Nov 1st 2020

For a growing number of evangelical Christians, Trump is no longer the lesser of two evils

by Stewart Clem

 

Stewart Clem is Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at the Aquinas Institute of Theology

 

It has long been taken for granted that the majority of evangelical Christians in the United States will vote for Donald Trump.

That may well be the case. But there are recent signs that fewer evangelicals will support Trump this time around than in 2016.

In an August 2020 poll for Fox News, Trump registered a 38-point advantage over Joe Biden among among white evangelical voters. That is impressive, but it pales in comparison with his 61-point advantage over Hillary Clinton among evangelicals in the 2016 election.

Meanwhile, a Pew survey on Oct. 13 found that white evangelical support for Trump had slipped since August, from 83% to 78%.

Moral motivation

Among those who plan to vote to reelect the current president, “a majority are excited to get behind Trump, rather than being primarily motivated by a distaste for his opponent,” according to a write-up of the Pew survey in the prominent evangelical publication Christianity Today.

To me, this suggests not so much a softening among evangelical voters an intensification of their feelings about Trump. I believe we are witnessing a growing divide between those who love him and those who increasingly question whether he is fit for office. Unlike in 2016, evangelical voters who cannot get excited about Trump are seemingly finding it more difficult to vote for him.

There hasn’t been a lot of research into what is behind this trend. But as a moral theologian, I’m interested in the moral reasoning that some prominent evangelical Christians have put forward in recent months explaining why they won’t be voting for Trump. It seems that at least some are reconsidering the relationship between leadership and character.

Why the change of heart?

When Trump was campaigning in 2016, many Christians conceded that while they didn’t approve of his crude personality or his “immoral” lifestyle, they believed his policies – such as his promises to protect religious freedom and his commitment to overturning Roe v. Wade – were more in line with their religious beliefs than those of Hillary Clinton.

We’re electing a president, not a pastor,” was a common refrain.

Evangelical Christians in the U.S. are not a monolithic voting bloc that supports conservative candidates. There has always been a politically progressive contingent among evangelicalism. Jim Wallis, founder of the left-leaning evangelical magazine Sojourners, for example, served as a member of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Community Partnerships. Unsurprisingly, progressive evangelical voters have been critical of the president’s character as well as his policies.

But what appears to have changed of late is that some politically conservative evangelicals – those who prioritize abortion restrictions, opposition to same-sex marriage and religious freedom – agree less than they did in 2016 that Trump deserves their vote.

While President Trump may not be “pastor-in-chief,” many evangelical leaders are reminding their fellow Christians that they should not view the office of president as somehow exempt from what they perceive as biblical standards of leadership. As Christian business leader Sid Jansma Jr. explained in a recent article: “The Bible routinely associates good leadership anywhere with character, including such traits as justice, patience, compassion, humility, integrity, honesty, wisdom, courage and discipline.” Citing the Apostle Paul’s second letter to Timothy in the Bible, Jansma concludes, “On every Biblical count of leadership, all of the above, Trump fails.”

Prominent evangelical pastor and author John Piper has likewise drawn on several biblical texts when writing about the choice facing voters: “There is a character connection between rulers and subjects. When the Bible describes a king by saying, ‘He sinned and made Israel to sin’ … it does not mean he twisted their arm. It means his influence shaped the people. That’s the calling of a leader. Take the lead in giving shape to the character of your people. So it happens. For good or for ill.”

In this reading, the Bible does not have a category for a good leader with bad personal character. Nor does it seem to imagine that a nation can remain untainted by the perceived moral failures of its leaders.

[Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter.]

The lesser of two evils?

In 2016, a considerable number of evangelicals strongly disapproved of Trump’s behavior but could not imagine voting for a Democrat. For these voters, the Democratic Party platform and its positions on abortion and LGBTQ rights was sufficient to render Trump the lesser of two evils.

Explaining this position in 2016, Wayne Grudem, a popular evangelical author and seminary professor, conceded in The Christian Post that the candidate was “egotistical, bombastic, and brash” but that he represented an “unusual opportunity” to defeat the “pro-abortion, pro-gender-confusion, anti-religious liberty, tax-and-spend, big government liberalism” that he associated with Hillary Clinton.

More recently, concern over Trump’s perceived exploitation of Christianity has been enough to change the minds of some voters. Some theologians have argued that he appropriates Christianity for purposes that are contrary to its teachings. Southern Methodist University’s D. Stephen Long went as far as to ponder in one article: “Should we call Donald Trump ‘antichrist’?

So even for Christian voters who rely on a lesser-of-two-evils calculus, it’s not obvious that Trump deserves their backing. As Piper writes, “I find it bewildering that Christians can be so sure that greater damage will be done by bad judges, bad laws and bad policies than is being done by the culture-infecting spread of the gangrene of sinful self-exaltation, and boasting and strife-stirring.”

Even from a conservative evangelical perspective, the gains of a Trump presidency are increasingly being weighed against the losses. As the editor in chief of Christianity Today put it in an article calling for Trump to be removed from office: “If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come?”

Despite reportedly mocking Christians and their beliefs behind closed doors, Trump is seen by many evangelicals as God’s chosen candidate. The data, however, suggest a growing divide among evangelicals, with reluctant Trump voters becoming a thing of the past.

Most conservative evangelicals will vote for Trump and will do so enthusiastically. But a significant minority have seemingly concluded that he is in fact the worse of two evils, and they will either not vote or vote for a candidate who is not a Republican – perhaps for the first time in their lives.

 

 

Aquinas Institute of Theology is a member of the Association of Theological Schools.

The ATS is a funding partner of The Conversation US.

 

Stewart Clem, Assistant Professor of Moral Theology, Aquinas Institute of Theology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jun 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "Xi Jinping’s call for friendship gives us an opportunity to examine Chinese politics on both the domestic and international stage. On the face of it, it suggests the possibility of rapprochement between the rich liberal democracies represented by the G7 and the authoritarian Chinese state. However, despite appearances of a call for a closer relationship, there is more than one way of being friends – and Xi’s idea might be somewhat different to what many in countries attending the G7 might expect."
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: " I remember recounting fellow leaders of the story of a Rwanda schoolboy caught up in the genocide of the 1990s and now immortalized in the Kigali Genocide Memorial museum, where, in a section devoted to children, one can find his photograph and a plaque that reads: ----- David, age 11 ...... Ambition: to be a doctor ...... Favorite sport: football ...... Favorite hobby: making people laugh ...... Death: by mutilation ...... Last words: the UN are coming to save us ----- In his idealism and innocence, David believed the international community would save him and his mother. We didn’t. "
Jun 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " While many conservative Republicans opposed Trump and saw that he posed a danger to their party and democracy itself, they were hesitant to buck the mass movement they had created, fearing that it would turn against them. Some of these same conservatives assumed that with Trump's defeat, the horror of January 6th, and the former president's banishment from social media, the time had come to restore sanity to their party. But the GOP leadership’s continued cowering in the face of what they now call "Trump's base" has caused them to circle the wagons and purge their ranks of those who call for sanity. "
May 26th 2021
Editor's Note: This article is about the Federal Reserve, inflation in the 1970's, and possible similarities to today.
May 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "Netanyahu claims to be acting in the name of the Jewish people. He certainly is not. Many Jews around the world, including me, despise Netanyahu’s racist politics. As an American, I am also deeply troubled by the US government’s knee-jerk support of Israel. Fortunately, I am not alone in this view. A growing number of Democratic Congressmen, Jews and non-Jews alike, have called on the United States to stop supporting Israel’s lawlessness. The truth is that the US government’s uncritical support for Israel has come to depend more on evangelical Christians, such as former US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, than on American Jews, who are deeply divided by Netanyahu’s actions. And the evangelicals’ real interest in Zionism is not Jews’ security, but Armageddon, the end of the world, which they believe will come only when all Jews are in Israel."
May 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "This period in US history could go down as the moment when America’s democratic system for electing a president – the most consequential duty of US citizens – was broken, perhaps for good."
May 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "While reading Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) monumental report “A Threshold Crossed,” I felt a range of emotions. It also left me with one big question. I was deeply impressed by the report’s rigorous scholarship. At the same time, it brought to the surface feelings of anger and profound sadness. It’s an extraordinarily complete study detailing not only the many ways Israel has violated a broad range of Palestinian human rights, but the ideology of racial superiority and entitlement that Israel has used to justify its repression." ..... "My advice to both Israel’s defenders and weak-kneed liberals is​, “Read the damn report.” "
May 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: .... "He transformed a transitioning market economy into a stable statist project that rests on an alliance of his inner circle," ..... "He transformed Russia from a respected member of the international community into a rogue state" .... ". He energized NATO by providing it with the adversary it lacked after the end of the cold war," ..... "He befriended hopelessly corrupt, dysfunctional, and unstable dictatorships..." ..... "He forged a quasi-alliance with China, thereby enhancing Russia’s dependence on the one country that might have reason to appropriate those Russian territories inhabited by Chinese."
May 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "On the face of it, the latest escalation of violence is following the template of all inter-ethnic wars. Muslims observing Ramadan shouted nationalist slogans and clashed with Israeli right-wing groups chanting “Death to the Arabs.” The Israelis haughtily marched with their national flag on Jerusalem Day, marking Israel’s capture in 1967 of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the site of the biblical Second Temple, and of Al-Aqsa, completed in the year 705. Battles in and around the Al-Aqsa compound erupted, with worshipers inside throwing stones at the Israeli police, who responded by firing rubber-tipped bullets and other projectiles, wounding hundreds."
May 13th 2021
"Regardless of how the current and future violent conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians in Jerusalem will end, there will be no Israeli-Palestinian peace unless East Jerusalem becomes the capital of a Palestinian state while the city remains united."
May 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? "
May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "
May 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sammy Roth at the LA Times/ Boiling Point Newsletter reports that California’s main power grid was powered for several hours last Saturday by 90% renewables. For just four seconds that day, the grid, which covers 4/5s of the state, reached 94.5% generation by green energy. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. The main grid does not cover Los Angeles County. On the other hand, these figures do not include the electricity generated by the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is not counted as renewable but which is also very low-carbon."
Apr 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "It is no accident that there has been an economic divergence in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries that have joined the European Union have improved their economic governance, and GDP has begun to converge with Western Europe. Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary, Poland, and Romania grew at an annual average rate of 3.9%, 4.1%, and 4.7%, respectively. Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine experienced minimal growth during this period, and Russia’s economy expanded at an average annual rate of just 0.7%. Though Russia had a higher per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) than Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey as recently as 2009, all of these countries have since overtaken it. Russians today are shocked to learn that they are worse off than Romanians and Turks. Among EU member states, only Bulgaria is still poorer than Russia. With its close proximity to the EU single market, Russia could have had higher growth if it had pursued sound economic policies. Instead,..... "
Apr 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "As far as anyone can tell, the US military is not on the verge of an internal breakdown, let alone primed to stage a coup d’état. But few predicted anything like the US Capitol riot before protesters equipped with body armor, stun guns, and zip-ties breached the building. Before the US is blindsided again, its leaders must act resolutely to root out extremism in the military."
Apr 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The new report on 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency reveals that the world’s renewable energy generation capacity increased by an astonishing 10.3% in 2020 despite the global economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic." .... "In 2020, the global net increase in renewables was 261 gigawatts (GW). That is the nameplate capacity of some 300 nuclear power plants! There are actually only 440 nuclear power plants in the whole world, with a generation capacity of 390 gigwatts. So let’s just underline this point. The world put in 2/3s as much renewable energy in one year as is produced by all the existing nuclear plants!"
Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."