One of the many great mysteries of the 2016 primary season so far has been the fact that evangelicals love Donald Trump. As Jonathan Merritt wrote last month, “Trump is immodest, arrogant, foul-mouthed, money-obsessed, thrice-married, and until recently, pro-choice. By conventional standards, evangelical Christians should despise him.”
And yet for most of Trump’s bafflingly persistent reign in the polls, conservative Christians have appeared to adore him. For example, a Washington Post poll this summer found 20 percent of white evangelicals support the cartoonish tycoon, 6 percentage points ahead of Scott Walker, who has since dropped out of the race.
But a funny thing happens when you shift your gaze from the pews to the pulpit. Everyday evangelicals praise Trump’s straight talk and anti-establishment bluster, but prominent pastors, insiders, advocates, and academics are much less impressed. Evangelical leaders, as it turns out, loathe Trump. World magazine’s survey of more than 100 evangelical leaders in September found them favoring Marco Rubio first, then Ted Cruz, then Carly Fiorina. In that survey, only 1 percent of leaders named Trump as their first choice. That’s the same percentage of the leaders that favored Hillary Clinton, and fewer than picked Jim Webb.
It’s not just that evangelical leaders prefer other candidates. Many have been actively speaking out against Trump, occasionally almost apoplectic in their frustration over his continued popularity. Thomas Kidd, who participated in World’s survey, wrote last week that he “will not support Trump under any circumstances, and I would use what little influence I have to stop him from being elected president.” Kirsten Powers, a Fox News commentator who was until very recently an evangelical (she converted to Catholicism earlier this month), called Trump a scam artist and “a dangerous megalomaniac with a distorted sense of reality,” and called for evangelicals to “wake up.” Eric Teetsel, the director of the Manhattan Declaration, has been outspoken against Trump for months. “Now are we done?” he tweeted this summer after Trump said he had never asked God for forgiveness for his sins.
Most notable is the drumbeat of scorn from Russell Moore, the influential head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. With 16 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention is America’s largest Protestant denomination. Moore, who generally takes a milder tone than his predecessors, has been sharply critical of the candidate in interviews with CNN, Politico, and NPR (“He’s someone who is an unrepentant serial adulterer”), among others. And, in September, he contributed a scathing op-ed in The New York Times that slammed Trump’s insults to Hispanics, his “Bronze Age warlord” attitude toward women, and his trivialization of communion as “drink my little wine ... have my little cracker.” The op-ed concluded:
Jesus taught his disciples to “count the cost” of following him. We should know, he said, where we’re going and what we’re leaving behind. We should also count the cost of following Donald Trump. To do so would mean that we’ve decided to join the other side of the culture war, that image and celebrity and money and power and social Darwinist “winning” trump the conservation of moral principles and a just society. We ought to listen, to get past the boisterous confidence and the television lights and the waving arms and hear just whose speech we’re applauding.
One standard evangelical reply to Trump’s popularity is the “no true Scotsman” fallacy: Sure, self-described believers may tell pollsters they love the buffoon, but the much smaller group of real evangelicals knows better. “Evangelicals don’t love Trump,” the Federalist, a conservative site, declared in a typical argument. Kidd, an historian at Baylor University, observed that “actual evangelicals”—those who attend church regularly—are less likely to support Trump than other GOP voters are. “I don’t see a sharp divergence between leaders and those in the pews,” he told me in an email.
There’s some merit to this parsing. Polling has indeed consistently shown that self-described evangelicals who attend church regularly show less affinity for Trump than GOP voters as a whole. This suggests a difference between those who are committed believers and those who could be considered “culturally evangelical.”
Even with this kind of dissection, however, the devout are significantly more enamored of the casino magnate than their leaders seem to be. Why? For one, although national leaders may be outspoken against Trump, local church leaders are much less likely to speak up. Pastors and other nonprofit heads risk their tax-exempt status if they explicitly endorse campaigns, and, as Kidd points out, the primaries just aren’t discussed formally in most evangelical churches. This leaves a gap, he adds, that many church-goers are filling with talk radio and Fox News, which are relatively friendly to Trump—or at least happy to give him air time.
But there are signs that the gap between leaders and the rank-and-file may truly be closing. A Quinnipiac poll released last week found neurosurgeon and Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson ahead of Trump by eight percentage points in Iowa. The split among Iowa’s white evangelicals is notable: 36 percent favor Carson, compared to just 17 percent for Trump.
Does this mean the flock is starting to listen to its leaders? Well, perhaps. But it also may mean they are simply starting to truly listen to Trump.