During the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, several high-profile evangelical leaders quietly expressed their support for Donald Trump, adding to the more fervent and public endorsement of other evangelicals such as Jerry Falwell, Jr., the president of Liberty University. Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, activist Gary Bauer, and Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America each gave versions of the same argument in interviews: Despite his personal impieties and previous reticence to embrace conservative social causes, Trump stood as the only viable alternative to Hillary Clinton. Trump was no evangelical, they admitted, but he at least listened to them and offered the possibility of conservative Supreme Court appointments and a revision of IRS codes that prohibited churches from political advocacy. It was, as political endorsements go, modest. Trump’s selection of Mike Pence, a vocal conservative evangelical, as his running mate did not appear to raise these leaders’ attitude toward Trump to genuine excitement. It amounted to mere toleration for the GOP nominee coupled with disdain for Clinton.
The comments of these leaders reflect a yearlong struggle among evangelicals to come to terms with Trump, whose personal style and political agendas have attracted some evangelicals and distressed others. In fact, the varied responses to his candidacy have revealed deep fractures within the Protestant evangelical community, so that it is now anachronistic to speak of an evangelical political coalition. There has never been, of course, a monolithic “evangelical” politics. We must admit from the start that the image of evangelicalism as a right-wing political faction is misleading. From Senator Mark Hatfield to President Jimmy Carter and activist Jim Wallis, many self-identified, white Protestant evangelicals have taken Christian teaching to mean support for progressive policies. Yet even if we bracket out the substantial range of left-leaning evangelical spokespersons and politicians, the remainder of the evangelical chorus sounds different than it did a decade ago.
What was once deemed to be a powerful Religious Right rested on the conviction that political leaders ought to conform legislation and policy to Christian moral teaching. During the last decades of the twentieth century, the Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, Family Research Council, and other like-minded groups understood that teaching to sustain strongly conservative policies on matters such as the definition of marriage, the extent of public welfare, abortion, and the content of public education. The coalition behind this agenda and with it, the agenda itself, has disintegrated. Indeed, the narrative of religion and conservative national politics over the past year follows an arc of secularization. The GOP presidential nomination process has done what critics of the evangelical admixture of religion and politics could not do: compel many GOP-leaning evangelicals either to disassociate their theological convictions from politics or disavow any such thing as an evangelical political consensus.
Observers of the GOP nomination process began to note such changes among Republican evangelicals (we will call them merely “evangelicals” through the rest of this piece) during the first months of 2016. Polls indicated that evangelicals supported Trump over other candidates by a fair margin, even given the fact that three of Trump’s competitors—Ben Carson, John Kasich, and Ted Cruz—were by any measure more explicitly evangelical and consistently conservative in their views. Even after Carson and Marco Rubio dropped out and Kasich failed to rally much support, leaving Cruz as the only viable alternative to Trump, the New York businessman garnered the bulk of the evangelical vote.
Trump’s own church affiliation hardly fits the evangelical profile. His father introduced him to New York’s Marble Collegiate Church, a congregation in the Reformed Church of America made famous by Norman Vincent Peale’s positive thinking messages. Trump calls himself a Presbyterian but his personal religious story evokes more positive thinking than it does deep piety or theological awareness.* In June, during a highly publicized, closed-door meeting with evangelical leaders, he affirmed his Christian identity in a tentative, awkward manner: “I’ve been a Christian, and I love Christianity and the evangelicals have been so incredibly supportive.” Some Trump advocates such as James Dobson suggest that there may be a genuine born-again experience somewhere along Trump’s way. Yet the businessman speaks in a language foreign to evangelicalism, all the while boasting that he will gladly absorb their political support.
Trump’s popularity has appalled other high-profile evangelical leaders. Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, charged Trump supporters with betraying their religious convictions for the power politics of a candidate who speaks in “often racist and sexist” language, who has never been reliably anti-abortion, whose gambling empire destroys families, and whose declarations on Muslims contradict the very meaning of religious freedom so cherished by evangelicals and especially by Baptists. Other evangelical leaders joined Moore’s declamations, such as the popular author Max Lucado, the editors of the Christian Post, and Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Several befuddled observers produced studies suggesting that the bulk of Trump’s supporters were evangelicals only in name: merely occasional churchgoers and theologically uninterested.
All of this displayed deep fissures in the evangelical community, even within single evangelical institutions. Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, hosted Trump for a widely publicized speech and supports him, while Mark DeMoss, who was the chair of the university’s executive committee, refused to support Trump and resigned his board position over the matter. As Michelle Boorstein of The Washington Post put it, Trump “is tearing evangelicals apart,” defying the notion of any single voting bloc. The very term “evangelical” ought no longer to be used as a political moniker.
After the June meeting with hundreds of evangelical leaders, Trump assembled an executive council, including staunch supporters and suspicious critics, to “advise” him on the presidential campaign. This merely reinforced divisions. Robert Morris, pastor at Gateway Church, and Tony Suarez, vice-president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (and previous supporter of Marco Rubio), spoke for critics when they blasted the candidate’s positions on immigration and religious freedom. Some members of the advisory council suggested that they were not endorsing Trump but merely attempting—without much success to date—to move him to a compassionate stance on refugees. On the other side, Paula White, the television prosperity preacher and one of Trump’s staunchest evangelical defenders, reiterated her support for the candidate, as did Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, who cited Trump as a promoter of national security and defender of American interests. We might say that Trump’s bellicose nativism attracts him.
Moreover, the leading evangelical advocates for Trump through the spring primary season argued for their candidate by distinguishing religious character and doctrine from political position. They admitted that Trump has a morally problematic personal background and omitted mention of his positions on theologically weighted issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and religious freedom. Jeffress dismissed such issues and defended Trump with reference to secular dynamics. Trump had the economic policies that conservatives cherished: a low-tax, anti-regulatory, pro-business agenda that would spur the American economy and enhance employment. His rough manners and impolite language—what Jeffress called his “tone and language”—bespoke a George Patton-like militancy needed for the general election. Jeffress saw Trump as “the most conservative candidate who’s electable.” And he declared, “The Bible gives absolutely no checklist for how to vote.” This was quite a change from Jeffress’s position in 2011, when he refused to support Mitt Romney because of Romney’s Mormonism and argued that Christians ought to favor candidates who shared their beliefs.
As the RNC met in Cleveland to formally nominate Trump and Pence, evangelical supporters mentioned religious freedom, abortion, and the Supreme Court, yet they still stressed secular rationales for their candidate. During his convention speech, Falwell made his case for Trump with no mention of Trump’s personal faith. He did include remarks on a party plank opposing IRS rules that barred churches from political speech and the need to appoint “conservative” Supreme Court justices, but only in passing. He listed Trump’s virtues chiefly in other areas: his abilities to enhance job creation and reduce the national debt, love for America and patriotism (the redundancy as a matter of emphasis), concern for “the common man,” zeal for Second Amendment rights, opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, and, of course, the need to oppose Hillary Clinton. A recent Pew survey confirms the resolutely non-religious nature of the concerns of pro-Trump evangelicals. It reveals that nearly 80 percent of evangelicals support Trump over Clinton but the issues that drive them have little to do with the faith of the candidates. Survey takers were most concerned about terrorism, the economy, and foreign policy.
Moving into the general election, then, Republican-leaning evangelicals have been split into two opposite positions on the Republican presidential nominee: moral disapproval and support for Trump’s ideas about national defense and the economy. Both positions, however, reflect a version of secular thinking, if by that term we mean the separation of explicitly theological or religious concerns from the politics of American power. Foreign affairs, national security, and economic freedoms have their own, non-religious mandates and rationales.
Mohler, Moore, and other detractors have asserted their deep Anabaptist roots. Baptists from the late eighteenth-century such as John Leland and Isaac Backus emphasized the virtues of sharp distinction between religion and political power. They cherished religious freedom as the freedom for communities to sustain practices that were peculiarly Christian. Those practices could flourish only apart from any engagement in politics, which was by definition worldly, rapacious, and violent. Contemporary heirs to this tradition such as Mohler and Moore refuse to give their mandate not only to Trump but also to Hillary Clinton. Having lost the “culture wars” of the last two decades, they promote a Christian vision apart from national politics and yearn chiefly for a type of pluralism that would allow their religious communities to continue to practice their convictions without molestation from the government.
Jeffress, Falwell, Mike Huckabee, and Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition take evangelical secularism in a different direction. For them, Trump offers the promise of an anti-establishment political ethos, economic protectionism, a belligerent stance toward ISIS and Islam as a whole, and resistance against what they call “political correctness.” They do not especially trust Trump on so-called cultural issues but they nonetheless treat Trump’s positions on such policies as politically superior to the views of his Democratic rival. They argue that Trump promotes the interest of the American nation, religiously based moral qualms aside.
It is not necessarily the case, as some critics have charged, that such a view, then, is amoral. It bespeaks a kind of secular morality of personal freedom and national power, whatever its political flaws. It is, in fact, what many critics have advocated for a long time: the removal of theology from public affairs. It is an irony, then, that many pundits and commentators have criticized pro-Trump evangelicals as betraying Christian teaching.
The result of the Trump candidacy, in sum, has been in part to override the evangelical practice of the late twentieth century to inject notions of a Christian America into national politics. There is little talk in today’s campaign about providential designs and transcendent moral purposes—that is, little such talk except, perhaps, from the Democratic left.
One twist in this year’s presidential campaign is that a strong, resonant moral language, sometimes infused with references to America’s greater purposes and “who we are” is uttered from the progressive side. Hillary Clinton speaks openly about her Methodist identity and the Bible she carries with her. Her running mate, Tim Kaine, told the DNC audience during his acceptance speech that Jesuit training shaped his politics and his life-long interest in social justice. “My journey,” Kaine confessed in religious cadences, “has convinced me that God has created a rich tapestry in this country.” At the DNC, President Obama asserted America’s divine purposes by quoting Ronald Reagan’s line about “a shining city on a hill,” a quotation in itself from the Puritan John Winthrop, who was paraphrasing Jesus as quoted in the New Testament.* Perhaps such a recurrence to moral values that transcend political and social exigencies is the only way to confront a phenomenon such as Donald Trump.
Mark Valeri is the Reverend Priscilla Wood Neaves Distinguished Professor of Religion and Politics at the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.
*Corrections: These sentences have been revised to correct typos in the names of Norman Vincent Peale and Ronald Reagan.