Justification by (Bad) Faith: Evangelical Trump Voters and Public Morality

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By Ryan T. Woods

Even before the final votes were tallied, the autopsy reports began appearing, a steady trickle that built to a mighty cataract of data and diagnosis.

In an election this polarizing, an unusual intensity charged efforts to figure out how a celebrity novice triumphed over a seasoned public servant and heir apparent to a political dynasty. Trump’s surprising victory raised important questions. Why were pollsters’ predictions so unreliable? Were voters rejecting Clinton or the neoliberal status quo? Did new voter identification requirements discourage voters in pivotal states? How did the dissemination of information – and disinformation – influence the outcome of the election?

More agonizing were the attempts to single out voting blocs as responsible for the result. Pundits variously maintained working-class whites in the Rust Belt, revanchists of the Alt-Right, purist boosters for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, and the spectral masses of eligible voters who never exercised their rights engineered the Trump miracle. In addition to these groupings, many commentators added a familiar one: evangelicals, four-fifths of whom voted for Trump. Their preference for a Republican nominee surprised few observers since it tallies with the behavior of this demographic in previous elections. But the story of how evangelicals reconciled themselves to a real-estate mogul more likely to cite fascist writers than the Good Book requires further accounting, for it illuminates fractures in this religious coalition that may have important consequences for the future of evangelicalism and American politics.

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In almost every respect, Trump – a crass, thrice-married casino developer with tenuous commitments to institutional religion– seemed unlikely to appeal to born-again Christians. For all his deviations from the paradigm of an evangelical candidate, the Republican nominee for President in 2016 might have unraveled the evangelical right; instead, he improved on both Mitt Romney’s (79%) and John McCain’s (73%) performances with this voting bloc. Of course, history tells us that presidential nominees need not be religiously observant to perform well with conservative Christians: Take, for example, Ronald Reagan, a former Hollywood actor who did not regularly attend services but knew how to exploit religious language to connect with the faithful. Trump could not – or would not do the same. Even on Election Night, he did not conclude his victory speech with the words every newly elected President for the last 30 years has intoned: “God bless America.” In place of the benediction, the loudspeakers blared the Rolling Stones’ classic anthem, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” a fitting coda to the unlikely collaboration of the devout with The Donald.

The end is not always like the beginning. As the Republican primary season got underway, few evangelical leaders backed Trump publicly. Some prominent figures were openly critical. A phalanx of progressive evangelicals circulated a sharply-worded declaration maintaining Trump “fueled white American nationalism with xenophobic appeals and religious intolerance at the expense of gospel values, democratic principles, and important international relationships.” This document, whose signatories included prominent women and minority leaders, offered criticism from a predictable quarter. But even more conservative representatives offered support to the “Never Trump” movement. Russell Moore, an influential ethicist in the Southern Baptist Convention contributed a scathing denunciation of Trump’s “vitriolic – and often racist and sexist – language about immigrants, women, the disabled, and others” in a National Review forum. When decade-old footage of Trump bragging about his “pussy-grabbing” exploits to a fawning Billy Bush surfaced, the candidate’s relationship with evangelicals soured further. A conservative Christian news organ, World, called on Trump to terminate his candidacy. Albert Mohler responded with a rhetorical question when prompted about these revelations: “Is it worth destroying our moral credibility to support someone who is beneath the baseline level of human decency?”

Fortunately for Trump, if not for standards of human decency, he was never campaigning in a vacuum. In the Republican primary, he profited from running against a constellation of devout opponents who divided evangelical loyalties. Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Lindsey Graham, and Mike Huckabee were all practicing evangelicals, but collectively diluted their shared base. A number of Catholics – Rick Santorum, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio – saw their bids for the nomination peter out. The Anglican John Kasich and the Seventh-Day Adventist Ben Carson fared little better. The most viable nominee to garner the faithful’s support was Ted Cruz. Accustomed to being the cynosure of attention for his tough talk and contrarian ways, Cruz found himself outmaneuvered by the billionaire. Trump defeated the junior senator from Texas by a margin of 6% among evangelicals in South Carolina; a month later, in Florida, he had widened his lead in that demographic to 29%. If they had little enthusiasm for Trump, evangelical conservatives failed to unite around a single alternative with a chance of winning the nomination.

Trump became an even greater beneficiary from the animus directed toward his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. As late as April, a Pew survey revealed only 42% of white Republican evangelicals supporting Trump in the primary. When asked in June whether they would vote for Trump over Clinton, however, 94% of respondents backed the tycoon. Their pivot, though, was more a rejection of Hillary Clinton than an endorsement of Donald Trump. Christianity Today reported late in October that 51% of evangelical Trump backers were voting against Clinton, and only 45% were voting for Trump. In the voting calculus of conservative Protestants, Trump constituted the lesser evil. His choice of a devout evangelical as his running mate made the ticket more palatable. Anecdotally, several Christian friends of mine explained their choice to pull the lever for the Republican nominee as a “vote for Pence, and not for Trump.” This unorthodox justification reflected a trend. Whatever reservations they had about Trump, evangelicals preferred him to Clinton.

Why did evangelicals revile Clinton? The answer is anchored in history. For those old enough to remember the “Culture Wars” of the 1990s, the residue of antagonism toward the Clintons endured. The First Family then represented a kind of personal metonymy for the erosion of foundational Christian values and the triumph of secular, pluralistic, and morally bankrupt order. In this election, Hillary Clinton still embodied the anxieties of many conservative Christians. Despite enjoying significant cultural and political influence, evangelicals have long perceived themselves as embattled by powers hostile to their convictions. R. Marie Griffith elaborated this premonition as “the fear that they and their values are being displaced by foreign, immigrant, and Muslim forces, as well as by domestic movements such as Black Lives Matter, gay rights, and women’s rights and more.” Perhaps most concerning to these Christian voters was the vacancy in the Supreme Court created by Justice Scalia’s death earlier in the year, and what the appointment made by the new President might portend for abortion rights and religious liberty. To the faithful, the defeat of these causes at the polls signaled divine intervention. Thursday morning following the election, Franklin Graham, son of the famous evangelist, tweeted, “I believe God’s hand intervened Tuesday night to stop the godless, atheistic progressive agenda from taking control.”

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Seeing the prevention of “the godless atheistic agenda” in the electoral triumph of an impresario without meaningful connection to Christianity over a lifelong Methodist running on a center-left platform demanded a combination of realism and imagination. Few articles so limned this political vision as Wayne Grudem’s apologia for Trump in Townhall, a conservative news organ, “Why Voting for Donald Trump Is a Morally Good Choice.” Author of a popular systematic theology, Grudem is a respected voice in conservative Christian circles. Grudem addressed himself to voters who might consider casting a ballot for a third-party or write-in candidate out of disgust for the immorality of the Republican nominee. This was fundamentally wrongheaded to Grudem, who sought to dislodge perceptions of Trump as an “evil candidate” to be abhorred and reframe him as a “good candidate with flaws.”

Note the centering of Mike Pence in this photograph accompanying Grudem's article in Townhall.

Note the centering of Mike Pence in this photograph which accompanied Grudem’s article in Townhall.

To persuade his readers, Grudem sought to demonstrate that the public utility of electing Trump outweighs any personal deficiencies. While he was clear-sighted about the candidate’s liabilities– narcissism, vindictiveness, impetuosity, marital infidelity – the theologian maintained that these “are not disqualifying flaws in this election” (emphasis mine). Perceptive readers will immediately notice how elliptical this claim is. This summary vice catalogue inventories only personal conduct, not public policy. As such, it engages in the subtle art of redefinition. In an incisive critique of this essay, Charles Halton points out that in a single sentence – “Sometimes he blurts out mistaken ideas (like the bombing of families of terrorists)” – Grudem transformed the atrocity of “[deliberately annihilating] babies, children, and adults for the mere fact that they happen to share a genetic relation to someone suspected to be a terrorist” into “a mistaken idea.” Halton argues that this reclassification is not only offensive, but misleading. Although Trump promised never to require military forces to carry out an illegal order, he has also indicated that he would modify “the rules of the game” to even the playing field with terrorists who refuse to observe these regulations. It is likewise revealing that Grudem devoted more space to defending the candidate against “unfair” charges of misogyny, anti-Semitism, racism, and hostility to immigrants in the next paragraph than he does in the paragraph conceding Trump’s inadequacies. All these allegations he diminished as “unjust magnifications of careless statements” belied by the candidate’s achievements in the business world, in philanthropy, and in his family life. Finally, Grudem limited his claim about disqualifying flaws to the present contest. In another year, these vices might be irredeemable; in this election cycle, they can be salvaged to serve greater political ends.

These political ends range from the economy to geopolitics, but abortion rights and religious liberty remain paramount. In short, Grudem was willing to pardon almost any offense so long as the candidate appoints justices with orthodox positions on abortion and religious liberty. Lives and livelihoods are at stake in this contest: Electing Clinton means consigning “thousands of unborn children to death under Hillary Clinton’s Supreme Court,” excluding “thousands of Christians from their lifelong occupations,” and permanently enshrining an unaccountable “judicial tyranny” that “will destroy the American system of government”, among other ills. Alternatively, a vote for Trump might overturn Roe v. Wade and return jurisdiction on abortion rights to the states, protect the religious liberties of Christian churches and organizations, and foster a judicial regime that could uphold the conservative principles that make America great. To describe this contrast as exaggerated is an understatement. But this misses the point. For a fearful people looking for hope, what matters is less the plausibility of this scenario than its possibility.

The afterlife of Grudem’s article is instructive. Following the disclosure of Trump’s lewd conversation with Billy Bush, Grudem retracted his original article, and Townhall deleted it from its website archives. No longer was Trump a good candidate with flaws; now there was “no morally good presidential candidate.” Disgusted by the new revelations, Grudem implored Trump to resign his candidacy. If he was no longer bullish on Trump, however, his allegiance had not dissipated. No matter who headed the Republican ticket, the election still represented a Manichaean choice. A week’s reflection prompted yet another change of tack. The original article was restored to the site, and Grudem doubled down with a new endorsement. The new feature’s point was transparently evident: “If You Don’t Like Either Candidate, Then Vote for Trump’s Policies.” A more descriptive title might have read, “If You Don’t Like Either Candidate, Then Vote for Trump’s Supreme Court Nominees,” for most of the justification is a digest of the first article, which focused on the all-important nominations to the high court. For all the apparent remodeling, the architecture of the argument retained its integrity. Despite his growing disenchantment with Trump’s character, Grudem remained willing to pardon almost any offense so long as the candidate taps justices who support the right causes.

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Grudem’s resignation to supporting an immoral candidate who nonetheless could serve Pro-Life agendas and defend Christian institutions illustrates a significant change in the political outlook of evangelicals. In a fascinating survey conducted by the public opinion research organization PRRI, interviewers have posed the following question about private vices and public virtue: “Do you think an elected official who commits an immoral act in their private life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life?” Public attitudes about personal indiscretions have evolved significantly over the past five years. In 2011, only 44% of respondents agreed with this statement; now, 61% maintain that immorality in private conduct is compatible with ethical behavior in public. The most dramatic changes occurred along partisan and religious lines. While the number of Democrats countenancing this statement increased by 12% over the past five years, their Republican counterparts answered “yes” 34% more frequently than conservatives in 2011. The shift was even more dramatic among white evangelicals. Five years ago, only 30% of this demographic believed private misconduct was consistent with performance of political duties. This year, that number soared to 72%. The only credible explanation for this sea change among conservatives and white evangelicals, according to Brookings Institution Fellow William Galston, is the political expediency of supporting a Trump candidacy.

Evangelical leaders agonized over how to reconcile their electoral calculus with their scruples about Trump’s vices. Necessity forced many to abandon idealism about the nominee’s private life and embrace political realism. Albert Mohler, for example, observed that failing to apply the same moral standards to Donald Trump as conservative Christians once applied to Bill Clinton invited charges of hypocrisy. Better to acknowledge private iniquities but weigh them in the balance against policy objectives. Unlike many of their Mormon counterparts, evangelicals tended to look past Trump’s deficiencies to achieve desirable political outcomes. In the words of one voter profiled in a feature for Five Thirty Eight, the only path remaining was to hold one’s nose and pull the lever for an immoral candidate, since the only viable rival remained off the table.

An alternative to this electoral realism was “baptizing” Trump and claiming him as a born-again Christian. James Dobson, a popular evangelical psychologist and founding architect of Focus on the Family, became the standard bearer for this tactic. Dobson claimed in June that televangelist Paula White had personally led Trump to surrender his life to Christ. Qualifications hedged this account. Dobson could not vouch for the authenticity of this report, and reminded his reading audience, “Only the Lord knows the condition of a person’s heart.” While the candidate’s brash talk indicated his likely status as a “baby Christian,” the psychologist averred Trump remained “tender to things of the Spirit.” Just how this tenderness might be compatible with the stream of vituperation and misogyny issuing from the candidate escaped other observers. Even “baby Christians” seek forgiveness from God, something the billionaire claims he has never done. But envisioning Trump as a fellow believer in an embryonic stage of growth helped some conservative Christians pardon his transgressions.

Not every political candidate has been granted status as an object of sympathy and Christian charity. Dobson’s stance on Trump contrasted starkly with his handling of Bill Clinton’s philandering and duplicity. In 1998, as the famous videotape of Clinton’s deposition aired on television, Dobson published a tirade against the President’s divorce between private misconduct and public life: “As it turns out, character DOES matter. You can’t run a family, let along a country, without it. How foolish to believe that a person who lacks honesty and moral integrity is qualified to lead a nation and the world! … Those two positions are fundamentally incompatible.” When resisting the power of the Clintons, however, character mattered less to many evangelicals than political advantage.

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Many voices within evangelicalism framed their reflections on the election as autopsies. In a searching critique of the tension between religious conservatives’ invective against the Clintons and indulgence toward Trump , Jonathan Merritt pronounced the end of “meaningful evangelical power” in the public square. Evangelicals’ purpose in this engagement has always centered around public morality and personal rectitude; once that animating purpose disappears, the political movement perishes. This forecast seems too dire. It takes the movement’s valuation of integrity too literally and underestimates its adaptability. Perhaps the emphasis on private virtue will recede, but the alliance of evangelicals with politically conservative causes seems unlikely to disappear just because these voters supported an immoral candidate for President. Such hypocrisy might submerge a campaign, but not a voting bloc that constitutes as much as a quarter of the electorate. Moreover, Presidential elections are the wrong metric to evaluate signs of life in a movement. As Frederick Clarkson puts it in a recent feature for Religion Dispatches, “The strength and resilience of the religious right does not much rise or fall based on the vagaries of Presidential politics.” Most election cycles since 2008, one can find commentators questioning the future vitality of the Religious Right. Reports of its demise, however, are greatly exaggerated.

Still, questions about its future remain. How will this election affect evangelical participation in the public square? Will the election of such a divisive candidate to the Presidency undermine the call to family values and public morality? How will demographic shifts in the nation and within evangelicalism reconfigure the political landscape? Although it is the season for post-election autopsies perhaps a vital index would provide a more useful analysis of the changing horizon of the evangelical vote.

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Ryan T. Woods earned his doctorate in religion at Emory University in 2013. As an undergraduate, he studied at Taylor University, a Christian college in Indiana. He now teaches at Georgia Gwinnett College, and serves as an Associate Editor for Marginalia Review of Books. His interests range from early Alexandrian Christianity to Cleveland sports.

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