By now, you have surely heard—there is a lot at stake in this presidential election. Some have gone so far as to suggest the winning candidate has the potential to shape the landscape of American society for generations to come. They are not necessarily wrong. Between issues related to abortion, religious liberty, race relations, sexual-gender ethics, and a vacant Supreme Court seat any number of arguments have been cast as reasonable evidence to vote for (or against) either candidate.
As with any decision, we all come to the table with a specific worldview. Mine is that of a conservative evangelical Christian. In the last three presidential elections, nearly eight in ten white evangelicals have voted for the Republican nominee, noting a consistent rejection of the Democratic platform.
An Understandable Rejection
As a conservative Christian, I understand the aggressive opposition to Hillary Clinton’s election. Since March of last year, she has responded unevenly to her email scandal reflecting an attitude of superiority to the law and lack of care for the sensitivity of her position. Repeatedly, her behavior indicates a disregard for those rules intended to create accountability among individuals in power. From a policy standpoint, she has staunchly defended abortion rights and advocated for repealing the Hyde Amendment, which currently prohibits the funneling of federal funding to abortion services.
Furthermore, she has championed a progressive vision for other notable social issues, like that of marriage equality and LGBTQ rights, placing her platform in conflict with traditionally conservative values. Add in the Supreme Court vacancy and you can begin to understand why some evangelicals fear the prospect of living under a president who appears poised to push legislation that will force a legal clash with their religious conscience. These are only a handful of reasons for why many have come to see Hillary Clinton as an untrustworthy presidential candidate.
From a practical perspective, it makes sense to consider the alternative.
An Unsuitable Opponent
I have never seen an election in which the pragmatic choice to vote for the Republican nominee made more sense, especially given the progressive campaign focus of Hillary Clinton. Historically, my demographic, most notably that of white evangelicals, has played a significant role in Republican-leaning voting.
According to more recent surveys, the numbers are far less overwhelming for this election cycle, indicating that many evangelicals do not plan on voting for the Republican nominee.
How do we explain such a shift?
Consider the candidate in question, Donald Trump. With only weeks to go until Election Day much of his platform remains at best ambiguous and at worst in process. Historically, his positions have flip-flopped according to whatever most conveniently suits his interests. Brazenly constructing a doom and gloom campaign, he has marketed himself as the savior for American concerns. At the Republican National Convention, after casting a vision of the nation in crisis, he famously said, “I alone can fix it,” positioning himself as the sole redeemer and departing from over twenty years of political tradition invoking trust in God and one another.
Of course, boasts of power come as no surprise in presidential politics, but it has taken a whole new form with Trump’s ascendance. Despite his assurances of humility, he has done little by way of action to prove it personally or politically. Instead, he has ridiculed a disabled reporter, disparaged immigrant minorities, and pledged (then rescinded) to pay the legal fees of supporters who attacked those protesting his rallies. He has dismayed intelligence professionals by denying reports about Russia that contradict his own narratives, claims ISIS will take over America if Clinton is elected, and has irresponsibly stooped to allegations of a “rigged” election as his public persona falters.
Perhaps most notable of all are the recent allegations of sexual assault that have flooded the news. On October 7, reports surfaced of a recording from 2005 in which Trump brags unapologetically about his ability to take advantage of women sexually because of his stardom. Since then, numerous women have come forward alleging various degrees of sexual assault at the hands of Trump. When asked about the tape and allegations, he chalked it up as “locker room talk” and suggested one of the women was too unattractive to be believed.
The Evangelical Misstep
Without even considering his authoritarian, nationalistic, and racist rhetoric, the regular missteps and tone-deaf responses characterizing his campaign do not bode well for his image. Rather, they paint the picture of a power hungry individual who cares for little more than his own self-interests, regardless of how adversely they affect others. Nonetheless, a number of prominent evangelical leaders have gone all in on their support of Trump.
People like Robert Jeffress, Jerry Falwell Jr., Tony Perkins, Pat Robertson, and Eric Metaxas have used their respective platforms to urge a vote for the Republican nominee, at times going so far as to suggest that a refusal to do so embodies hypocrisy and invites the judgment of God. I find myself consistently discouraged by such positions as they appear distracted from the deeper purpose of Christian political engagement—a faithful prophetic legacy.
Unfortunately, too many evangelical leaders have emphasized pragmatic wisdom at the cost of their witness through blanket support for Donald Trump. Their concerns over a Clinton presidency compose the fear-fertilized soil from which enthusiasm for her opponent has grown. So we count the cost and seek as best we can to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
Protecting Our Prophetic Witness
Earlier this year, Alan Noble, editor-in-chief at Christ and Pop Culture, wrote that support for Trump “will undermine the ability of conservative evangelicals to speak prophetically against corruption, infidelity, oppression, and deception in government later.” A vibrant prophetic legacy on the part of Christian evangelicals means showing, in both our words and our actions, that we serve a higher standard than that of political expediency. It requires consistency in our message, especially insofar as it relates to benchmarks for character and virtue.
When we dismiss non-negotiable traits in a Republican that we have previously lambasted in a Democrat, we muddle our message to the point of irrelevance. In addition, we submit our theology to the service of pragmatism. When that happens, we fail to love the Lord our God, we fail to love our neighbor as ourselves, and we fail to live as a light in the darkness (Matthew 22:37–39).
From what I can tell, the primary motives behind the evangelical defense of Trump boil down to three sticking points that carry political and theological implications.
First, this is a binary election with only two choices. Second, Trump might appoint originalist Supreme Court justices. Third, he’s not Hillary.
Though true in some respects, the first point ignores the fact that Independent Conservative Evan McMullin currently has enough support in Utah to potentially steal the state from both major party nominees. The numbers serve as a remarkable illustration of voter frustration and demonstrate that a third-party vote is not a waste. Seeking to compel voters on the basis of a presumed binary choice paralyzes deep thinking. It also risks condemning any personal commitment to principle.
To Trump’s credit, in May he released a list of candidates he would consider for the Supreme Court vacancy and overall it is a good one. Nonetheless, the narrative behind this motive is one that misleads at best. In theory, he has committed to ideals of originalism and limited government, but his actions suggest behavioral trends that oppose such commitments. For example, in June Trump called into question the judicial integrity of Judge Gonzalo Curiel after he refused to dismiss a lawsuit against Trump University. Trump claimed that his insistence on building a wall at the border created a “conflict of interest” on the part of Judge Curiel due to his “Mexican heritage.” Such a reaction does not reflect genuine concern for checks and balances or separation of powers. It actually buoys the anxiety over his potential to fundamentally undermine the vision of the GOP by molding its judicial philosophy to that of a Republican form of what they have criticized for so long among Democrats.
At this point, the numbers suggest a Hillary Clinton victory on November 8. I can sympathize with evangelical concerns over the days ahead, especially as it relates to the unborn, religious liberty, and the outlook of the judiciary. But I fail to see how Trump presents a better alternative. In many ways, he poses a greater threat to the future integrity of conservatism with his lack of policy precision, authoritarian ideology, and blatant disregard for moral principle. Scripture never separates external behavior from the purity of one’s inner life.
Communicating Our Faith
As evangelicals, what legacy will we leave behind? I believe the answer to that question lies in what we ultimately value. Last week, Andy Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today, said that Trump is “in short, the very embodiment of what the Bible calls a fool. . . . Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbors ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord.” Yet, either choice presents a cost. Hillary Clinton has committed to a platform indicating future hostility toward traditional expressions of evangelical Christianity. If she wins, it may mean the loss of certain liberties and freedoms on the part of religious communities.
Alternatively, in Donald Trump we have a candidate who offers little more than the possibility of a conservative presidency. Historically, he has given no evidence of operating according to binding values or principles, he has demonstrated a willingness to shift position for personal gain, he boasts in his faults, lacks experience, and thoroughly defies the basic tenets of Jesus Christ. Thus, when we throw our support behind such a candidate, we dissolve our prophetic voice within culture and weaken our witness with our neighbors.
Values lead to action. While I cannot comment on the inner motivations of those evangelical leaders proudly supporting Trump, I can say with confidence that their actions communicate their fears more than their faith. Our world needs a consistent prophetic legacy on the part of believers, one that proves, in both word and deed, that the teachings of Jesus Christ serve as our guiding principle—not that of political pragmatism. Sometimes that will mean humbly surrendering the need to win, even if it results in the loss of certain freedoms because we value the purity of the gospel of Jesus Christ more than liberty, peace, and personal comfort.
The question is whether or not we are willing to make that sacrifice. Our right to vote is a precious gift, one for which men and women have fought, bled, and died. We ought to take it seriously, but as Christians we cannot allow it to become idolatry. There will be a new president elected in a matter of weeks. Depending on the result, life may become a measure more difficult for believers, but we should not be surprised or afraid of that reality. It is one our Savior both promised and endured himself.
Our freedoms and liberties are blessings for which we ought to be thankful, and they are worth defending, but we must count the cost. Of far greater importance is the purity of our message. The problem facing our world is more sinister than that of governmental intrusion, and Jesus Christ is the one we want known even if that means voting for candidates who will not win and potentially losing certain freedoms by opposing a major party nominee who opposes our King.
What legacy will you leave behind? One day, the United States of America will cease to exist, but the kingdom of God will endure forever. Let’s live in every way—even in our political participation—as though we believe that to be true.
Cover image by Jan Tielens.