Popular author and speaker Rachel Held Evans understands why evangelical Christians have a deep aversion to Hillary Clinton. It was in the air Evans breathed as the child of conservative Christians in Tennessee in the ’90s. She grew up to vilify Clinton, she said, because, well, that’s what evangelicals did.
“I was at a Christian apologetics conference, and every time her name would come up, everyone would boo,” says Evans, 35, who is known for provoking evangelicals on hot-button issues like science, gender and theology. “A friend of mine said, ‘Christians aren’t allowed to say “bitch,” but they make an exception for Hillary.’ She was the first woman I remember being described as a ‘feminazi.’ ”
Many Americans are surprised by evangelicals’ support for Donald Trump, who has the backing of as many as 71 percent of white evangelical Protestants in his bid for the presidency, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll.
New to the political scene, Trump offers white evangelicals at least the possibility that, if elected, he will stand up for their values. But stronger for many of these voters than their preference for Trump is their deep and abiding dislike for his opponent.
According to the latest Post-ABC poll, 70 percent of white evangelicals hold an unfavorable view of Clinton, compared with 55 percent of the public overall who say the same thing. Among respondents, 72 percent of evangelicals say she’s not honest and trustworthy.
This has been puzzling to some observers, especially after Trump’s crass comments about women were revealed Friday. Trump is, after all, a thrice-married, casino-building businessman who has been widely criticized for bigoted remarks, name-calling and other behavior deemed un-Christ-like.
Clinton, on the other hand, is a churchgoing United Methodist who has long ties to leaders in the evangelical community. She taught Sunday school and, as a senator, attended weekly prayer breakfasts.
But white evangelicals’ anger toward Clinton, while at a fever pitch now, has been building for decades.
She symbolizes much that runs against their beliefs: abortion rights advocacy, feminism and, conversely, a rejection of biblical ideas of femininity and womanhood. Perhaps even more significantly, Hillary Clinton, as an outspoken and activist first lady, is inextricably tied in the minds of conservative Christians to their loss of the culture war battles beginning with Bill Clinton’s first term in 1993.
Michael Cromartie, director of a program on evangelicals and civic life at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said that whenever he hears justification of Trump support, it is almost always couched as a way to keep Hillary Clinton from the presidency. Three-quarters of evangelicals cited dislike for Clinton as a major reason they support Trump, according to a recent Pew Research poll.
A long history of disgust
When probed in 1992 during her husband’s presidential run about the relationship between her husband’s job as governor of Arkansas and her own career as a lawyer, Clinton gave an answer that for many evangelicals lives in infamy.
“I suppose I could have stayed home, baked cookies and had teas,” Clinton fired back to reporters. Many evangelicals, who even now believe that women should be stay-at-home mothers, were aghast.
“Her sneering comment sent a not-too-subtle message out that ‘I am woman, watch me roar,’ ” Cromartie said.
The furor over that comment marked the beginning of decades of evangelical furor over Clinton, evidenced in scathing comments by evangelical leaders.
At a 2004 Republican convention, a Family Research Council spokesman passed out fortune cookies reading: “#1 reason to ban human cloning: Hillary Clinton.” At a 2006 Values Voter Summit, Jerry Falwell Sr. hoped aloud for a Clinton candidacy, “because nothing would energize my [constituency] like Hillary Clinton. If Lucifer ran, he wouldn’t.”
By 2008, the negative rhetoric had reached such a peak that evangelical flagship magazine Christianity Today wrote an editorial condemning it.
“From all sides of the political spectrum, evangelicals respond with a surprising amount of disgust upon hearing Hillary’s name,” the editorial stated.
The abortion factor
Many evangelicals believe that abortion remains a nonnegotiable policy issue and that electing a president who will choose Supreme Court justices willing to overturn Roe v. Wade is overridingly important.
“I think evangelicals would vote for a ham sandwich if it was promising the right Supreme Court appointments,” Evans said.
To these evangelicals, Hillary Clinton presents a severe obstacle.
A recent cover photo on the evangelical magazine World pictures a grim reaper sporting a “I’m With Her” button, with the “H” from the Clinton campaign logo. The piece focuses on the Hyde Amendment, which bars most taxpayer funds for abortion. The decades-old amendment has previously seen support from both parties, but this year’s Democratic Party platform vowed to repeal it.
To evangelicals, Hillary has become so tightly linked to the cause of abortion rights that it is as if she “is personally responsible for babies being aborted. It’s like it’s her own personal responsibility,” said Deborah Fikes, who stepped down from the board of the National Association of Evangelicals ahead of her endorsement of Clinton this summer.
Since that endorsement, Fikes said she has received messages condemning her support for Clinton.
“I was told I was supporting a daughter of Satan and that I had the blood of 60 million babies on my hands,” Fikes said.
The gender factor
But some evangelical women believe that Clinton has been held to a double standard. They note that some of the same leaders who called for Bill Clinton’s resignation over character issues have praised Trump.
“A lot of evangelicals have turned [a blind] eye to Donald Trump’s affairs and his bragging about his sexual conquests,” said Katelyn Beaty, former managing editor of Christianity Today. “Hillary is still associated with her husband’s affairs and held in contempt for her husband’s behavior, even though you would think a woman staying with her husband would be praised.”
Hillary Clinton has symbolized a larger cultural rejection of traditional womanhood, said Kristin Du Mez, a Calvin College historian working on a book on Clinton’s religious background.
“She’s not submissive, she’s not sexy, she’s not properly maternal,” Du Mez said. “Even without saying anything, she’s a symbol of many of the things evangelicals have come to stand against.”
But not everyone believes that evangelicals’ dislike of Clinton stems from her being a woman. Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor at Liberty University, recalled that as a reporter for a Christian publication ahead of his 1992 election, “it felt like a watershed moment of liberal politics taking over.”
“Hillary Clinton represents more than one liberal politician,” Prior said. “It was the Clinton legacy and the place that it had in the culture wars.”
On the fourth day of his presidency, Bill Clinton signed a series of executive orders undoing many policies of the Reagan-Bush era on abortion, contraception and family planning. As first lady, Hillary Clinton pushed for the move as “an opportunity to declare boldly that the Clinton era had begun,” according to Carl Bernstein’s biography “A Woman in Charge.” Her later leadership of health care reform was viewed as an extenuation of the feminism and liberalism evangelicals’ disliked in her.
Perception of her only worsened during her husband’s scandals. “She was viewed as an enabler,” she said.
Long evangelical ties
Evangelicals are deeply concerned in this campaign season about the extent to which the two candidates’ views of the nation’s changing cultural align with their own. Using this lens, many believe Clinton and the Democratic Party will allow LGBT rights to trump religious freedom.
Clinton’s quiet, private Methodist faith also goes against evangelicalism form, which is more public, Prior said. On the other hand, she said, Trump’s language is laced with the some of the key tropes of modern American evangelicalism: reinvention, entrepreneurialism and individualism.
“Even if what he’s saying doesn’t coincide with evangelical belief, his style feels more familiar,” Prior said.
Yet it is Hillary Clinton who has had a long-standing relationship with evangelical leaders over the decades, including social activist Tony Campolo and megachurch leaders Bill and Lynne Hybels and Rick and Kay Warren.
Clinton attended one of famed preacher Billy Graham’s evangelistic crusades in 1971 at the invitation of her then-boyfriend, Bill Clinton, and Graham served in a pastoral role to the Clintons during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Graham admired Hillary Clinton, according to “The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House,” by Nancy Gibbs. The author noted that while he was introducing the Clintons during one of his crusades, Graham said of Bill Clinton, that “when he left the presidency, he should become an evangelist, because he had all the gifts.”
Graham paused, and added with a smile, “And he could [let] his wife run the country.” Graham’s son Franklin later sought to clarify that his comment was intended to as a joke.
Despite her previous ties, though, Clinton has not done much formal outreach to evangelicals the way that President Obama did during his candidacy. Instead, Democrats have decided to focus on turning out the party’s base, said Michael Wear, who did religious outreach for Obama’s campaign.
“You could make an argument,” Wear said, “that it wouldn’t be a wise use of resources to do evangelical outreach.” But, Wear notes, evangelicals make up nearly a quarter of the country.
Wear said that during his race against Clinton, Obama benefited from evangelical dislike of her, and he doesn’t see that necessarily changing.
“It’s a pretty complicated psychologically,” Wear said, “to have opposed Hillary for 20 years to then make some kind of switch because of her opponent.”