Evangelicals are such an enigma and so poorly understood that both the New York Times and the Daily Beast recently published articles that say opposite things about them. They are at once a boon for Republicans, because they often rally and vote in droves, and a mockery to Democrats, who view them as nothing more than an unstable crutch.
In the latest batch of documents WikiLeaks published, e-mails between Hillary Clinton spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, and Center for American Progress fellow John Halpin show Palmieri and Halpin joking about and marginalizing both evangelicals and Catholics. Although Podesta didn’t respond in the thread and the Clinton camp claims the e-mails are bogus (Palmieri is Catholic), Democrats have often looked down on people of faith, unless they’re necessary for political gain.
Here’s what is clear: While many people may vote for either candidate because of a specific strategy, those who call themselves evangelicals in the true sense of the word shouldn’t genuinely support or rally for either major-party candidate for president. So why are they lining and splitting up behind Clinton or Trump?
What Is an Evangelical, Anyway?
As I’ve mentioned in this space before, the term evangelical has become so broad and ambiguous it’s practically useless. In defining and including everyone from Baptists to Lutherans to non-denominational Christians, people who would lose their bakery rather than bake a cake for a gay couple, and a bisexual man who longs for the “end to gender binaries,” evangelical has become confusing.
The articles highlighted two genuine and dominant sects of evangelicals, with variants floating about: fundamental and progressive. The former tends to interpret the Bible literally, embrace conservative political and social beliefs, and can lean towards legalism. The latter believes the Bible can be interpreted more loosely and tends to be somewhat more liberal in their theological and political beliefs.
According to the National Association of Evangelicals, they are a “vibrant and diverse group, including believers found in many churches, denominations and nations. Our community brings together Reformed, Holiness, Anabaptist, Pentecostal, Charismatic and other traditions.”
That said, the Greek root of the word euangelion means “the good news” or the “gospel.” So technically, all evangelicals are supposed to embrace, focus on, and spread the “good news” of salvation brought to sinners by Jesus Christ. That seems pretty straightforward.
Whom Do Evangelicals Support?
Evangelicals, or “socos” (social conservatives), were crucial to both George W. Bush’s successful campaigns for president. Bush considers himself an evangelical, and they got out the vote for him. Over time, Bush did not do everything he promised, but most evangelicals still feel a camaraderie with, even a nostalgia for, him.
So what’s happened to them since then? Research shows they’ve shifted culturally. A 2014 Pew Research survey found 72 percent of adults thought religion was losing its influence in daily life and more than half thought this was a bad thing. Strangely enough, 34 percent of white evangelical Republicans said the GOP has not done a good job representing their views on abortion because the party is too liberal.
Yet this year in July, 78 percent of white evangelicals said they would vote for Donald Trump, a man who has repeatedly shifted his stance on abortion as it’s convenient. One-third “strongly” support him, and in another poll, one-third of evangelicals said they would vote for Trump just because he’s not Hillary Clinton. Many known, reputable evangelical leaders support Trump, including Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family. How can this be?
J. Falwell Jr, James Dobson, Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson — all standing behind Trump, even after the p-grab talk. Goodbye, #ReligiousRight
— Rod Dreher (@roddreher) October 10, 2016
According to an April Pew Research survey, evangelicals think belief in God is essential to being a Christian, while they considered reading the Bible, attending church services, and living a healthy lifestyle less so. I don’t know Trump’s heart—no one does—but from the outside this could describe Trump as we’ve seen him this year: professing Christianity yet bragging about grabbing women’s genitals.
True to form and adding to confusion, not all evangelicals are gung-ho for Trump. Rachel Held Evans is a popular author and speaker and although she probably wouldn’t call herself an evangelical, a look at her Twitter feed and latest book suggests many would refer to her as a progressive evangelical according to the criteria above. She’s adamantly opposed to Trump and strongly in favor of Clinton, often tweeting that Clinton’s sex is a boon.
I wish more Christians took Trump's misogyny seriously instead of brushing it off like it's no big deal. https://t.co/jlUmNeorOI
— Rachel Held Evans (@rachelheldevans) September 23, 2016
Who Should Evangelicals Support?
Pastor and best-selling author Max Lucado felt compelled to weigh in and speak against Trump, even though he rarely says anything about politics, since Trump has demonstrated so much behavior at odds with Christian morality. Trump’s views don’t align with the views of the good news of Jesus Christ, such helping “the least of these,” honoring marriage, or being an honest businessman. Neither do Clinton’s—for one, she supports third-trimester abortions.
I’m no purist. I wrote about being open to a Trump candidacy in this space, saying I’ll vote Trump over Clinton if necessary. However, as the last several weeks have unfolded in these campaigns, I don’t know how I or any evangelicals can support either candidate—at least in the traditional, genuine sense of liking, supporting, and rallying on their behalf.
I don’t mean that judgmentally. I mean I don’t see how it aligns with the spiritual beliefs evangelicals espouse. Strategic votes, like the one-third who are voting for Trump because he isn’t Clinton, or people who vote to try to avoid or promote a certain type of presidency, are other matters. But as surveys have shown, many evangelicals are excited about Trump.
What Should Evangelicals Do?
Respect for the presidential office—“rendering unto Caesar’s that which is Caesar’s”—is not the issue here. Evangelicals should not expect perfection from a presidential candidate, since our theology teaches that everyone is human and flawed. But our religion also teaches that repentance after sin is necessary for a person to be once again viewed as a respectable and whole person. If a candidate doesn’t exhibit behavior or embrace views in line with the good news of Jesus Christ in any form, even if that person isn’t a Christian, how can we proudly stick their lawn signs in our yards?
Nor does this mean evangelicals should bow out of politics. I certainly won’t. But to actively campaign for either of these candidates at this point, given what we now know about their behavior, beliefs, and policy proposals, is to reject the very essence of the good news of Jesus Christ.
Some say evangelicals aren’t the problem, the culture is. Others posit the culture isn’t the problem, evangelicals are. They are both the problem. As evangelicals have disengaged culturally or progressed to left of center, so have the politicians who represent them. As culture has declined morally and politically, evangelicals have either joined them, separated themselves quietly, or—worst of all—remained quiet, a proverbial sheep among wolves.
No matter who is elected, evangelicals make up a large enough portion of society, and should feel some obligation for it. I have a feeling the weight of desperation, indifference, and acquiescence will feel unbearably heavy come January.