Donald Trump’s race to the White House defied every prediction and expectation. From his controversial speech announcing his candidacy, to the large crowds filling stadiums, through scandalous comments of one variety or another, down to last night’s election returns, Mr. Trump repeatedly did what everyone said he couldn’t or shouldn’t do. His campaign energized sections of the country who were either fed up with or checked out of the usual political cycle. Along the way, Mr. Trump defeated two political dynasties—the Bush and Clinton families—and broke nearly every “rule” on presidential elections. As a result, Mr. Trump will become our 45th President in about three months.
The next several days will certainly be filled with punditry, analysis, and reflection. All kinds of viewpoints will fill our airwaves, some celebratory and some dismayed. We’ll learn more about campaign strategies, demographic trends, and exit polls. An overarching story will take shape, and perhaps a new conventional wisdom will develop.
But as a Christian and leader of some sort, I’m most interested in what took place with evangelicals during this election. Exit polls tell us that white evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Trump, coming in at 81 percent. For historical perspective, that surpasses the 78 percent of evangelicals who voted for fellow evangelical candidate George W. Bush in 2004.
Pulling the lever at 8 out of 10 times for Trump, however, should not be confused with unqualified, widespread support. Many “held their noses” as they did so, if we are to believe the “unfavorable” numbers for Mr. Trump. Many simply believed Trump was “less bad” than Mrs. Clinton. Still others, keeping an eye on Supreme Court nominations, sided with Mr. Trump with the hopes of a more conservative court and possibly putting a dent in Roe v. Wade. It’s been said all along that “evangelical” is difficult to define.
But that’s what makes the turnout in favor of Mr. Trump so interesting to me. If there is one way to define evangelical, it’s by voting behavior, the very metric that journalists and sociologists have been using for years. I know many who would prefer a theological definition and find the journalistic approach troublesome. But with 80 percent of professing evangelicals selecting the GOP nominee, we can no longer act as if all the journalists misunderstand the movement. In the polling booth, “evangelical” does amount to very nearly one thing, or at least one voting behavior.
Now, it should also be said that there were a number of #NeverTrump evangelicals. Twenty percent did not vote for him. But what’s fairly clear by that percentage is those white evangelicals are the minority in this election and quite possibly in the movement itself. All election I heard #NeverTrump evangelicals saying they didn’t know of any evangelicals who were voting for Trump. As it turns out, they did. Eight out of ten persons in their churches, small groups, and conference gatherings voted for Trump, even if they said they weren’t. Either their friends were swayed at the last minute or downright dishonest. But in either case, the number of evangelicals who put gospel and character before politics and party are small.
I’m pondering this today. Admittedly, my thoughts are not very developed, and in a week or two I may have learned more and changed positions. But at this point, I think the evangelical turnout for Mr. Trump signals several fatal weaknesses in the movement.
First, the movement has surrendered any claims to the moral high ground in electoral politics. Even though many evangelicals chose Trump while having significant reservations about his character, they nevertheless chose Trump. They did not choose character. To be clear, Mrs. Clinton was not an objectively better moral option. But not voting, voting third party, or writing in, as many said they would, were also options. The lion’s share of evangelicals put character concerns aside and pulled the lever for a man whose character is every bit as “flawed” as President Clinton’s, whose impeachment evangelicals supported. For that choice, as many have already observed, the moral high ground is lost.
Second, the movement has abandoned public solidarity with groups who considered Mr. Trump an existential threat to them. I’m speaking here of the many groups who expressed reservation regarding Mr. Trump’s racism, religious bigotry, misogyny, isolationism, and nativism. People with those concerns came from a lot of groups in the country, including African-American Christians, many themselves evangelicals. At 80 percent, white evangelicalism en masse sided with Mr. Trump over and against the concerns of fellow evangelicals weary of his alienating and divisive rhetoric and campaign promises. Based on correspondence during the campaign and following the election, it seems clear to me that that voting decision will likely put a deep chill on efforts at reconciliation and co-belligerence in the culture. For many, evangelicals expressed solidarity (again) with some of the worst aspects of American history and culture while abandoning brothers and sisters of like precious faith. Coming back from that may be difficult.
Third, the movement failed to escape its partisan bias in favor of more principled and biblical stands. A good number of evangelicals took #NeverTrump positions because they did not recognize Mr. Trump as a bona fide conservative. They felt conservative principles had been abandoned by party leadership. They felt a charlatan had hijacked their political home. But not enough of them sought out a new home, one of their own making based on more sure biblical grounds. Instead, some evangelicals offered “biblical” justification for voting Trump and minimized his character flaws. Others endorsed and vigorously campaigned for him. With last night’s election result, the GOP stranglehold on evangelical conscience and voting may have tightened to unbreakable strength. It may be we’ve reached the point that the only thing that would move evangelicals in more constructive directions would be outright persecution from the GOP itself. Short of that, it’s difficult to imagine evangelicals going elsewhere. This, for me, is all the more discouraging because I’ve long endured evangelicals questioning African-American allegiance to the Democratic Party. “Why do nearly all African Americans vote for Democrats?” they ask. “Isn’t it better if African Americans refuse allegiance to that party?” I resonate with the sentiment; but I wonder if it’s not born in some sense of hypocrisy. If the movement doesn’t escape its partisan pull, its usefulness will be seriously compromised.
Finally, the movement has made its evangelistic mission more difficult with many it wants to reach. A good number of people outside the faith look at the exit polls aghast and angry. Aghast because they themselves cannot imagine supporting a candidate with the personal moral flaws of Mr. Trump. Angry because they’ve watched evangelicals moralize in public for a long time, often shaming people for their sins and moral weaknesses. The vote for Trump creates or amplifies a credibility problem for evangelicals. Why should the unrepentant listen to their gospel when it seems so evident they’ve not applied that gospel to their political choices? “Shouldn’t we view evangelicals as basically concerned with politics over all things?” they ask. Convincing answers will be difficult to find. For many, Christ and the gospel are now bound up—rightly or wrongly—with evangelicals choosing a man with little resemblance to either.
And all of this was wrought by the bulk of evangelicalism itself. No one forced this on the movement. An 81 percent return will not allow us to discard these voters as “not truly evangelical.” At the moment, that’s exactly who evangelicalism is.
This is why I tweeted, to the confusion or chagrin of a few, “Congratulations white evangelicalism on your candidate’s win. I don’t understand you and I think you just sealed some awful fate.” A few took offense. But a couple hundred retweeted it without comment. Not all retweets are endorsements. And perhaps those retweets came from the 20 percent who did not support Trump. But in either case, I’m not alone in seeing serious problems with evangelicalism’s witness at the moment. I fear the fate of the movement may have been in some measure sealed with this vote.