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Evangelicals Against Trump?

On the eve of midterm elections, some evangelical Christians are distressed at the ongoing reminders by mainstream media that, taken as a group, evangelicals are among Donald Trump's biggest supporters.

Journalist Terry Mattingly, in his Get Religion blog, attempts to give context to the oft-quoted statistic that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump. Mattingly identifies six categories of evangelical voters:

  1. Evangelicals who supported Trump enthusiatically from the start
  2. Evangelicals who supported Trump early, seeing him as a flawed leader, but the best available
  3. Evangelicals who supported Trump after it became clear that he would be the GOP candidate
  4. Evangelicals who saw Trump as the lesser of two evils; they don't support him but were primarily voting against Hillary Clinton
  5. Evangelicals who didn't back trump and who supported third-party candidates
  6. Members of the evangelical left who supported HIllary Clinton and/or Bernie Sanders

I've paraphrased; you can see Mattingly's full descriptions in his article. Mattingly's goal is to draw into question how serious evangelical support for Trump was in the first place.

But while these categories may be useful for campaign managers, how useful are they for understanding evangelical voters? These are the same divisions that might be used to categorize any bloc of conservative voters; none of these criteria are specific to evangelical concerns. Moreover, these labels tell us nothing about what percentage of evangelicals fit into each category.

It's telling, however, that five of Mattingly's six groups use "evangelicals" as a noun, and one uses "evanglical" as an adjective. It's possible to be a member of the "evangelical left" and vote for Democrats, in Mattingly's reckoning, but if your evangelicalism defines you, the GOP is your default.

Ed Stetzer of the Billy Graham Center Institute share's Mattingly's concerns. Stetzer is perturbed at the implication, drawn from the 81 percent figure, that evangelicals are "all in" for Trump. Stetzer stresses:

In every election, people can vote with varying levels of enthusiasm and confidence in their decision. In an election that was one of the most polarizing in recent history, voters were often more reluctant than enthusiastic about their preferred candidate.

Both Mattingly and Stetzer miss the point. A vote is a vote, no matter how enthusiastically or reluctantly it is cast. And evangelicals were not the only people in the United States who where not fully enthused with the choices on November 8, 2016. Moreover, white evangelical support for Trump goes far beyond that election. Prominent evangelical voices such as James Dobson, Franklin Graham, and Pat Robertson—all of whom have their own followers numbering in the millions—continue to line up behind Trump even if his policies don't line up with traditional Christian teaching. Other evangelical leaders such as Jerry Falwell Jr and Robert Jeffress unabashedly support Trump because of his policies.

Trump himself is aware of how important evangelicals are to his electoral coalition. In August the White House hosted 100 white evangelical leaders for a celebratory dinner, after which Trump gave his flock a mission.

I just ask you to go out and make sure all your people vote. Because if they don’t we’re going to have a miserable two years and we’re going to have, frankly, a very hard period of time because then it just gets to be one election — you’re one election away from losing everything you’ve got.

This does not square with traditional Christian theology, which teaches that we're never at risk of losing everything even if we give up our own lives, because what we have—a relationship with the creator of the universe—is much more valuable than any material advantage we could ever hope to get in this world.

But Trump's implication that these religious leaders have gained the world and lost their souls was either completely missed or tacitly acknowledged by all of them. Dobson called it a "wonderful evening" and Jeffress enthusiatically likened it to a campaign rally. Attendee Jack Graham (no relation to Franklin, who was also in attendance) expressed gratitude that a sitting president "wants to hear from us".

After the meal, the attendees presented Trump with a Bible with the following inscription:

First Lady and President, you are in our prayers always. Thank you for your courageous and bold stand for religious liberty, and for your timeless service to all Americans. We appreciate the price that you have paid to walk in the high calling. History will record the greatness that you have brought for generations.

And it's not just those at the top. A PRRI poll last month showed 71 percent of white evangelicals still have a favorable opinion of Trump as president. That doesn't leave much room in the "flawed leader", "lesser evil", and "third-party voter" categories Mattingly so carefully delineated. White evangelicals are the only religious group to have a net positive opinion of the president.

But meanwhile, leaders of the "evangelical left" met last month in Chicago to offer an invitation to "join us in the journey of following Jesus, who calls us to proclaim and live the Gospel committed to love and justice." The group in Chicago promised, among other things, to

commit to love and protect all people—including life at every stage, people of color, women, indigenous people, immigrants and refugees, LGBTQ people, people who are living with disabilities or mental health issues, poor and impoverished people, and each one who is marginalized, hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, sick, or imprisoned.

Mattingly, Stetzer, and their allies should take note. Parsing 2016 exit polls for a glimmer of reluctance isn't going to convince the rest of the American public that your religion is anything more than thinly veiled political maneuvering. A commitment to love and protect those who are vulnerable, on the other hand, sounds like exactly the sort of thing Jesus would do.

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