Why Many Evangelicals Support Donald Trump

Why Many Evangelicals Support Donald Trump

The results we have seen this primary season may be precisely because of and not in spite of what is going on in our churches each week.
Scott Waller
By

With his presidential hopes on the line, Ted Cruz and his allies called again on a key constituency within Indiana’s GOP electorate: evangelicals. They were ironically the very same constituency that had frustrated his campaign in the Southern primaries. Despite the joint attempts of Cruz’s evangelist father, Glenn Beck’s call for a time of prayer and fasting, and the support of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Cruz’s efforts fell well short of winning the Hoosier state.

As in many other primaries in the months prior, Hoosier evangelicals as a whole preferred Donald Trump over Cruz. Indiana evangelicals—who represented 60 percent of the GOP electorate—gave more than 50 percent of their votes to Trump, which helped him win all the state’s 57 delegate votes. By the end of the night, Cruz had bowed out of the race, with Kasich following the next day, leaving the path to the GOP nomination secured for Trump.

Thus, Indiana became yet another example of a state in which this key GOP constituency failed to rally in sufficient numbers to Cruz, one who more clearly identified with and spoke the language of religious conservatives. This past fall the Cruz campaign projected large numbers of the religious faithful turning out to the polls to support one of their own. Yet this did not manifest itself during the key Southern primaries, allowing Trump to rack up early electoral victories.

The Effects of Privatizing Faith

As early as February, robust support for Trump among the religious faithful bewildered many evangelical elites. For example, Max Lucado, an evangelical author and pastor, maintained Trump could not even pass the “decency standard” that Lucado applied to his daughters’ male suitors. Given Trump’s failure of even this minimal hurdle, Lucado wondered how so many of his evangelical brethren could support Trump for the highest office in the land. Interestingly, as NPR reported on Lucado’s bafflement, they described him as one “who almost never writes about politics.”

As an evangelical community, few of its leaders speak about the public importance of faith and the implications of that faith in the public square.

Herein, perhaps, lies the reason why so many evangelicals have tossed their electoral hats in with Trump: as an evangelical community, few of its leaders speak about the public importance of faith and the implications of that faith in the public square. Perhaps even fewer demonstrate through their teaching what it would look like for an evangelical to live an integrated, holistic life in which theology speaks to the matters of public import beyond the private sphere of an individual’s life.

If, as Aristotle argued, politics is an inherently moral venture, then those within the evangelical community certainly have a voice in offering insights into what a just and moral state should look like and what kinds of policies a just political order must pursue. We have to ask ourselves when was the last time we were offered such teaching from our pulpits. If the answer to that question is never or rarely, then what believers are not-so-implicitly being fed is that the Christian faith cannot speak to areas of public import. As a result, evangelical voting behavior in these electoral contests may well reflect this privatization of faith.

Exit polling data indicates that support for Trump among evangelicals is lowest with those who are most educated and express highest levels of religiosity. Thus, it is not surprising that those like Lucado would be less likely to support Trump’s candidacy. Yet why are so many who fill pews lining up behind Trump? Perhaps the fruits of this electoral conundrum are the results of seeds evangelicalism has sown for decades.

Evangelical voting behavior in these electoral contests may well reflect this privatization of faith.

If from our pulpits people rarely, if ever, hear a sermon demonstrating that the Christian faith has pertinence beyond the confines of the church walls and the private spheres of our individual lives, are we not sowing into our congregants the idea of a public-private dichotomy? Believers have mistakenly been told that while faith has much to say about an individual’s relationship with God, it does not have anything to say about the public sphere.

If the realm of politics is seen as part of this public sphere, then is it any surprise that doctrine would be seen increasingly as tangential as we make decisions about whom to elect in this realm? At the very least, should we not be encouraged to reflect upon biblical principles regarding character and leadership as we assess candidates for public office?

External and Internal Pressures to Divide Faith and Politics

There is no question that evangelicals in this country feel the increasingly secular culture that now defines the United States. Evangelicals encounter both centrifugal (i.e. forces from within, pulling us apart) and centripetal (forces pushing against, from the outside) pressures. Both are calling the religious faithful to abandon faith’s centrality in their lives.

Increasingly we see voices within evangelicalism stressing diversity that often negates central tenets of the faith, which previously bound us as a community and directed every aspect of our lives.

Increasingly we see voices within evangelicalism stressing diversity that often negates central tenets of the faith, which previously bound us as a community and directed every aspect of our lives. In such a setting, it is not surprising that many see their faith as less and less a guiding factor directing their opinions about public things such as politics.

Likewise, the cultural centripetal forces of increasing secularism exert external pressure upon evangelicals by threatening religious freedom, seeking to change the core of traditional American and family values, and challenging the traditional family structure itself. All of these external pressures, no doubt, drive many into the seemingly safer confines of the private spheres of life, leaving public affairs to others.

In fact, it’s perhaps because of these pressures that evangelicals have decided they would rather have someone like (a more secular-minded) Trump fighting for them instead of (a more sectarian-minded) Cruz. Who better to fight in a putatively secular public domain? Ironically, if a battle has to occur within a secular arena over the parameters of religious freedom, then who better to entrust one’s destiny to than someone willing to engage that world in a secular manner in order to protect the faithful?

Perhaps this support for Trump is not so surprising after all. The results we have seen this primary season may be precisely because of and not in spite of what is going on in our churches each week. We are most likely observing the product of bifurcated lives driven by an erroneous secular-sacred dichotomy that evangelicals have imbibed for years.

Now we need a call for a holistic, integrated teaching of the Christian worldview that informs public life. Not that pastors should myopically preach political sermon after political sermon, but they should make a clearer and concerted effort to demonstrate that the Christian faith has more far-reaching implications than for only the private sphere of life. This integrative effort can influence the public square and offer lasting impact, even beyond the world of politics.

Scott Waller is an associate professor of political science at Biola University in La Mirada, California. His research interests are in the area of religion and politics.

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