What the Hell Is Wrong With Evangelicals Supporting Trump?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader writes:

I was pleased to see you say “God bless these principled Christians” in response to the Liberty United Against Trump statement [that opposed Liberty University’s president, Jerry Falwell, Jr., for continuing to support Trump after the “Access Hollywood” tape and wave of women alleging sexual assault]. I hope you remember that they are still very conservative evangelicals who chose to attend Liberty University and who probably disagree with you about abortion, gay marriage, evolution, and a whole host of other topics. In other words, they’re the people Democrats spent years accusing of being the extremists destroying the GOP and the country.

The religious right is starting to look pretty good next to Donald Trump, eh? Glad to see the Trump campaign can sow harmony and understanding, despite his best efforts to spread discord. But maybe this also should be a time for Democrats to reflect on their many years of crying wolf.

I wish I could agree with the reader—that the evangelical right is finally taking a principled stand against a nominee who is not just a threat to our democratic system but also norms of human decency often aligned with “values voters”—but, unfortunately, this is the sad reality:

Nearly two-thirds of likely evangelical voters, 65 percent, said they support Trump in a nationwide survey released Tuesday by the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute [PRRI] — this after the airing of an 11-year-old video in which he was recorded lewdly bragging about having made sexually inappropriate advances to married women. Likewise, a survey released Monday by the religious polling group Barna reported that Trump leads Hillary Clinton by 55 percent to 2 percent among likely evangelical voters in next month's general election. Such support has been remarkably consistent since Trump emerged as the Republican nominee — hitting a high of 78 percent in a July survey by the nonprofit Pew Research Center's Project on Religion & Public Life.

Back in February, PRRI’s CEO, Robert P. Jones, wrote a piece for us on “how ‘values voters’ became ‘nostalgia voters’”:

Trump’s success has demonstrated that the conventional mode of thinking about white evangelical voters as “values voters” is no longer helpful, if it ever was. The Trump revelation is that white evangelicals have become “nostalgia voters:” a culturally and economically disaffected group that is anxious to hold onto a white, conservative Christian culture that is passing from the scene.

But that “economically disaffected” part doesn’t really hold water, at least according to what Nate Silver found in May:

As compared with most Americans, Trump’s voters are better off. The median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000, based on estimates derived from exit polls and Census Bureau data. That’s lower than the $91,000 median for Kasich voters. But it’s well above the national median household income of about $56,000. It’s also higher than the median income for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters, which is around $61,000 for both.

And circling back to Falwell, I hate to say he makes an excellent point here:

The group of [Liberty] students now speaking out against Trump represents a very small percentage of the Liberty student body of 15,000 resident students and 90,000 online students. The group (led by a never Trump activist, I am told) claims to have between 200 and 1200 signatures on a petition but admits that many of these signatories are not Liberty students.  

Are you an evangelical voter who typically votes Republican but refuses to vote for Trump? Or do you support him despite his dramatic deviation from the teachings of Jesus Christ? We’d like to hear from you: hello@theatlantic.com. Update from reader Jeremiah, a pastor in Minnesota: “Check out my Facebook page; you'll find plenty of opposition to Donald Trump (full disclosure: I’m also #NeverHillary).” A reader in Houston writes:

I'm an elder in the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) and I voted for W. in 2000 and 2004, McCain in 2008, and Romney in 2012. This year I will be voting a write-in candidate as neither major party candidate is worthy of the office. This despite polling today showing Clinton within striking distance in my home state of Texas.

I wish I could write in “suspend the 22nd Amendment, just this once.” Here’s Amy, a reader in Honolulu:

You said you wanted to hear from evangelical Christians who will not vote for, or support, Trump. I am one of them. (Though I haven’t decided if I’m voting HRC or third party or HRC.)

Why not Trump, you ask? Because the exclusive fixation on overturning Roe that has dominated the right wing for decades is not enough for me to trade in all of my other values. The idea that Trump will nominate conservative nominees for the Supreme Court is primarily why most of the Christians I know are voting for him. For me this argument rests on three shaky assumptions:

1. That Trump will keep his word

2. That conservatives win Senate seats even though we have sold our souls to support a morally corrupt man

3. That EVEN with conservative justices, we can get them to overturn Roe. With a 5-4 in favor of conservatives when Scalia was alive, we couldn’t get it done.

Why are we putting our trust in SCOTUS instead of in God? Scripture is clear on the consequences of trusting in horsemen and chariots (Isaiah 31).

Yes, it takes the president to nominate a justice, but we have separation of powers in America, so it takes the Senate to confirm or reject the justices. Also, Trump has been pro-choice the majority of his life—is he so honorable that we can trust our integrity to him in exchange for nominees that we want? I don’t believe so, and that’s why I say shaky reasoning.

Plus, there was a Bush White House and a Republican-appointed majority of 5-4 on the Supreme Court and Republicans were still unable to shift the balance to overturn Roe, so why would evangelicals think now would be different? It’s just a rallying point designed to bring the religious right together for the Republican candidate and without any critical thought by the masses.

***

A new video from the alt-right, pro-Trump InfoWars tries to square the circle of evangelicals supporting Trump, if you care to watch below (note the irony of the computer screen toward the end of the clip that exclaims, “The family unit has been demolished!”—during a defense of a thrice-married man with five children from three women):

Granted, if you’re an evangelical voter who fiercely and sincerely believes that legal abortion has killed millions of human beings, a vote for Trump on those grounds makes sense—that is, if you actually believe that Trump will be true to his word on appointing a pro-life justice (who, if approved by Senate, still couldn’t guarantee a reversal of Roe v. Wade). And of course the cosmopolitan New Yorker was “very pro-choice” and supported even partial-birth abortion until he got more political, and he constantly shifts stances in dramatic, incoherent ways. The man is essentially a pagan, with no discernible history of religious faith, who instead worships money, power, and sexual conquest. Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore blessedly gets it right:

Moore has for months blasted what he sees as Trump’s boorish behavior and character flaws, and last month he ramped it up with pointed comments in an op-ed in The New York Times and an appearance on “Face the Nation.” Trump’s campaign was “reality television moral sewage,” he told “Face the Nation,” and in the Times he criticized Trump’s followers — many of whom are Moore’s fellow evangelicals — for using racist “threats and intimidation” tactics. [...]

“My primary prayer for Donald Trump is that he would first of all repent of sin and come to faith in Jesus Christ,” Moore told David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network in a video posted Friday (June 3). “That’s my prayer for any lost person.”

Update from the reader who sparked this discussion and now clarifies exactly what he meant:

Thank you for publishing my note, but I think you misrepresented my words. I did not claim that all evangelical Christians, or even a majority, are opposing Trump. In fact, similar to you, I’ve expressed shock and disappointment at the number of Christians who support him. Trump stated last year that he’d never asked God for forgiveness for anything. That should say everything we need to know about his belief in Christian values.

What I did say, however, is that anti-Trump evangelicals such as Russell Moore and the Liberty students are very much part of the group Democrats have previously accused of wrecking the country. For years, we’ve been hearing that Republicans need to stop talking about religion, abortion, and gay marriage, and get back to focusing on economic issues. Then, supposedly, Democrats would recognize them as a “reasonable” party once again. Well, as Ross Douthat says: “Ten years ago, liberals pined for a post-religious right, a different culture war. Be careful what you wish for.”