What Happened to Evangelicals

I have been thinking a lot about this quite remarkable fact: according to polls the great majority of self-identifying “evangelicals” support a presidential candidate whose world view seems to be borrowed from Nietzche. (This article by Peter Wehner does an excellent job summarizing Trump’s approach.)

Most of my life I’ve been very happy to call myself an evangelical. Without my permission, though, the word has taken on a different definition. To some it now means “right wing bigot,” but I don’t think that’s fair. It’s more accurate to say evangelical now means “Republican.”

In the days of the Solid South, before Lyndon Johnson’s voting rights bill spoiled the party, people spoke of a “yellow dog Democrat.” That referred to Democrats who would “vote for a yellow dog before they would vote for a Republican.” Given that evangelicals will vote for Donald Trump, I think it’s fair to call them “yellow dog Republicans.”

How did this come to be? How did a largely non-political movement that emphasized Christian conversion and the Bible come to be so closely tied to a political party? The answer begins with one word: abortion. Though it took a while for evangelicals to join Catholics in opposing the permissions of Roe v. Wade, they eventually did so with fervor. The plight of the unborn captured hearts very much as the plight of slaves did before the Civil War. Most people were happy to brush these lives aside, but once slaves or unborn babies got into someone’s moral conscience they found them impossible to forget. In both cases, Christian faith was the primary gateway into this moral conclusion.

Evangelical opposition to abortion was not initially political, but pretty soon the two parties aligned their positions for and against abortion. From that point on, it was difficult for an evangelical to vote for a Democrat.

Whether you agree or disagree with the evangelical view on abortion, I don’t see how you can avoid seeing it as a principled stand. So when you think of Donald Trump (whose concern for abortion or any other moral issue is squishy) you have to ask: how did evangelicals get from a principled stand that aligned them with a political party, to a stand for a political party that has abandoned all principles?

The logic works this way: Trump is running as a Republican; we have every hope he will support Republican positions on social issues (probably because they do not matter very much to him). Thus, opposing abortion and defending traditional marriage involves holding your nose and voting for Trump. (I am willing to ignore evidence suggesting that some evangelicals are actually enthused about Trump for less attractive reasons.)

Politics often involves such compromises. Ask the supporters of Bernie Sanders who are asked to vote for Hillary Clinton. I can’t fault anybody for making their voting decisions on the basis of such calculations. At the same time, there must be some line we will not cross. Jesus was offered the kingdoms of the world, you may recall, for a mere token of support. He declined the offer. I can’t imagine holding my nose tight enough to eliminate the stench of Donald Trump.

Which makes all the more egregious the eager and specifically religious support for him from some Christian leaders.

When I was growing up, Christian pastors didn’t endorse candidates. They drew a line between themselves and politics; it was considered unseemly for pastors to fall into political advocacy, as it mingled a political mindset—full of compromises–with the purity of the gospel.

For evangelicals, those days are long gone. A political endorsement might possibly be acceptable if it favored a candidate whose character measured up to evangelical moral standards. But when the candidate is Donald Trump, the endorsement tells the world that evangelicals are no longer people of conscience whose lives are dominated by the message of the gospel. We have become a political interest group, and there is no limit to the compromises we will make for a share of power.

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13 Responses to “What Happened to Evangelicals”

  1. Stephanie Strom Says:

    Amen, amen.

  2. Invisible Mikey Says:

    Though I disagree with evangelicals politically and on social issues, and I definitely do NOT see the anti-abortion stand as necessarily principled, I do see evangelicals themselves as principled people religiously, if not always in life outside church. Of course we all sin outside of church. I’m not exempting my own tribe of radically inclusive, revolutionary Christians from that.

    You’ve given an informative explanation and theory on what happened to the religious right-Republican alliance over time, and I enjoyed learning more. I know you did briefly reference it, but the same-sex marriage issue was as important to my radicals to win in court now as reproductive rights were to my predecessors in the ’70s.

    We might not agree on much, but we agree about Jesus, and also about the dangers a false prophet like Mr. Trump represents. I did help Sanders win in my state, and now I have to hold my nose for Hillary if I want to make sure Trump’s hateful philosophy is repudiated at the polls as resoundingly as possible. But I know who is in charge. If Trump wins, I will pray for God to guide and protect him – and maybe find a way for him to be able to get back to his true calling real soon, wherever outside of government that may be.

  3. Paul Bruggink Says:

    I love your line, “Without my permission, though, the word has taken on a different definition.”

    I used to think of myself as an evangelical. Then it gradually became a political party. Now that “evangelicals” support Donald Trump, which I cannot understand for the life of me, I am finished with that label. I have yet to find another label that fits. Any suggestions?

  4. Mark Moring Says:

    Well done, Tim. And Paul Bruggink, I wouldn’t concern myself with finding another “label.” Screw labels. Live, and vote, according to what Jesus would say and do, whatever “label” that falls under.

    For almost 40 years, I voted Republican. Now I just vote according to the issues . . . and as it turns out, the Democratic party is embracing more of the things that matter to me as a Christian than the GOP. I didn’t choose to “be a Democrat,” I just paid attention to what politicians were saying and doing. And in the last 10 years, the party that aligns with my values just happened to change . . . with the glaring exception of believing that that “blob of tissue” in the womb is actually a human being. But even then, voting GOP hasn’t helped — GOP nominees to the Supreme Court have done NOTHING to overturn Roe v. Wade, so that “strategy” hasn’t worked. Meanwhile, the abortion rate goes way down under Dem administrations (probably because of more universal health care and overall care for the poor), but they go up under GOP administrations. And right now, after 8 years of Obama, many of them including national healthcare, the abortion rate is lower than it’s ever been since Roe v. Wade.

    Labels? Fughgeddaboutem.

  5. Doug Trouten Says:

    I recently changed the “religion” entry on my Facebook profile from “evangelical” to simply “Christian” for precisely the reason you describe. We went into politics for principle and discovered power. We entered the political arena as Christians and became Republicans. It’s time to become Christians again.

  6. donaldbyronjohnson Says:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/14/us/donald-trump-white-evangelical-voters-poll.html?_r=0 says “In fact, the survey found that the desire to defeat Mrs. Clinton was the prime reason evangelicals supported Mr. Trump.”

  7. Smith Says:

    Evangelicalism was built on a bedrock of hipocracy, which is why its leaders so often get into trouble, I’m sorry you had to find out so late.
    If you really love God, join a nice middle-of-the-road, reasonably sized Presbyterian church and try to live your life according to the Sermon on the Mount. Every other road leads to H**l.

  8. Kevin Ford Says:

    Tim, I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and would add a couple of thoughts. The first is that folks who do studies and surveys discovered some time ago that counting evangelicals through self-identification will play havoc with your understanding. There is a large group for whom evangelical has the same force as putting yourself on a pie graph. “I’m not an atheist or a Muslim–I guess I’m an evangelical, since that’s what my neighbors are.”
    Good surveys now ask questions rather than accept the self-id: How many times a month do you go to church? How often do you read your Bible? (And the answer many of these evangelicals give may sound familiar: “All the time. At least on Christmas and Easter.”
    The second thought was that none of this is that new. My personal realization was something I discovered during the Carter administration. Political power brokers believed that evangelicals had been the difference in the ’76 election, and many saw it as a force to be harnessed. And as you suggest, abortion had brought evangelicals to a place where they felt they should use their political muscle. So Falwell founded the Moral Majority in ’79 and a crop of similar groups popped up around the same time. I was initially excited by the birth of these groups, but became cynical very quickly when one of them published a “Christian” scorecard for the members of the US Senate based on their 1978 voting record. 10 votes judged morally imperative were used, and while those on abortion were understandable I had a hard time figuring out how ratification of the Panama Canal Treaty put a Senator’s soul in peril. What I realized is the nature of politics as practiced in our country is that it creates strange bedfellows. If you want someone’s vote you have become a partner in what is important to them, and if you surrender the rudder don’t be surprised where you end up.
    Personally, we have ended up where I don’t see a candidate to vote for, and will probably write-in a protest vote. Can I vote for you Tim?

    • timstafford Says:

      You’re right that many self-identifying “evangelicals” haven’t shown up in church for years. In the past I’ve put a lot of emphasis on the difference between “evangelicals” and church-attending “evangelicals.” However, when 80% of the self-identifiers say they will vote for Trump, I think we’re beginning to make a distinction without much difference.

      You’re also right that the politicizing of evangelicalism is not new. It began with Jerry Falwell. (It was new then.) However, it’s settled into such a fixed pattern that its proponents no longer recognize what they are doing.

  9. Tim Stafford on “What Ever Happened to Evangelicals” | Leadingchurch.com Says:

    […] His blog on the dilemma Trump poses for him.  […]

  10. David G. Says:

    “I can’t imagine holding my nose tight enough to eliminate the stench of Donald Trump.” Many U.S. voters – Christian or not – feel that way about BOTH Trump and Hilary Clinton. There is no strong Third Party candidate like Ross Perot available this year, yet if there were, it would be interesting to see if 2016 would elect the first Third Party president in U.S. history…

  11. Paul Bruggink Says:

    While he may not yet be a “strong Third Party candidate,” I believe that Gary Johnson is a better choice for President than Trump or Clinton, even though I don’t agree with some parts of the Libertarian Party platform. Gary Johnson appears to be gaining more support.

  12. I Was With Her – Debbie Williamson Says:

    […] I’ve been thinking of that moment this week knowing that 82% of evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump. I was in the minority 8 years ago and I was in the minority Tuesday. Somewhere along the line being a Christian meant voting for the Republican ticket no matter what. (Here is a great blog by Tim Stafford that talks about that.) […]

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