Faithful Electors? A Look at the Religious Voter Support for Donald Trump – Part 1

February 1, 2017

There has never been a modern Presidential candidate – and now president – quite like Donald Trump. Even allowing for historical differences in the depth and breadth of media coverage, we’ve never had a mainstream party nominee who has made the kind of statements he has. For just a few “highlights,” he said at his campaign kickoff that immigrants from Mexico were criminals and rapists. That one comment alone may have ended many bids for office right in the starting gate. But the brash celebrity real-estate developer went on to opine that a recent standard bearer of the party for which he sought the nomination was not a hero because he had been a prisoner of war.

But Trump was just getting warmed up. Although his only political experience was being the unofficial leader of the false conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, he somehow managed to stay at the top of the Republican Party polls as the primary and caucus voting began. We know how the rest of the story goes: Trump went on to what is likely the most improbable election victory in the nation’s history, notwithstanding his many and continuous defamations of women, minorities, disabled, and members of his party’s leadership. He won in spite of continually suggesting without evidence that the election would be rigged against him, and openly praising an authoritarian foreign leader that has become one of our chief international adversaries. In short, we’ve never seen the likes of Donald Trump before, and one would think (hope?) never again.

For ‘The Donald’ to be victorious in spite of statements and opinions that would have sent most presidential candidates to the political graveyard, unique factors had to be in play. And 2016 had those in abundance. The rival Democrats nominated Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was highly experienced and knowledgeable, but was widely seen as personally dishonest, and those with long memories reflected on the scandals of her husband’s years as President. In 2016, with animus growing toward “elites,” the worst trait any candidate could have was an insider’s association with Washington.

On the right, Republican voters quickly tossed aside a possible Bush dynasty by ruling out Jeb Bush, and never showing more than lukewarm (at best) appreciation for Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. On the left, Clinton had a surprisingly tough battle against another improbable challenger: Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Despite his general cranky demeanor, and openly discussing socialism, he somehow managed to start a national movement.

What Trump and Sanders appeared to share was a sense among many disaffected voters and folks divorced from the political scene that they were outsiders who ‘tell it like it is.’ Yet, as a billionaire who frequently appeared on television and other media, and in fact had many political connections (including the Clintons), Trump was no outsider. Similarly, Sanders had spent more than a quarter century in Washington and counting his time in office in the Green Mountain State has been almost continuously a politician for about the last 35 years. Yet, both of them came across as ‘authentic.’ The other candidates appeared too well-polished, too concerned about what their handlers had mapped out for them. While Trump and Sanders had plenty of detractors who’d never even consider voting for them, they also endeared themselves to millions of Americans who weren’t particularly attracted to the major parties and enjoyed the fact that they came across as genuine.

With 2016 being such a wild year, what would be the reaction by religious voters? Well, it appears that, in the end, it was to throw the majority of their support behind possibly the least religious candidate in our history. While it would follow the authenticity-above-all-else narrative so prevalent during the 2016 campaign, that Trump was able to get any sizeable support after his appearance at the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa is simply astounding. The Summit is a sort of a cattle call for prospective candidates to burnish their credentials with Christian conservatives in the lead-up to Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses. Trump’s career to this point would have had vanishingly little for evangelical voters to be supportive of. Cruz, who appeared to be the most natural ally of the Christian right among the presidential favorites, encapsulated Trump’s worldview as “New York Values,” namely, politically moderate to progressive social views (pro-choice on abortion, supportive of same-sex marriage) with a focus on money and the media. [1] Cruz could have as easily been talking about the divide between any urbanite and rural dwellers, but his analysis was pretty accurate based on Trump’s statements in the years prior to his running to be the nation’s chief executive. 

So what did a guy who had been married three times, who had made a significant amount of money from gambling, and who had appeared on the cover of Playboy do when meeting with evangelicals? He started off by making the crack about Senator John McCain alluded to earlier, said he’s never asked God for forgiveness, and attempted to make a joke about drinking “my little wine” and “my little cracker” at communion at his Presbyterian church. [2]

Trump’s main influence from religion is his association with Norman Vincent Peale. Peale became one of the first “pop” ministers who crossed over from religious tract publishers to the early self-help book industry in the 1950s with The Power of Positive Thinking. The book’s inspirational effect on Trump appears to be hard to overstate. Trump’s family attended Peale’s church, and he officiated at the ceremony for Trump’s first wedding. When Peale wrote that “(a)ny fact facing us, however difficult, even seemingly hopeless, is not so important as our attitude toward that fact,” and that a “confident and optimistic thought pattern can modify or overcome the fact altogether,” one may get a better insight into how Trump handles adversity. [3]
Despite both his past and contemporary public comments on issues, Trump was able to gain conservative Christian support for one very important reason: he isn’t Clinton. Social conservatives, both the Protestant and Catholic, have circled their wagons for about the last decade around what pastor Rick Warren called the “5 Non-negotiables”: opposition to abortion, opposition to using human stem cells, opposition to gay marriage, opposition to human cloning, and opposition to euthanasia. [4] Mrs. Clinton fails the test on all counts.

Conservatives, since their defeat in the gay marriage dispute, have moved their battle lines, and are now requesting that candidates support allowing private citizens and businesses in not providing services to LGBT customers on conscience grounds. As the cultural debate shifts away from gays to transgendered, many conservatives have also supported laws that would prevent transgendered individuals from selecting a public toilet matching one’s self-identity instead of the one that reflects their sex at birth.  At stake in the presidential election was not simply that Mrs. Clinton was opposed to the positions of social conservatives on these matters, but also that she would have the opportunity to nominate at least one Supreme Court justice that shared her views. The defeat of social conservatives in the Supreme Court’s Obergefell vs. Hodges decision [5] put a punctuation mark on what these voters felt was eight bad years of Barack Obama in the White House, and they became determined to defeat a return of the Clintons.

In the end, white evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Trump. According to exit polls, as many as 4 out of every 5 voted for him. That is a higher percentage in support of the Grand Old Party than when 78% of conservative Protestants backed the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004. [6] While it may not be a surprise that evangelicals are voting for the Republicans, since they have been doing so since the 1970s, they were an important and motivated swing vote in tight races like Florida’s.

The consensus of conservative Protestants to back Trump did not come without debate, disagreement, or hand-wringing. Prominent individuals of the Religious Right such as Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, and Gary Bauer all supported Trump’s candidacy. But some popular and well-respected figures in the evangelical world spoke out against “The Donald.” Beth Moore, a frequent popular speaker and author on the Christian lecture circuit, denounced Trump as did her counterpart Christine Caine. [7] It appears that many evangelical women fumed that male pastors and leaders of their movement appeared to give tacit approval to Trump’s comments about women that would never be tolerated if made by, say, raunchy comedians or liberal politicians.

The most widely-read and respected magazine for right-of-center people of faith – Christianity Today – editorialized against Trump, as did the more conservative World. Andy Crouch, editorial director at Christianity Today quoted Colossians 3:5 in his piece on Trump: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” [RSVCE] Crouch went on to say that “this is an incredibly apt summary of Trump’s life to date.” [8]

Michael Farris, one of the original leaders of the Moral Majority, wrote in an op-ed prior to the Republican national convention that nominated Trump, that faith leaders “(i)n embracing this brazen man…appear to have forgotten the very premises on which…the social conservative movement was founded.” He pronounced that Trump was the “opposite of what we wanted.” [9]

Russell Moore (no relation to Beth Moore), who heads the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, was perhaps the most well-known evangelical voice against Trumpism. Moore took on members of the evangelical movement head-on in a speech near the election when he stated the “(R)eligious Right …turns out to be the people the Religious Right warned us about." [10] To be sure, Moore felt a backlash against his efforts with some religious leaders calling for the defunding of his commission. Moore has also spoken out against police brutality and for the removal of the Confederate battle flags from state properties around the South which may rankle some on a cultural level, as well as certain religious conservative quarters of the church. [11]

There will continue to be pain and distrust in evangelical circles because of the fractious nature of the 2016 election. Emma Green noted in The Atlantic that not only women in the ranks of Christian conservatives, but also African-Americans, were concerned about their fellow members of the faith supporting Trump in such large numbers. One black Baptist pastor, Thabiti Anyabwile, said, “You’ve now hitched your wagon to the GOP and Mr. Trump in ways that just ruin moral credibility in the country. I don’t know how you recover from that.” [12]

Trump may damage his relationship with evangelicals further through his decision to invite not one, but two, proponents of the controversial “Prosperity Gospel” movement to his inauguration. Paula White, whose fundraising practices have been investigated by the Senate, is said to be Trump’s main spiritual adviser. Bishop Wayne Jackson, owner of the Impact Network cable TV channel, and whose mansion in Detroit is said to have 10 marble fireplaces, may provide rationalization to the president that being wealthy and successful is a sign that one is more blessed by God. [13] [14]
Robert Jones speculates whether white conservative Protestants have changed their own perspective in order to back a candidate as flawed as Trump was. His non-partisan Public Religion Research Institute asked Americans in 2011 and again in 2016 whether an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life. Six years ago, white evangelicals were the most skeptical that leaders could compartmentalize their private and public lives. Only 30% were accepting, compared to 38% of mainline Protestants, 42% of Catholics, and 63% of those with no church affiliation. Jump forward to last year, and conservative Protestants had become the most willing to forgive and forget – 72%. While mainstream Protestants and Catholics also became more permissive of personal indiscretions, their numbers did not come close to doubling as their Religious Right co-religionists did. It may very well mean that evangelicals were already re-calibrating their precepts in order to make their conscience comfortable with a possible vote for Trump. [14]

Jones posits (as Farris fears in his op-ed) that evangelicals are in the midst of a stunning reversal of what had been proudly referred to as “Values Voters.” “Rather than standing on principle and letting the chips fall where they may, white evangelicals have now fully embraced a consequentialist ethics that works backward from predetermined political ends, refashioning or even discarding principles as needed to achieve a desired outcome.” [15]
Most evangelicals may be excited about the prospects of a Trump victory. But signs within and throughout the movement suggest that their accommodation of Trumpism may corrode their values in the long-term.

Kirk G. Morrison, MLIS

(Mr. Morrison is a librarian in Connecticut and interested in issues of social justice, rebuilding social capital, and enhancing civic engagement in communities nationwide.)