy – what Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments referred to as ‘fellow feeling’ — are lost, or at least de-valued, virtues.” Ultimately, however, Wehner, like Teetsel, comes down on the side of engagement, explaining that “politics, for all its mundane aspects and downsides, is still a means through which we pursue justice, protect human dignity and advance human flourishing, and those things are never unimportant.”

Evangelical Christians who justified their decision to back Trump based on Supreme Court picks, will be humiliated if Trump trades a conservative judge for something else he wants — a distinct possibility for a man who shows no convictions beyond self-promotion. Perhaps evangelical conservatives need to not only reflect on their faith but on their political acumen as well. “In the last few decades – and especially in the last year — Christians have often done politics poorly,” Wehner observes. “So do most other groups in democracy. The answer is to do politics better. I think we can, and I hope we do. Because this nation is in a difficult place just now, in need of healing and reform and restoration.” People of different faiths or of no faith at all certainly can agree with that.