That’s common knowledge among evangelical leaders trying to make sense of the 2016 Republican primary season.
But is it true?
Well, partly. Church-going evangelicals are less likely to support Trump and more likely to oppose him. But that’s not the whole story. Ed Stetzer points to exit polls showing that “Trump’s support declines with church attendance, but he is still the highest among church attendees.”
So now, in light of the news that many church-going evangelicals are supporting Trump, we question the definition of “evangelical” and wonder out loud about the legitimacy of these “churches” Trump supporters attend. In other words, “the church-going supporters of Trump must not be truly evangelical.”
Well, maybe. The definition of evangelical is so broad, particularly in the South, that it can simply mean “God-fearing” rather than “atheist.” So yes, there are church-going voters for Trump who don’t line up with more theological definitions of evangelical (by Barna or LifeWay and the NAE).
But the reality is complicated, and it is unwise for us to immediately dismiss “evangelical” Trump voters as either “nominal” or “fake.” When we rush too quickly to denounce and disassociate, we miss the opportunity to do some serious soul searching that could lead to a healthier evangelical movement in the future.
Here’s the truth. Yes, many of Trump’s “evangelical voters” are cultural Christians who don’t attend church and who resonate with a simplistic slogans like “God and country” and “put America first.” Yes, many of Trump’s “evangelical voters” go to prosperity-gospel churches that do not line up with historic evangelical beliefs and identity. But here’s the uncomfortable reality: some of Trump’s evangelical voters are church-going and do believe in evangelical doctrines.
I call that reality “uncomfortable” because it ought to give evangelical leaders pause. It is easy for evangelical writers and thinkers and pundits – and I’m putting myself in this category – to dismiss all Trump supporters as “not truly evangelical” or not “practicing” evangelicals. But when we only point to the statistics and the exit polls that back up what we want to be true of evangelical churchgoers, we screen out inconvenient counterpoints.
Many Evangelicals, Only When Convenient
For example, I have often heard evangelical leaders make statements regarding the large percentage of the population that identify as evangelical in those moments when political “muscle” is needed, when it is helpful to point to a massive political wing of white evangelicals behind you. It is hypocritical to appeal to the broader number of self-identifying “evangelicals” when it’s politically expedient, only then to turn around and dismiss many of those same people when they express support for Trump or for policies that do not align with our priorities.
Nominal Evangelicals and Our Mission Field
A second factor we must weigh is our responsibility to people who rarely attend church. We can wave off Trump voters and say, “They’re not part of a church, and they don’t belong to us,” but should we be so quick to do so? Instead, we ought to consider why so many people gladly adopt the “evangelical” or “born again” label, but do not attend church or manifest a worldview shaped by Scripture.
Christian leaders should see nominalism as a problem among people we are called to address, not as a distraction among people we dismiss. Nominal Christians are part of our mission field, no matter how much their voting patterns may distress pastors and church leaders.
If you live in the South and you only think of the mission field in terms of secular people in urban areas, or immigrants who belong to other religions, you will miss a major segment of your mission field. In your community, you will find Trump supporters who likely have good feelings regarding your church but who never attend.
Now, you can disavow these people and say, “We don’t agree, so they’re not really a part of us” or you can seize the opportunity for spiritual conversations, for discipleship, for reengaging a large swath of the public that feels disenfranchised from the political system and for whatever reason may also feel alienated from the church.
The Trump Voters In Your Church
Finally, we must consider the reasons why many churchgoing evangelicals are also supporting Trump. If we fall back on the statistics and polls that minimize this reality, we will fail to ask hard questions about the state of our own congregations, about the political priorities among the people we know and love, about ongoing questions related to loving our neighbors (including immigrants), opposing racial injustice, and sustaining religious liberty for all.
Election 2016 could lead to a stronger, healthier future for evangelicals. But only if we deal with the inconvenient and uncomfortable truths about white evangelical support for Trump.