Trumps moral values are largely at odds with those of evangelical Christianity. That mismatch could break apart the movements political influence
Evangelicals in the 2016 election have proven loyal to the Republican Party in spite of Donald Trumps continued … moral issues. In the latest PRRI poll, white evangelicals are the largest religious group, with 66% of them supporting Trump. This support has created fissures in the movement, with some evangelicals protesting Trump, while others such as Jerry Falwell Jr are comparing Trump to King David.
If Trump loses the election, the only unifying issues evangelicals will have left are abortion and their hatred of Hillary Clinton. Even with these, they stand to become less influential in political activity.
In the past, candidates performances of Christianity have been strong points for voters, but Trumps ascendancy with evangelicals has eviscerated that expectation. Evangelicals, like other voters, can be very pragmatic about the issues they want addressed by the leadership they support. In the 2016 election cycle, evangelicals are concerned about the supreme courts, Isis, Islam and nostalgia, as Robert Jones shows. For evangelical voters, these issues trump the candidates personal morality.
Loyalty to Trump has not only a moral but also a structural cost. It will not mean the Religious Right is finished, rather that Catholics, Mormons and other religious conservatives will be better positioned to carry its values, lessening evangelical influence. Mormons have been very opposed to Trump, and Catholic voters are evenly split between Trump and Clinton. They, not evangelicals, will be able to claim the values high ground post-election.
Trump has also proven that Republican presidential candidates do not necessarily have to pander to power brokers such as Bob Vanderplaats, head of the Family Leader in Iowa, or Tony Perkins of Family Research Council. Trump amassed his own coterie of Prosperity Gospel preachers who were not traditional evangelical leaders, such as Paula White, and as a result reached a whole other segment of the religious population more in tune with Trumps promise of returning economic prosperity and his use of the media. Even James Dobson, longtime evangelical leader of Focus on the Family, had to use White to convince his following that Trump was really a baby Christian because she had led him to Christ.
Trump has changed the ecosystem of the evangelical world, breaking the usual evangelical synergies that Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio worked diligently during the 2016 presidential campaign. As a result, it will be difficult for those choosing to run in the 2020 election cycle to play the cycle of business as usual in courting the evangelical vote. Merely spouting faith-based language and talking about religious freedom did not gather evangelical votes this cycle as well as Trumps language of the decline of America, terrorism and fear of immigrants did. Whether Trump knew it or not, his strong language tapped into evangelical beliefs about the last days and Americas role in biblical prophecy.
Samantha Bee jokingly asked: Are evangelicals that ready to get the apocalypse going? by voting for Trump, but their fear of a Hillary Clinton presidency has activated their apocalyptic fervor. Trump has benefitted indirectly from a strong belief of evangelicals that the two terms of Barack Obama has led the country to the brink of destruction. Obama was bad enough in their eyes; having the Clintons back in the White House would be the end.
So while evangelicals are coming together to support Trump, internal frictions are many. Evangelical women are upset about Trump and the accusations of sexual and verbal abuse of women, and many are angered that their male counterparts have been silent about it. Evangelical women are also large consumers of evangelical media and ministries, and their support of these organizations is crucial. Should they shun both Trump and the predominately male evangelical leadership, it may have a ripple effect in these organizations fundraising abilities and their ministerial efforts.
Similarly, younger evangelicals and evangelicals of color are very opposed to Trump. Jim Wallis of Sojourners is very vocal that not all evangelicals support Trump, but only white evangelicals are being polled about their political support, not African Americans or Latinos. This brings up the biggest issue that evangelicals face with their support of Trump: that they will be seen as agreeing with Trumps alt right contingent that is not interested in religion, but rather in white nationalism and the restoration of white America. As a result, evangelicals who have claimed to be colorblind find themselves aligning with hate groups who support Trump and are also against Jews and Israel, both important to evangelicals and their beliefs.
All of these issues pose important structural and political problems for evangelicals after the 2016 election. I believe that the various coalitions under the evangelical umbrella will be in disarray. Evangelicals will fade in political and social clout on the national stage regarding religious liberty, abortion and the coveted replacement of Antonin Scalia on the US supreme court. Supporting Trump on election day may have many evangelicals gritting their teeth in the ballot box, but it is nothing compared to the aftermath if their King David loses.