Evangelicals and Trump

September 30, 2016

There’s no point in denying it: evangelical Christians are supporting Donald Trump. While there are certainly pockets of the evangelical community firmly entrenched in the #NeverTrump camp, recent polls indicate that the reality TV star and real estate developer is having no trouble attracting conservative Christians to his campaign.1 In fact, evangelicals seem more enthusiastic about Trump then they were four years ago for Mitt Romney. As strange as the “Evangelical Moment” Trump is enjoying may seem, it only takes a cursory glance at the history of entanglement between the GOP and conservative Christianity to understand how we came to the strange place where an evangelical leader is comparing a thrice-married casino magnate with Jesus of Nazareth.2

As difficult as it may be to imagine, there was a time not so long ago when American evangelicals did not represent a homogenous voting bloc. However, in response to the whirlwind of societal changes in 60’s and early 70’s (civil rights and abortion chief among them), Jerry Falwell and other evangelical leaders saw an opportunity to organize theologically conservative Christians into a politically powerful group. Dissatisfied with the policies of Jimmy Carter, the newly minted “Moral Majority” threw its considerable support behind Ronald Reagan and other Republicans in the 1980 elections and married conservative theology with conservative political ideology.

Through the use of powerful (yet selective) biblical rhetoric, Falwell and others connected laissez faire economic policies with biblical literalism and, in response, the Republican party tightened their stances on social issues to align more closely with conservative Christian values. Over the next decades, the distinction between conservative political ideology and theology became blurred to the point that pulpits were filled with politicians and government offices with clergy. Nearly forty years later, it shouldn’t be surprising to see evangelicals supporting Donald Trump. When conservative theology and ideology become synonymous, voting Republican becomes a matter of conscience.

As a pastor, what grieves me about this situation is it demonstrates a distinct lack of an alternative political imagination among evangelicals. From childhood, we are taught that patriotism is a virtue, that God has specifically blessed America, and that we have a responsibility as citizens of the greatest country in the world to participate in the electoral system. But are these particularly Christian ideas? Is there Biblical evidence that points to this reality, or are we accepting our culture’s imagination for who we—as followers of Jesus—should be?

Recently, Wayne Grudem, a respected evangelical theologian, wrote a blog titled “Why Voting for Trump is a Morally Good Choice.” Throughout the piece, Grudem highlights issues typically associated with the Republican party—a conservative SCOTUS, border security, lower taxes, etc—and points out how he believes Trump would approach those issues. Unsurprisingly, Grudem believes that voting for Trump is morally good because ultimately he believes that Trump will uphold conservative political ideology. What is surprising, however, is that Grudem fails to offer up any scriptural support that the issues he has highlighted should be of importance to believers. There is an unspoken assumption that conservative policies are morally good, but biblically, where does that assumption come from?

I fear that Grudem and the majority of evangelicals have willingly accepted the narrative of the world—that we have to make strong political allies, that it is by controlling power that we can change the world, that we have a duty to bend the political system to our will—at the expense of the story of God. We have fallen prey to the siren song of candidates who promise to elevate our status without giving proper thought to the importance of status in the first place.3 As evangelicals fall in line behind Trump, it tells the world that Christ-likeness is secondary to a place at the table; that we will throw our lot in with anyone for the promise of influence.

That is not the message of scripture. We’re never called to attain power, but rather to sacrifice it in service to others.4 Jesus didn’t cozy up to power—he actively spoke truth against it.5 Time and time again, God worked in the small things, on the margins, as opposed to the places of power. Our story as Christians runs counter the prevailing story of our culture. We’re not called to become rulers over those around us, but rather to be servants of all.6

So, what does that look like? What if it meant that, as Christians, we were more worried about loving our enemies than we were national security? More concerned with the needs of our neighbor than our own religious liberty? More interested in practicing hospitality than having a strong national border? And what if commitment to being pro-life meant more of us opening our homes to adoption, or foster care, or women with unexpected pregnancies and expanding our love for the unborn to also include welcoming and loving the already-born Syrian refugee, and undocumented worker, and those on death row? What if we worried less about what national law was going to be passed, and focused all of our political energies on God’s law to love our neighbors as ourselves? To feed the hungry and clothe the naked? To care for widows and single moms and orphans and the fatherless among us? If all the time, energy, and resources evangelicals pour into elections were poured into our communities, the impact would be incredible.

That’s a bold political imagination. One that can’t be legislated or executive ordered. One that can’t be found in the platform of Trump or Hillary. One that might even be a little bit un-American. Do we have the capacity to imagine that future for the evangelical church? To imagine what might be if we take all the hope we have wrapped up in the political system and place it in King Jesus? I pray that we do, and I see little expressions of it already growing up through the cracks in the 40-year-old concrete that has covered the evangelical church. And I pray that in another 40 years those little cracks in the pavement will grow into a mustard tree farm.

About the Author
  • The contributor is a pastor in Sioux County, Iowa who loves his family, good coffee, and (polite) political discussions. He has done extensive undergraduate and graduate work on the rise of the Religious Right and Jerry Falwell Sr.’s use of Biblical rhetoric to mobilize conservative Christians politically. The author would prefer to share his real name with this work, but due to the current political climate is choosing to submit to his church leadership and publish anonymously.

  1. www.pewforum.org, “Evangelicals Rally to Trump, Religious ‘Nones’ Back Clinton”  

  2. www.christianpost.com, “Jerry Fallwell, Jr. Blasts Critics as ‘Hypocrites’ for Judging His Pro-Trump Photo in Front of Playboy Cover” 

  3. www.christianpost.com: “Donald Trump Promises Evangelicals ‘Great Power,’ Higher Church Attendance” 

  4. Philippians 2:3-8 

  5. Matthew 23:13-36 

  6. Luke 22:24-30 

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  1. This is a dangerous precedent for “in all things” to allow anonymous publishing. The author appears to be hiding behind that to promote a political stance. I don’t think that “in all things” wants this site to wage political campaigning. That can be done easily via the public press, but not anonymously!

    1. We appreciate your comment, and members of the iAt editorial staff share your concern about anonymous posts. We chose to make an exception in this case because of a formal request made by the contributor’s church leadership.

      1. Tough call on the anonymity issue, but understandable. In an atmosphere like this where faith and politics are so entwined, had the pastor not been anonymous, I could see people going after his job.

      2. Perhaps then, in all things, should have identified the church leadership team. Obviously, this all did lead to political campaigning so maybe that is where you want it to go. However, I will never buy into condoning anonymity, and am satisfied that the people who made comments identified themselves.

    2. Is this not “the public press?”

      Anonymous and pseudonymous writing has a long history in democratic republics — our Federalist Papers and many things written by Ben Franklin were anonymous so the ideas rather than the men could be the focus of discussion. There is value in this responsible anonymity.

      I see nothing in this piece that is “campaigning” either, although I don’t fully agree with it and will not win the author’s approval with my own vote. It is impossible for any committed position to be expressed without implying the opposite or many alternative positions are unacceptable, and this is nothing new in articles or comments here. This is honesty and integrity of conviction. It is quite a different thing from “campaigning” or partisan advocacy. Short of uncivil ad hominem it is valuable to hear how people come to the conclusions they do and to allow the differences between them to come into serious contact with each other, with no pretense of validating both, or of minimizing the divisions they may represent.

      As to the substance of the views offered in this article, I would urge looking farther back than Falwell for the origins of the nationalist civil religion that lies behind the lack of political imagination under critique here. Good scholarship is being produced on this topic today. Reactions to pluralism in public schools as well as the New Deal in the 1920s and beyond were linked to the Fundamentalist/anti-Modernist movement in Reformed and Evangelical circles by people like Bob Jones, J. Howard Pew, Carl Henry, and R J Rushdoony. By the 1950s the nascent neoevangelical, conservative and libertarian movements formed a fractious but cooperating network that was supported by the Eisenhower administration and big business concerned with promoting Americanism as an economic, political, and religious identity that was implicitly and explicitly a white and nationalist one. It will not be possible to address the willingness of truly pious white anglo saxon protestants today to vote against Clinton even if that means voting for Trump without understanding how deeply they internalize this old Americanist identity as normative and how they truly feel it is under assault in a cosmic, existential struggle.

  2. Thank you for your wise thoughts. I too wonder about what you wonder about. Let us try to stay true to Jesus by following His word and not the world’s.

  3. The perspective expressed in this article is both a bit naive and confusing. I’ll explain.

    I abhor pretty much everything Donald Trump represents as a personal perspective and a life. He was last on my list of Republican choices in the primaries. Indeed, he didn’t even make my “list of acceptables.” Still, I will vote vote him, but apparently for two reasons the author of this reason doesn’t seem to recognize as valid.

    First, we are down to a binary choice. This is no longer multiple choice. Indeed, the “lesser of two evils” logic must be applied here, and it is naive to imagine that we can or should not apply that logic.

    Second, we are in reality voting for one of two PARTIES, not candidates. Whichever party’s candidate holds the office of presidency, that party will more shape the nation’s future than the other, and at a pretty critical fork in the road point in time (even if we only consider the nominations to the Supreme Court).

    And so I will be among those “evangelicals” (although I consider myself a Kuyperian Calvinist) who will be the object of this author’s apparent disdain.

    But that’s where the confusing part comes in. I couldn’t agree more with this author when he asks why we aren’t

    “worried less about what national law was going to be passed, and focus[ing]
    all of our political energies on God’s law to love our neighbors as ourselves? To
    feed the hungry and clothe the naked? To care for widows and single moms
    and orphans and the fatherless among us? If all the time, energy, and resources
    evangelicals pour into elections were poured into our communities, the impact
    would be incredible.”

    But that’s really the point. The Democratic Party has turned a very sharp left. It’s perspective would be to have government do all the things this author says “we” should do. The Democrats would minimize what we have historically called (in the Reformed community) “sphere sovereignty.” The Democratic Party wishes for government to exclusively decide precisely what it means to “love one’s neighbor.” Like Trump or not, if the other possible candidate is elected president this November, those who want to largely abandon a politically pluralistic society (which requires a healthy sense of “sphere sovereignty”) will have much more power to continue the national transformation in that direction.

    Back to the naive part. This author maintains that evangelicals favor Trump. Not really — I don’t. It is more accurate, much more, to say evangelicals abhor the political direction represented by the Democratic party, whose candidate is Hillary Clinton. They largely believe differently that the Democratic Party does about what government should be and not be, do and not do. Even though most evangelicals have never heard of “sphere sovereignty,” they believe in that principle. They want a “decentralized” society where the government of a pluralistic society does its part (and does that well), but does not create a nation that is further “centralized,” because that over-centralization proportionally diminishes political pluralism.

    No, evangelicals don’t need to “pour” all of their “time, energy, and resources” into this national election — but many realize if they don’t at least pay attention and be somewhat involved (we are citizens after all, which is a political office), we may well find ourselves with a government that vetoes our ability to do what this author (and I) think we should be doing. I for one am with them.

    1. Thank you Doug for saying so well what my thoughts are regarding this topic. I have seen to many facebook statuses that tell me to “like if I want Jesus in the White House” My response to that is “NO” I want Jesus in my life. I do not want to politicize my faith by wanting to put Him in the White House. If I remember my Bible classes correctly that is what Judas wanted out of Jesus……an earthly king.
      Once again thank you.

    2. The problem with your logic is that the Republican Party cannot control Donald Trump. Once elected he and his mob of followers will dump the Republican Party or make it into his image. He is more powerful than the party right now, and will be even more so once elected. He isn’t going to play nice and follow the party line. He will do things his way or the highway. Unfortunately, Donald Trump lives in an alternate reality that is shaped by himself and about himself. The Republicans have been duped.

      1. Tim. You might be right that Donald Trump can’t be controlled by the Republican party (or by this or that wing of the party), but you might also be wrong. Already in the general election, Trump is learning (even if the curve is hard for him) that simply being Trump, as he could be in the primaries because he was one of 16 candidates in a unique political time, won’t work to get him elected president.

        Assuming Trump learns to work with a party instead of merely himself and he does get elected in 2016, he will want to be re-elected in 2020. And that means he will bend. How much is uncertain but he will have to bend, as he is finding he has to bend now or forego the presidency.

        The biggest issue involved in who is elected president is the nomination of Supreme Court justices. I can’t imagine Trump nominating people who are far more originalists than would Clinton. Can you? So even if my logic fails at some level (and Trump reverts to early Trump), do you really think Trump will appoint more Holmesian kind of justices while Hillary more Scalian types?

        1. I am new to this site, but appreciate the thoughtful articles and replies. I very much feel compelled to comment. There seems to be something fundamentally flawed about supporting a candidate when we have to hope that he “will bend” and “learn to work with the party”. It seems to me that the way that all of the candidates, Republican and Democrat, have presented themselves and what they have done in their lives thus far in this election is who they really are and what they intend to do in their presidency. We need to not only listen to what they are telling us during this campaign but how they have lived their lives. What do we know about their involvement in their communities? Have they been involved in efforts to help the disadvantaged? Do they love and embrace all people regardless of race, wealth, status or political party? Do they speak to and about others with respect, kindness and love? How involved have they been in their churches over the years? In other words, have they lived their Christianity not just claimed it?

  4. My motto every election:
    “Speak for those who have no voice;
    Vote pro-life and not pro-choice.”

    Therefore, I cannot support Hillary “Pro-Abort.”

    She unequivocally supports abortion at any time, for any reason; praises the baby killing machine that cleverly and deceptively calls itself Planned Parenthood; and wants taxpayers to fund the murder of over one million unborn Americans annually.

    How can any Christian vote for Hillary?

    1. Bonnie, I would propose that there are more people who “have no voice” than just unborn babies. Our black and brown brothers and sisters, our immigrant neighbors, the indigenous people who have been victims of centuries of systemic racism, the LGBT community, people living in poor communities, are just some of the groups of people whose voices have been silenced, minimized, or otherwise oppressed. So, I plan also to speak for those groups of people. While neither party or candidate gives me a tremendous amount of hope to significantly improve these issues, Trump’s hurtful rhetoric toward these groups of people conflict with my Christian values.

      And, regarding the abortion issue, here is another compelling article – from an politically-unaffiliated author – on how one can reconcile being pro-life AND voting for Clinton. http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/pro-life-voting-for-hillary-clinton

      1. Ryan, the article you cite sounds like a pro-abortion apologist wrote it, in spite of her claim to be “pro-life.”

        Regarding your concern for other groups of people being voiceless, who are you kidding? Is Black Lives Matter voiceless? And look around our area at all of the accommodations for recent immigrants that weren’t available when the original settlers of Sioux County came. Our country and our county and our community do a lot of positive things to help immigrants adjust and thrive.

        Like you, I cringe at much of what Donald Trump says and does. However, he does not propose killing over one million immigrants annually. Hillary openly supports killing over one million unborn Anericans annually. Why aren’t wombs sanctuary cities for unborn babies?

    2. How can any Christian vote for trump? He committed adultery with wife number 2 while he was still married to wife number 1. He committed adultery with wife number 3 while he was still married to wife number 3. He bears false witness. He wants to deny help to the less fortunate. The list goes on. He NO way represents what Christ teaches.

  5. Laura: Your linked article is written by, as disclosed in the article itself: “Eric Sapp [who is] is a founding partner of the Eleison Group, the primary political consulting firm working with Democrats and the progressive faith community on outreach and communication to faith, veteran, and values voters.”

    Given the author’s job description, he probably would and could not conclude other than his article does. Indeed, his article PRESUMES that those who oppose abortion simply don’t otherwise care about the lives of the women who choose to abort their children and the babies who are born if not aborted (read the article). I suppose it has to presume that to reach its conclusion.

    Some years back, I participated in a year long series of meetings in Oregon (sponsored by the Friends, aka Quakers) among representatives of the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” organizations (I represented Oregon Right to Life). The point of the meetings was to see if the organizations could come to some political common ground despite their differences. Well, we did. The meeting group agreed that our organizations could together publicly say that whatever our differences, we could together work on issues so that there would be less cause (e.g., poverty, other lack of resources, access to education for single mothers especially) for women to choose to abort their children. The meeting representatives then went back to their respective organizations to get confirmation as to our “common ground plan” (to publicly say what we could together work for).

    To an organization, ALL “pro-life” organizations confirmed the common ground proposal we had reached and ALL “pro-choice” organizations rejected it. It makes you wonder. It did me.

    So now when someone like Eric Sapp, who works for the Democrats, writes an article that suggests being “pro-life” means voting Democratic (a party that ALL the “pro-choice” organizations who vetoed our common ground proposal align with), I take it with a really big cow-block of salt. I simply don’t believe them, although if I’m sure they want voters to believe they are truly pro-life.

    Mind you, I frankly don’t trust Donald Trump when it comes to life positions. On the other hand, I have more confidence that Trump (who will need the support of congressional Republicans) will nominate Sup Ct justices and otherwise exercise his veto power and other executive powers in a “pro-life” manner than will Clinton. Of course, Clinton will need the same support from her party, and all those Democratic Party supporting pro-choice organizations who in Oregon were unwilling even to agree to declare that we should work to reduce the causes for women to decide they needed to abort their children.

  6. Amen and amen, Anonymous. I join you in that prayer. Thank you for that hopeful vision of cracking pavement and green growing things.

    Laura, thank you for that. Yes, there are many of us.

  7. What a wonderful post. Clear, direct and spot on. I cannot imagine how any serious Christian would consider this post to be either confusing or naive.

  8. Like Doug, I dug a little deeper to see if Democratic policies produce fewer abortions. As he noted, they don’t. Please check less biased research sources.
    Democrats have abandoned their “safe, legal, and rare” rhetoric and rabidly promote abortion. Hillary has promised she would nominate pro-abortion Supreme Court justices. Like other liberals, she lies about protecting children while promoting their murder. She claims to care about the poor and helpless, while advocating abortion, which kills the most poor and helpless among us, unborn babies.

  9. The problem of contemporary Christianity is to determine how conservative Christians, liberal Christians, nationalist Christians, religious Christians, denominational Christians, confessional Christians, Christians by culture, Christians out of self-defense, Christians from sentimentality, loyalty, in short “adjectival” Christians can once again, without danger to themselves or Christianity, become Christians.

    1. Right on, brother.

      I wrote this piece for In All Things back in the spring of 2015 at the very beginning of this election cycle: http://inallthings.org/faith-politics-and-social-media/

      I am so troubled by the way I see Christians treating each other related to political views. I think I’m about ready to duck out of Facebook until after the election is over.

      A gentle reminder for us all:
      Republican ≠ Christian.
      Democrat ≠ Christian.
      Faithfully following Jesus = Christian.

  10. The article by “anonymous” is rather judgmental. In the Old Testament, God chose Samson, David and Solomon to lead his people. No doubt they were flawed characters. In todays political correct climate they would not stand a chance. Who knows, God may just have chosen the most unlikely character to lead this nation.

    1. I agree with you about God using flawed individuals to lead his people; the Bible is full of examples including those you’ve listed. I wonder, however, about comparing the contemporary United States to the ancient people of Israel. The story of the Old Testament shows that God called Abraham and his descendants to be a light to the nations. God’s covenant people were ultimately unfaithful to the Sinai covenant, but God made a New Covenant (see Jeremiah 31:33-34) based on forgiveness rather than keeping the law. And this New Covenant is fulfilled in Jesus, of course.

      I bring this up because I often hear people refer the the United States using biblical language suggesting that contemporary Americans are the inheritors of the mantle of “God’s chosen people.” I am just not sure this is true. Under the New Covenant, those saved by grace, through faith, are God’s chosen people. And these people are not bound to any one nation, or region, or time: this is the Church, Christ’s body!

      While it might be tempting to make a comparison between a flawed man like King David (who was described as “a man after God’s own heart,” despite his flaws) and a flawed man like Donald Trump, I am troubled by the implication that the American presidency is the contemporary equivalent to the leader of God’s people in the Old Testament.

      In humility, I’d love to hear thoughts in response to this. I am still trying to sort this all out.

    2. Samson! Yes, he is an apt type for Trump. Shall we help him pull the roof down on our heads or work for the good of the nation we are in?

      @Dave – I am also troubled by the ease at which pragmatic Christian voters overlook Trump’s vile, violent mentality toward women and others, but especially women. God may have used men with such minds in the Bronze Age for lack of better materials, but wasn’t he using them to bend them and all people toward a different understanding of relationships, away from slavery and the use of women as property, away from bigotry toward the foreigner, the sick, the outcast? It seems strange to justify the choices we must make today by reference to the lowest standards we can find in the Bible.

      1. “Ease,” Jason? What ease? If I am any measure, and I think I am, Trump was very last on my list of Republican hopefuls, and even then he scored zero on my “hopefulness” scale. But then Hillary was also zero on my hopefulness scale. The question then has to “move on” to the next step of analysis.

        And that next step in analysis is to ask which party should be in charge of the executive branch. Party control will affect a question that is much more significant than who occupies the White House for the next 4 or 8 years, that question being who will occupy the one to three seats that are (Scalia’s) and probably will be vacant on the Supreme Court bench for the next perhaps 20-40 years. The really, really big impacts on public policy and the defining of the role of government have not been so much made by the President (or Congress, or even the two of them put together) of late. Those really big, macro decisions have been made by the US Supreme Court (e.g., mandating that states modify their marriage laws, allowing congress the power to require citizens purchase a product (health care), before that of course disallowing states to exercise police powers by prohibiting or even significantly regulating abortion).

        I don’t begrudge anyone voting for a third party candidate if he/she wants to make that somewhat esoteric political theory point, but either the Democrats or the Republicans will be have their party’s candidate in the White House beginning in a few months for the next 4 or 8 years, and the party that wins the executive race will result in a chasm of difference in how the US Supreme Court will regard — for all of us — the roles the US Constitution and government play in our lives in the next several decades and beyond.

  11. I appreciate anonymous’s historical perspective and everyone’s thoughtful comments! I am struck with how internally focused the conversation seems to be. I’m reminded that Jesus told us to make disciples of all nations. The choices we make this November will impact the whole world and everyone and every creature in it. It will impact disciple making. Personally, I’m taking that thought into consideration as I make my choice.