Evangelicals: Trump's Most Ardent Supporters
Will evangelicals continue to support President Trump?
Then Presidential candidate Donald Trump acknowledged at the Republican National Convention that evangelicals were his greatest supporters: “At this moment,” he said, “I would like to thank the evangelical and religious communities, because I tell you what: because of the support they’ve given me (and I’m not sure I totally deserve it) has been so amazing and such a big reason for me being here tonight.” Trump went on to garner 81 percent of the evangelical vote, according to exit polls.
The relevant question is this: Will evangelicals continue to support President Trump? A look at their makeup, their relationship to politics, and why they voted so overwhelmingly for him may shed some light on the question.
Evangelicals an Inclusive Group
Evangelism is not a religious denomination, as many think. It “is a worldwide trans-denominational movement within protestant Christianity which maintains the belief that the essence of the gospel consists of the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ,” according to Wikipedia. But in 1942, evangelical denominations in the United States began connecting through the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), according to its own history (http://www.nae/about-nae/history). In April of that year, a small group of 147 met in St. Louis and drafted a tentative constitution and a statement of faith. The proposed constitution stated that the group was determined “to organize an association which shall give articulation and united voice to our faith and purpose in Christ Jesus.” At their constitutional convention in Chicago in 1943, over a thousand participants were ready “to constitute the entity,” representing “nearly 50 denominations with a potential constituency of 15 million Christians.”
During its formative years (1942-1950), the NAE opened an office in Washington, D.C. to support evangelical chaplains, to assist mission agencies, to champion the cause of religious broadcasting and to defend religious liberty. In 1945, it established regional offices in Detroit, Minneapolis, Portland, and Los Angles. But “the sizable coalition for which the founders had hoped did not emerge”; only “15 relatively small denominations, with less than 500,000 members, had signed on.” But in 1950s, it prospered, without the help of larger denominations. Its reputation in Washington was well-established. Billy Graham identified with it and became a national figure, and President Eisenhower invited evangelicals to the White House—the first time such honor had been stored on the NAE. So, by 1960, 32 denominations representing nearly 1.5 million members joined. For the next 18 years (1960-1978), however, the Association faced a time of testing. The leadership became discouraged when John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, was elected president. The civil rights struggle, the Vietnam War, and “a new counter culture further depressed the mood on the nation.” Rapid leadership changes and cultural upheavals took a great toll on the NAE, so much so that it slowed down and even lost membership. But during the next 18 years (1978-1992), leadership became stable, record growth was experienced, and national recognition increased. Between 1981 and 1990, 15 denominations joined the NAE, raising the membership to 4.5 million. In 2016, the Southern Baptist Convention, with its 15 million plus members, considered joining the NAE, but leaders argued that Southern Baptistes are already evangelical.
Without the Southern Baptist Convention as a member, the NAE in 2017 has in its membership 40 denominations, representing 45,000 churches, according to Wikipedia. NAE is indeed an inclusive group.
Evangelicals and Politics
Amy Black, professor of political science at Wheaten College, helps us to understand evangelicals and politics by “briefly tracing the roots of evangelical political activism.” Tracing those roots reveals that their “active political engagement and strong Republican partisanship is relatively new.” In the 19th century, “many evangelicals were actively engaged in the political reform movement,” but “rapid modernization and the emergence of new scientific ideas” led to theological division and, consequently, led them to retreat from the public square. Known as fundamentalists at the time, a small group of leaders came together in 1942 and began the organization of the NAE to “work together for greater social engagement.”
The 1960s witnessed a time of rapid cultural and political changes. Motivated by their religious beliefs, therefore, evangelicals began promoting their political ideas. In the 1970s, they began supporting Democrats; and, hence, in 1976 they supported Jimmy Carter and helped him to win election to the presidency. But during his presidency, they soured on him and began moving toward Republicans. By the late 1970s, “they saw the importance of abortion and its connection to central Christian teachings” and, therefore, in the 1980 presidential election “made abortion their centerpiece” and, subsequently, turned their support to Ronald Reagan. And by the end of the 1980s, the evangelical vote had become an essential part of the Republican base, according to Black. According to polls, in 2004, 78 percent of white evangelicals voted for George W. Bush; in 2008, 74 percent voted for John McCain; in 2012, 78 percent voted for Mitt Romney; and in 2016, 81 percent voted for Donald Trump, which was an all-time high.
Evangelicals and Trump
Evangelicals and Donald Trump represent two very different ways of life. And yet white evangelicals gave him the largest percentage of their vote in history. How could this be? A few suggestions here: First, white evangelicals voted for Trump in such large numbers because they were willing to put political partisanship above Christian principles. “Donald Trump is pretty weak on Christ-like virtues,” Eric Black declared in a MinnPost article. “He is greedy, arrogant, lascivious, and definitely doesn’t turn the other cheek. He’s also not a conservative, nor a Republican…except in the sense that he decided to seek the Republican nomination…” Black argued that “partisanship is a powerful element in voting,” and “when partisanship and values conflict, Republican and Democrats, in most instances, vote for the party with which they identify.” If this is true, it is understandable why white evangelicals voted so overwhelmingly for trump: they put party over morality.
Second, white evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Trump because they were concerned about political issues, according to Myriam Renaud, writer for The University of Chicago Divinity School’s Martin Marty Center for Advanced Study of Religion. Renaud’s assertion is backed up by polling data. When the Pew Research Center asked them which issues were most important in deciding for whom to vote, they listed terrorism at the top (89 percent), the economy, second (87 percent), immigration, third (78 percent), and foreign policy, fourth (78 percent). Gun policy followed at 77 percent; Supreme Court appointments, at 70 percent; health care, at 70 percent; Social Security, at 62 percent; and trade policy, at 62 percent. Education came in at 52 percent; treatment of racial/ethnic minorities, at 51 percent; environment, at 24 percent; and treatment of LGBT community, at 29 percent. It is safe to say, therefore, that white evangelicals voted for Trump—despite his immoral behavior and his lack of knowledge about government—because he represented the answer to their political concerns. Trump addressed all of these issues in their favor. Thus, it is understandable why they support him.
Third, white evangelicals voted for Trump in such large numbers because he divided and conquered the movement, leading to “the most significant shake-up of the religious right in nearly 40 years,” according to a Rolling Stone article written by Sarah Posner. “Trump became the presumptive nominee by scoffing at the religious right presidential protocol,” she said. “He divided and conquered the movement as an influencer of Republican presidencies, neutered kingmakers who wouldn’t get behind him and, once he clinched the nomination, humiliated evangelical leaders with an impossible set of choices: join the Never Trump camp, and risk losing influence with a mercurial President Trump, or be seen as jettisoning sacrosanct religious principles by caving to him.”
When Jerry Falwell, Jr., President of Liberty University, first endorsed Trump in January, the fight began. His “endorsement wreaked havoc in the evangelical world by pitting evangelical allies against each other in bitter and unusually public ways,” Stated Posner. Defending him, she later said that he and other evangelicals had seen how “personable” Trump is and how “generous” he has been to other people, claiming that that made him a Christian, according to the Rolling Stone article. And, in June, when Falwell introduced him at the 1000 evangelicals meeting in Trump Tower, he said Trump is “God’s man to lead our great nation at this critical crossroad in our history.”
James Dodson, founder of Focus on the Family, also defended him, saying Trump had accepted a “relationship with Christ,” citing Paula White, a mega church pastor in Florida, who led him to Christ. When asked about it, she said to the Christian Post that she could say “with confidence” that “Mr. Trump verbally acknowledged his faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of his sins through prayer.”
Eric Metaxas, an author and radio host, chimed in: Trump “is kind of like an uncle who says stuff that makes you cringe, but you know that when push comes to shove, he is a decent guy.”
When all was said and done, white evangelicals, including most of mainline evangelical Republicans officeholders—caved and supported him.
Fourth, white evangelicals supports Trump because their leaders convinced them that he is God’s choice for the presidency, and Trump convinced them that, as Mike Huckabee said, he is “respectful of evangelicals” and will support the evangelical agenda.
Evangelicals’ claim of divine anointing didn’t get much media attention, perhaps because leaders such as Paula White and Jim Bakker are considered suspect. But both have large platforms. Paula White used such terms as “anointed” by God and “plan” of God, and indicated that fighting against Trump is tantamount to fighting against God. “When you fight against the plan of God, you are fighting against the hand of God,” she said on the Jim Bakker Show. Jim Bakker, on another of his programs, proclaimed that to vote against Trump is a vote against God.
Trump convinced most white evangelicals that he “only” can deliver the Nation from what he called Obama’s “unconstitutional” regulations, weak foreign policy, unfair trade deals such as NAFTA and TPP, oppressive religious mandates, terrible immigration policy, Job-killing Obamacare, and the racially bias intervention of the Justice Department into police killings across the Country, during the eight years of the Obama administration. His promise, in essence, was to tear down all of what they saw as ill-informed, antireligious, and unfair policies of the Obama Administration. On the campaign trail, Trump used these words over and over.
All of these and other reasons motivated evangelicals to give now President Donald Trump 81 percent of their vote and to still defend him. But the question is, how long?
If what is said above has any relevance, they will. With that said, another question must be asked: to what degree? Again, if evangelical history and their political activism say anything, it is that they will continue to be loyal supporters, but perhaps to a lesser degree. To be sure, they are, by and large, Republicans and represent nearly 25 percent of the Republican base. If evangelicals go, so will the Republican Party.