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.