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Has Trump Charmed White Evangelicals?

Acknowledging the cracks and chasms in the voting bloc

Published on:
May 10, 2017
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9 min.
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Six months have passed. Six months of continued division, with one half of the country voicing, “Let’s just get on with it and support our president.” And the other half declaring, “We will continue to oppose.”

Even among one group that sweepingly supported a Trump presidency, there still exists a wall of division.

I’m talking about the eighty-one percent of white evangelicals who cast their lot with Donald J. Trump.

Those unfamiliar with this voting bloc might have readily accepted the initial exit polls and the various explanations. (And, oh, there were so many of them.) Yet among those who identify as white and as evangelical, some don’t personally know a soul who did vote for Trump. How does that work?[1]

If we are to grapple with the complexities of our calling as Christians in a volatile political culture, the conversation must continue.

That’s why I was intrigued when one group composed largely of white evangelicals—the Evangelical Press Association—gathered in April for a panel discussion of “The Trump Administration: How Should the Church Respond?”

Now, I’ve served on the board of the EPA and wholeheartedly support its mission and its desire to be multicultural. But the truth is that, a diverse plenary lineup notwithstanding, true integration has been slow. We are indeed white evangelicals.

So, I was curious to learn: In this gathering, where would allegiances lie? 

The EPA’s goal for the planned-for panel had been to find voices that could present opposing views—after all, we’re nothing if not earnest journalists. Yet EPA leaders admitted the difficulty in finding evangelical thought leaders who were pro-Trump. So, in the end, neither the moderator nor any of the three panelists represented the eighty-one percent. Instead, they openly admitted to being “mystified” by how others in their camp voted.

The first thing that struck me was each individual’s thoughtful engagement on the issues. While none stood behind Trump with their vote, it was clear that the decision of whom they would vote for had not come easily.

At the same time, I was struck by this realization: While these evangelical leaders were on the same page in not voting for Trump, they had some deep, foundational disagreements with each other, such as whether there’s moral clarity regarding the Syrian refugee crisis, and whether the government or the church carries the greater biblical burden to care for the poor. 

The panel discussion made one thing clear: If we are to grapple with the complexities of our calling as Christians in a volatile political culture, the conversation must continue. 

So, that led me, too, to explore: What were others at the EPA convention thinking about the Trump Administration?

Best choice, or best among some bad choices? 

They might not have participated on the panel, but plenty of Trump voters attended the EPA conference. 

For some of these voters, their final choice had been made reluctantly—what they termed the better of two poor options. But others weren’t reluctant at all. 

“Does he say stupid things? Absolutely,” said one woman who wished to remain anonymous.[2] “Sometimes I wish he would get off Twitter. But I didn’t vote for the personality; I voted for the policies. I will take a flawed man who has policies that touch the core of my biblical beliefs.”

In contrast, she cited Clinton’s cover-up of Benghazi as unconscionable. “That was a character flaw and a policy flaw. That I cannot forgive.”

“For us to have a strong military to defend our country—that is biblical. Someone who wants to put people back to work—that is biblical. Charity should be done out of churches rather than the government—to me that is biblical. For the government to give back to the states the option to fund Planned Parenthood—that is going to save a lot of unborn babies’ lives.

“There were so many reasons I voted for Trump.”

Across all three groups of voters, there was a common thread of reluctance to “show their hand.”

Other Trump supporters spoke just as strongly about how they simply could not downplay the issue of abortion: Clinton’s strong stance in favor, and Mike Pence’s strong stance against.

EPA member Dwight Widaman voiced bewilderment that some five months after the election, there was still hand-wringing and introspection among “the intelligentsia,” who are “trying to explain away the results.” Perhaps there’s a beltway around many evangelical leaders, he voiced—much as how those within the Washington Beltway are often out of touch with the rest of the country.

“Is he the best of bad options? Not to me. I realized we weren’t electing a pastor. Many times I winced at things he said, but what appealed is that he said it like he saw it.”

Widaman didn’t lay all the country’s problems solely at the feet of either the Democrats or the Republicans. He pointed out that financial meltdowns, continued involvement in Middle East wars and rising healthcare costs have all occurred “on the watch of established candidates.”

Forsaking the Conservative Party Line

While there may not have been as many Clinton supporters in the EPA crowd, they were present.

The Religious Too-far Right

by Katelyn Beaty

Katelyn Beaty editor-at-large for Christianity Today, candidly voiced her thoughts as one of the panelists, and then spoke with me more at length. “I was obviously troubled by Clinton’s comments about abortion,” she said. “I think she’s wrong. And it was disturbing to hear that her administration might do away with the Hyde Amendment. I’m also concerned with her record on religious liberty.

“All that said, in terms of a political leader with experience, who understands foreign policy, who has a long track record in the state government . . . ” Katelyn paused.

“She was a flawed candidate. But, to me, it was a prudential judgment based on the clear flaws of her opponent rather than being wholeheartedly excited about her campaign.”

Both Clinton voters I spoke with were under thirty-five, which fit the overall polling demographics. Although her voting for Clinton was relatively easy for her, Rachel Asproth watched many around her wrestle with their decision. “I saw people living in the tension a lot more than I expected.” 

She mentioned her parents, lifelong Republicans and passionate pro-lifers, who nonetheless voted third party for the first time. “They decided that their values about women and the marginalized were major considerations in how they voted, in addition to their pro-life ethic and preference for small government. 

“Ultimately, they decided that the latter things couldn’t be prioritized over how Trump marginalized various groups of people. Those are not secondary issues; they’re primary issues.

“In the Western church, we’ve forgotten the communal call of the Christian life—a call to better and right relationships with each other where we really do consider the plight of others as not only as important as our own but more important than our own.”

None of the Above 

And of course, in the EPA crowd, a number of people simply couldn’t choose one of the major-party candidates. Like Rachel’s parents, they voted third-party, or like EPA members Anne Marie and Mark Winz, they wrote-in their own candidates. 

“There wasn’t a candidate either of us could vote for and feel confident we could back,” Anne Marie said.

Another panelist, Julie Roys—a writer and host on the Moody Radio Network—admitted that she faced pushback for her vote from those who follow her blog and Facebook page. “They felt I should plug my nose and tout the party line,” she explained.

“But my job is to speak the truth as I see it. And if that aligns with a certain political party, then fine. But if it doesn’t, my allegiance is to the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Everyone prioritized their issues . . . and came to different conclusions.

“For me to support someone with whom I had such fundamental reservations and whom I felt was morally unfit for the office, would have been wrong. So I voted third party. In some ways that was easy, because I’m in Illinois. And there was no way I was going to vote for Hillary Clinton. If you have a moral problem with Donald Trump and you don’t have a moral problem with Hillary Clinton, then I have no idea what your system of evaluation is.”

An Unwelcome But Unavoidable Division

Across all three groups of voters, there was a common thread of reluctance to “show their hand.” For some, it was simply to avoid losing friendships. For others, it was a keen awareness that they would be judged for their vote.

Widaman spoke of an atmosphere in the evangelical community “in which it is encouraged to silence pro-Trump views with much of the same tactics that the left uses against evangelicals in general. It is quite alarming.” 

Mark Winz admitted how carefully he had considered any political conversation as the election drew closer, “because it felt like a no-win situation: There’s no way this conversation can end with either of us happy.”

And Beaty, outspoken in her criticism of Donald Trump, revealed that she, too, had felt the censure from her evangelical tribe.

When asked if she would tell me how she voted, she carefully responded: “I’m more than aware that I am in a minority in terms of white evangelical leaders in the EPA world who voted for Hillary Clinton. I actually haven’t gone on record in voting for her, but now’s the time to do so.”

The lines were never clearly drawn for white evangelicals as one giant voting block. This was especially clear when each of those I spoke with based his or her choice on personal biblical convictions.

“I usually vote my moral vote,” said EPA member Dan Stelzer, “and I always associated a moral vote with a pro-life stance. I’m starting to realize that other people vote a moral vote, too, but they’ve put other things at a higher moral standard: like care for the poor or for refugees. 

“That’s still a moral vote—and personally I don’t think it’s the highest moral vote—but we each think we have the moral high ground.”

Everyone prioritized their issues . . . and came to different conclusions. 

“To be honest, I’ve had to work through feelings of disillusionment and discouragement toward fellow believers,” Beaty admitted. “Yet our current political divides and debates are far surpassed by what we share in common with Christ in light of the eternity we are all looking forward to, when we’ll all be reconciled to each other. 

“There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to be reconciled to evangelicals who proudly threw their lot in with Trump—in part because my opposition to Trump has been animated by my faith and what I believe about the gospel and about Christian engagement with current world realities. 

“So we are actually working from two different perspectives of the gospel, and how do we get on the same page?”

A Future We Can Agree On

Why are there such differing perspectives on what the Bible says about how we live and vote? How do we get on the same page?

Beaty had more to say, specifically calling for a doubling down on what she called “whole-gospel discipleship” for those who identify as evangelical but have little biblical depth and don’t grasp the social and public implications of the gospel they proclaim. 

Roys similarly called for churches to invest in worldview training for even their faithful, to discipline the mind (Romans 12:1–2). In her opinion, too many Christians are merely “cherry-picking” their favorite verses to support their views on the poor, on healthcare, on immigration—on any number of issues. “But Christianity isn’t just religion; it’s a comprehensive worldview that applies to every aspect of life.

“We don’t have these discussions in church because pastors won’t talk about politics,” she continued. “There’s this idea, We’re all about the gospel, as if the gospel has nothing to do with these issues. And that [mindset] has permeated the Church.” 

In addition to the calling for more extensive discipleship and worldview training, three other prophetic challenges stood out to me.

Perhaps, if we can’t align under a candidate, we can align under a commitment to being the church.

Those Christians who disagree with the current administration don’t have the luxury of apathy. This was the exhortation of the only African-American plenary speaker at the convention, Charlie Dates, senior pastor of Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago. He challenged evangelicals to speak truth as needed, but with the aim of tranquility, not anarchy. 

Political leaders and political choices aren’t going to solve the world’s problems, so the church has to be the church. We need to be serving the people next door, meeting the needs of our community, Widaman said. “The Bible doesn’t say, ‘True government is this: the care of orphans and widows in their distress.’ It says “true religion is this.”[3]

“One reason the early church grew in that first century was that the Romans saw Christians—at much risk to their life, property and loss of their Roman citizenship—taking baby girls out of the trash heaps around Rome. The early church started the first nursing homes and hospitals.

“We need to return to that focus on community involvement. Cause that’s where we’re really going to change policies.”

And we need to build bridges and listen. More than one EPA member voiced this. “It’s easy to dismiss people who ended up with a position that’s far from what you believe is justifiable,” Asproth added. “To cast a fuller and more redemptive vision for reconciliation, we need to understand at least the motivation that’s driving people to vote this way or that way. What bridges can we build over these rifts? What clarity of belief do we share and how can we get back to that?”

The white evangelical church might have voted in one loud voice for Donald J. Trump, but there’s clearly dissension in the house. Perhaps, if we can’t align under a candidate, we can align under a commitment to being the church—both to each other and to the onlooking world?

Diane McDougall
Diane McDougall is an editorial director at Journey Group in Charlottesville, Virginia.

[1] Some evangelicals find a partial answer in the 2016 American National Election Studies Pilot Study, which pointed out that Trump did best among those who self-describe as evangelical but actually do not attend church. So what’s up for debate is how people understand the very term evangelical.

[2] As she told me, “I didn’t want to be political during the EPA convention. As passionate as I am on Facebook about political issues, there’s more to me than that. I have seen how it destroys relationships.” Others welcomed including their name but not the publication they serve—not wanting to be viewed as speaking for their employer.

[3] See James 1:22–27.

Cover image by The White House.

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