Unbecoming but Unsurprising: What Evangelical Support of Trump Tells Us about Evangelicals

I suggested earlier that, on the surface, Trump doesn’t seem to be a fit for evangelical voters. That assumes, though, that evangelical means his faith informs his politics.

The reality is, though, that evangelicals[1] today very often do not live out a faith-informed politics. Or, to say it differently, they are people who espouse a particular political vision—one in which they have taken dominion—and use theology to justify it, no matter the harm done to their own evangelical brand or history.

In this understanding of evangelical Christianity, Trump isn’t the unlikely candidate of white evangelicals. He’s the absolute clearest expression of their theology imaginable: a person whose words mean nothing, who can perpetually wipe his own slate clean in order to justify pursuing his own desires.  The pastor who led his “born again” experience, Paula White, who just entered her third marriage, isn’t the only person of questionable character on Trump’s advisory board; it also includes Ralph Reed, who was implicated in the Jack Abramoff scandal and who has no computation at all about doing business with people who are hostile to traditional evangelical concerns if it profits him politically.[2] But, hey—Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven! (Over and over and over…) In fact, it turns out that this wasn’t Trump’s first attempt at religious renewal. He just can’t seem to make it matter.

White evangelical Christianity, as it is widely practiced today as a faith, means virtually nothing in terms of religion for wide swathes of its followers; all of its meaning is in terms of a cultural identity and political power—and, with rare exceptions, that power is invoked to advance and maintain systems that harm the most vulnerable, particularly in its unwavering support of capitalism and its veneration of wealth. Evangelicals are indistinguishable from their larger culture, not in their piety (They pray more often, read Scripture more often, and attend services more often than most other people.), but in their desire for power in the public sphere. Their support for Trump (when it is not merely opposition to Clinton), a man who proudly calls himself “greedy,” suggests that they may actually be worse than the culture they are supposed to be “in but not of.”

For decades, evangelical theology has been absorbing the messages of the prosperity gospel (which says that God blesses his chosen people with material goods—and, conversely, those who are poor are at fault because of their lack of faith) and dominionism, which declares that Christians are to take control of “seven mountains” of public life, including government. They are to “occupy” the role of world leaders until Jesus’ return. What they have come to believe is that they deserve to be in charge, to have money and power. Sure, this is at odds with all kinds of historic thinking in Christianity. Sure, it is at odds with the most common-sense reading of the Christian scriptures, which uphold as models not the rich or powerful but the poor, rejected, and suffering, exemplified in Jesus’ humility “to the point of death.” No, it doesn’t align with the thinking that Paul outlines in Philippians when he encourages persecuted Christians to look for their “citizenship in heaven” rather than on earth. And, yes, it looks suspiciously like Christianity’s conversion to Constantinianism, when early Christians gave up their role as outsiders to power in order to be part of Constantine’s army and to dominate the Western world.

This doing is not Trump’s; Christians have been making this trade for almost 2000 years, and American evangelicals have been doing it in the US context since at least since Jerry Falwell recanted his claim that “Preachers are not called to be politicians, but soul winners” and became a leader of the Religious Right from the 1980s to his death. Evangelicals voted for Reagan—a divorced former movie star who rarely attended church and eschewed much of their agenda—because they wanted power. Their support for Trump, even if it is uneasy, is unbecoming but not surprising. If anything, it helpfully illuminates just how far evangelicals have gone in their effort to gain power. Given his long list of sins for which he has not repented, it is hard to imagine what Trump could do to lose the evangelical vote? Kill their savior, maybe?

For my many evangelical friends (if you can still call me “friend” after this) who are seeking a different way, here is my suggestion:

Withhold your vote from the Republican Party. If you want to be powerful, send the message to the Republican Party that you cannot vote for Trump, for someone who treats your faith with such disregard. Send the message to the evangelical leaders who have endorsed him that you aren’t going to trade a meaningful faith for political power. Force the Republicans to give you a candidate you can support. Tell them so by voting Hillary Clinton, a third party candidate, or a write in candidate. If that means that Hillary Clinton wins the election, America will survive—and you will be heard during the 2016 primary. Evangelical voters may never again have such an opportunity to make it known to both major political parties that they cannot be bamboozled. Your vote isn’t wasted if you don’t vote for Trump, but your faith will be diminished if you do.

[1] I know that there are lots of people who identify as evangelical who do not feel or act this way. I know, too, that there are many Christians who would like to call themselves “evangelical” but can’t because that word has come to be associated with the brand of politically conservative politics justified by religion I’m discussing here. If you are either kind of evangelical—the kind that doesn’t use the term but would like to or the kind that does and is unhappy with how the GOP exploits it, I’m sorry for your loss. Really and truly. It’s discouraging to have your religious faith given a bad name because of the politically cruel and exploitative work of a few. Just ask the victims of the more than 180 hate crimes targeting Muslims that have occurred since the start of the primary season. Of course, you can’t ask the 12 of them who were murdered because of their faith.

[2] That said, at least one member, Richard Land, has been quite critical of Trump as a leader but accepted the position as it provides him with an opportunity to forward the concerns of evangelicals: Supreme Court nominations, “the sanctity of life” (i.e., abortion) and “religious liberty” (generally invoked in the fight against LGBTQ rights

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