Evangelicals, like the candidate they backed overwhelmingly, are the proverbial dog that caught the bus. Unfortunately, the bus they caught is unlikely to take them where they want to go. Right Turn, as we did before the election, talked to Robert P. Jones, chief executive of PRRI and author of “The End of White Christian America,” about the election and evangelical voting, a hot topic among both supporters and opponents of President-elect Donald Trump.
It’s fair to say that without self-described evangelicals,Trump would not have won. “Trump commanded the support of white Christians of all kinds this election. According to PRRI’s analysis of exit poll data, a state’s percentage of white Christians was more highly correlated with support for Trump than the state’s percentage of whites alone or the state’s percentage of white working class citizens,” Jones explained. “But no group of Christians supported Trump more than white evangelical Protestants, who set a new high water mark in support for Republican presidential candidates this year, when they gave Trump 81% of their votes.”
Jones observed that in this election, these voters ceased to be “values” voters. “I argued as early as February after Trump won the South Carolina primary that Trump had effectively converted white evangelicals from being ‘values voters’ to ‘nostalgia voters.’ But when I wrote that article, I never anticipated how total that conversation would be.” He continued: “The traditional concerns about the character of candidates, coarsening of culture, secularization all seem to have gone completely out the window. White evangelicals’ support for Trump has also completely upended their political ethics. Five years ago, only 30% of white evangelicals said that a public official who commits immoral acts in their private life could still fulfill their public duties ethically; this year, with Trump at the top of the ticket, 72% of white evangelicals agree that this bifurcation is possible.”
In other words, while claiming the mantle of Christian virtues, these voters aligned themselves with someone entirely lacking them. That sets up a dilemma going forward.
“In addition to Trump’s own challenges — someone who boasted about never having asked for forgiveness and about sexually assaulting women — it’s hard to see how white evangelicals reconcile their values with Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon — a person who has openly advocated ‘turning up the hate’ as a laudable political strategy — as the president-elect’s chief strategist,” Jones said. “This will be a real test for white evangelicals who supported Trump, especially those who claim they did so primarily because of the upcoming Supreme Court vacancy and the issue of abortion.” He added: “For all of those white evangelicals who claim to have supported Trump narrowly on the issue of abortion and with some broader reservations, they have a particular and weighty responsibility to call out the Trump administration and hold it in check when it veers into language or policies that threaten the safety of vulnerable populations, undermines religious liberty and constitutional protections of anyone, or encourages bigoted or hateful speech and actions. Doing so loudly and early would be a real act of both patriotism and faithfulness to the principles ‘values voters’ have always claimed they supported.”
For now, however, these Trump supporters are mute at best, and some even stoop to defend Trump and Bannon. That suggests a permanent abrogation of their role as guardians of Judeo-Christian values. Jones is as curious as the rest of us to see what happens next. “It will be important to see what the large evangelical organizations who did not endorse Trump — such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Association of Evangelicals and Christianity Today — do,” he observed. “Russell Moore at the SBC and Galen Carey at the NAE will be key figures to watch here.” Jones explained: “The challenge for these leaders and organizations is that they are addressing a membership base that has spoken decisively in support of Trump. The real question, I think, is whether white evangelicals give Trump a blank check because he is a Republican president or whether leaders might help their members find what that tradition has called a ‘prophetic voice,’ one that might just call Trump to repent if, for example, he follows Bannon’s strategic advice to use hate as a tool to achieve political ends.”
We seem to have come full circle. In response to secular, liberal critics, evangelical leaders have defended their participation in major political and social battles, citing the example of the civil rights movement, when faith leaders from Christian and Jewish denominations lent their moral authority to the fight for racial justice. If, however, Christian conservatives are now making amoral, political calculations, they cannot very well set themselves up as arbiters of values or tell their congregants how faith should influence their votes.
We underscore one more aspect of evangelicals’ support for Trump. There is no issue on which evangelical conservatives have been more vocal and indignant than on the issue of “religious liberty” — the First Amendment right of Americans to avoid obligations that might otherwise fall on them so as to preserve their religious tradition (e.g. a conscience clause for doctors who object to performing abortions). However, in embracing a candidate who painted an entire religion as the enemy, for a time wanted to ban all its adherents and favored a “Muslim registry” (!) these evangelicals have been revealed to be egregious hypocrites and, yes, even religious bigots. At least we know with whom we are dealing.