Pastor Rick Scarborough has spent 20 years traveling the country to politically mobilize evangelical voters and knows better than most just how un-monolithic they are. In recent years, those differences have just gotten more pronounced, said Scarborough.
“In the past when we’d talk about abortion, 90 percent said: ‘You’re right.’” Now half seem to have experienced it or know someone who has, he said. And “when Falwell spoke against gay marriage there was unanimity. Now half the congregation has a niece or brother who is impacted.”
But the Texas Baptist says he’s never witnessed the bitter divisions among evangelicals that this GOP primary season has unleashed.
Every day, Scarborough fields calls from distressed pastors who don’t know which candidate they’re supposed to support. Many, especially the conservative ones, are floored that candidates seem to show little interest in gay marriage, abortion and religious liberty issues. Some Trump supporters are threatening to leave their churches if their pastors preach against the Republican frontrunner. Arguments have broken out among prominent evangelical leaders about whether the Biblical mandate to love the sinner should include Donald Trump.
“Evangelicals are so divided….It’s because we are living in a growing age of secularism that is forcing itself on people who hold traditional values,” Scarborough said. “Along comes a champion to the common man, a guy who says to Christians: ‘I’m going to take care of you.’ Now it’s a numbers game and I don’t know if he can be stopped. People are confused.”
How do you define an evangelical Christian?
Evangelical divisions over Trump –53 percent of white evangelicals have a favorable view of the magnate, a recent Public Religion Research (PRRI) poll found – appear to be a stand-in for a deeper identity crisis. Negative comments about Muslims and Mexicans, for example, are revealing the extent to which self-described evangelicals are split in their belief that racial and ethnic equality is a core Christian value. Trump’s support of torture reveals a similar rift over what an evangelical means by saying he or she is “pro-life.”
The debate over whether evangelicals can legitimately support Trump without betraying their beliefs “may be shaping the very nature of evangelicalism,” dividing evangelicals between those who are able to reconcile their support of Trump with their Christianity and those who view his ideas and language as blasphemy, Mark Galli, editor of the flagship evangelical magazine Christianity Today, wrote last week.
“I mean that literally: “The act or offense of speaking sacreligiously…about sacred things.’ Racial and ethnic justice has become a ‘sacred thing,’ an item that defines what it means to be an evangelical Christian to many,” Galli wrote.
The embrace and endorsement of Trump by evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr. – son of a founding father of the religious right – led to a recent public break with one of Falwell’s father’s closest confidants: Mark DeMoss, now an influential public affairs executive.
“The bullying tactics of personal insult have no defense – and certainly not for anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ. That’s what’s disturbing to so many people,” DeMoss told the Post, chastising Falwell Jr. The spat was major news among evangelicals as DeMoss chairs the executive committee – the governing board — of Liberty University, the massive Virginia evangelical university Falwell Sr. founded and Falwell Jr now heads.
If Fox is conservative Christianity’s flagship media institution, Liberty is its academy.
But Becki Falwell, wife to the university president, expanded the public argument, saying there is nothing remotely unevangelical about Trump, or his behavior.
“Dr. Falwell was outspoken with his politically incorrect statements and embraced sinners,” she wrote March 2 on her Facebook page, in a rebuke to DeMoss. Then she went further. Not only did Falwell Sr. embrace sinners, she suggested, but they were his more loyal friends. “When he first had his heart problems in 2005, the only national figures who wrote him letters of well wishes were Jesse Jackson, Larry Flynt and Ted Kennedy. He supported a divorced and remarried Hollywood actor over a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher and now, suddenly, Liberty has changed because its leader has embraced Donald Trump. Jesus was called a friend of publicans and sinners and called the religious elite of his time hypocrites.”
Falwell, president of the world’s largest Christian university, responded back on Facebook: “Thank you sweetie! Glad you are on my side!”
A new kind of pragmatism
Eric Tower, a 50-year-old evangelical maintenance worker from Wisconsin who likes Trump, said he’d prefer someone more socially conservative who was also evangelical. But evangelicals are embattled: Pastors who preach against homosexuality are labeled haters, he said. A nearby plant recently fired Muslim workers who demanded time to pray on the job “and the sad thing is they’ll probably win their case against the company,” said Tower.
So evangelicals need to be pragmatic and choose the candidate who most reflects their values – even if that means compromising on some things, he said. “It’s hard to know today who is the ideal evangelical candidate.”
Kim Noblitt, a pastor and musician at Journey Church in Norman, Okla., said evangelicals he knows – congregants and pastors – are dumbfounded by their own division and what to do about it. Noblitt said some evangelicals are giving Trump a pass. Noblitt said that, for his part, he isn’t as bothered by Trump’s flaws as he is by the fact that the businessman appears unrepentant.
“I’ve heard some people say ‘I’m not looking for a pastor,’ but this is different” from when Jerry Falwell Sr. embraced Reagan and others who didn’t fit the conservative evangelical ideal, Noblitt said.
“What the media didn’t pick up on with with Falwell [Sr] was he was ministering to these people off camera – to Larry Flynt, to Ted Kennedy,” – in other words, the endorsement didn’t come without strings, Noblitt said. Of course, now there are no longer such powerful, uniting evangelical leaders. “That whole era is gone.”
Indeed, for a decade, U.S. evangelicalism, which has no formal leadership or hierarchy, has been increasingly divided over who is fit to speak for those who choose that label. Until the early 2000’s, there were people like Falwell and James Dobson and James Kennedy who could powerfully influence voters. If the GOP race has shown anything, it is the booming skepticism among many Americans, including evangelicals, toward institutions and elite leadership across government, the media and faith communities.
Randy Brinson is an Alabama activist and physician who has amassed millions of evangelical emails in his 13-year-old Redeem the Vote campaign to get Christians to the polls. Like Scarborough, Brinson this season has been working with dozens of pastors to try and communicate to and educate confused evangelical voters. Brinson blasted to his e-mail list criticism of Trump as immoral. He said he and other pastors are floored to get push-back from evangelicals they call with this information.
“It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. It’s like this total reversal of the shepherd and the flock. Pastors across the South are calling me to say their congregants say they will leave the church” if the pastors push anything anti-Trump, he said.
The divisions among evangelicals over Trump in particular bear similarities to those within the GOP public at large. White evangelical Protestants who are working class are more than twice as likely to support Trump than white evangelicals with a college degree (15 percent to 37 percent), Public Religion Research Institute found in its fall research. Church attendance makes a difference as well. White evangelical Protestants who attend religious services infrequently are more likely to support Trump’s candidacy than those who attend every week (44 percent to 23 percent). Evangelical embrace of Trump appears to be growing. In November PRRI found 37 percent of evangelicals held a favorable view of him, compared with 53 percent in late January.
Those dynamics were on display at Liberty University during the state primary earlier this month. The school has its own precinct, and despite Falwell’s endorsement, Trump came in fourth. Rubio took 44 percent, Cruz came in at 33 percent, Carson at 14 percent and Trump at 8 percent. Turnout was very low.
The divisions have led to a range of viewpoints about what is happening in American evangelicalism and whether the splits will endure after the fall election. Some, like Galli, see a new breakdown based on attitudes towards race and ethnicity. Others see an intensifying split between those who prioritize personal morality and those who emphasize free markets and capitalism as a route to power and freedom. Some frame the split as Christian pragmatists vs. Christian idealists.
“There was in the past a very large camp of evangelicals who were primarily interested in electing the most Christian kind of candidate. And then over time bigger doses of pragmatism set in,” said DeMoss, who was a top advisor to Mitt Romney’s two campaigns. “Evangelicals got splintered between the religious litmus test folks and the pragmatists.”
The Trump phenomenon has some leading evangelicals looking more closely at their label. Russell Moore, a Southern Baptist leader, wrote last month that he is so disgusted with being lumped in with Trump supporters that “at least until this crazy campaign year is over, I choose just to say that I’m a gospel Christian” instead of an evangelical.
Some pollsters say “evangelicals” have been way over-counted – or seen as a huge block — because the definition is so hazy. As a result, they say, practicing Christians who reflect traditional evangelical beliefs like the necessity of a born-again experience and a requirement to evangelize are being lumped in with people who are more nominally connected to Christian practice.
David Kinnaman, president of the Christian research firm Barna, said he believes loose definitions of “evangelical” have ballooned the group’s size from a more accurate seven to 11 percent of the U.S. population to roughly a quarter. Author of a new book about how conservative Christians feel sidelined, Kinnaman said he has talked with and appeared before thousands of people in recent weeks on his book tour “and I’ve not found a single person supporting Trump. How is he a thing among evangelicals?”
Kinnaman said this election “is the most tribal election we’ve ever seen” and will redraw future evangelical lines. Institutional evangelicalism, he said, doesn’t want this because they like the political and cultural power that comes with being perceived as huge.
But, he said, “We can’t have our cake and eat it too. We want to be big, but not too big as to be associated with all that’s wrong with Christianity.”