American pastor Skye Jethani unpacks what US evangelicals are thinking ahead of their general election
Would you rather be shot or poisoned? That is how one American senator described the choice in this year’s US presidential contest between the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and the Republican nominee Donald Trump. If my friends in the UK are bewildered by this election, I assure you the feeling is shared on this side of the pond. Both Clinton and Trump have the highest unfavourable ratings of any presidential candidates in the history of American polling. It is fair to conclude that most Americans do not want either of them to occupy the White House.
While many Christians in the US are lamenting this unusual and unappealing election, there may be a silver lining to the orange cloud hanging over us. 2016 is an opportunity to re-examine the political loyalty evangelicals have given to a single party for the last 40 years, and rethink the hope they have placed in politics to slow and reverse what they see as ungodly cultural currents. Simply put, the 2016 election may be what finally exposes the idolatry of politics that has gripped the evangelical movement in America, and this election can be a warning to our sisters and brothers elsewhere who are tempted to do the same.
According to the polls, Donald Trump is winning more of the evangelical vote than the previous Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, did in 2012. What do American evangelicals find so appealing about Donald Trump and so repellant about Hillary Clinton? The answer is to be found in the peculiarities of American culture and politics.
The birth of the Religious Right
Before the 1970s, evangelicals voted as often for Democrats as for Republicans, but in the wake of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, a Supreme Court decision ending prayer in public schools, and the legalisation of abortion in 1973, the Republican Party recognised an opportunity to build a new coalition of Christian conservatives upset with the cultural changes sweeping the country. By the 1980s, white evangelicals had coalesced around the Republican Party and its promise to restore the nation’s morality. Known as the Religious Right, vocal Christian leaders on radio and television convinced an entire generation of evangelicals that faithfulness to Christ meant voting for the Republican Party. Since 1981, white evangelicals have made it possible for Republicans to win control of the White House and the Congress more years than the Democrats. However, the marriage has proven to be less fruitful for evangelicals.
Ed Dobson, once a leader within the Religious Right, reflected: “During the height of it we were taking in millions of dollars a year. We published a magazine, organized state chapters, lobbied Congress, aired a radio program, and more. Did it work? Is the moral condition of America better because of our efforts? Even a casual observation of the current moral climate suggests that despite all the time, money, and energy – despite the political power – we failed. Things have not gotten better, they have only gotten worse.” The capstone of the Religious Right’s failure was the 2015 legalisation of same-sex marriage by the Supreme Court.
From values to nostalgia
There are three important lessons to draw from this history if we are to comprehend why white evangelicals in the US are poised to vote for a man with no experience in public service, who built his fortune with casinos and strip clubs, has a documented history of lies, exaggerations and unethical business ventures, who has admitted that he’s never asked God for forgiveness, who openly brags about his adulterous escapades, has maligned the handicapped, immigrants and prisoners of war, and who specialises in racist and misogynistic rhetoric.
First, in the US ‘evangelical’ has become a political identity more than a religious one. Four decades of enmeshment with the Republican Party has warped how Americans understand the word. Religious historian Thomas S Kidd writes, “In American pop culture parlance, ‘evangelical’ now basically means whites who consider themselves religious and who vote Republican.” Polling organisations have followed this trend which explains why African-Americans and Latinos with evangelical religious beliefs, and who are overwhelmingly opposed to Donald Trump, are excluded from the ‘evangelical’ category in reporting. Therefore, when polls report that 87 per cent of white evangelicals support Trump, the emphasis should be on the white rather than evangelicals.
Fear isn’t a legitimate motive for followers of Jesus Christ
During the primaries more detailed polls uncovered an important nuance. Among evangelicals who attend church regularly, only 31 per cent supported Donald Trump while those who rarely attend church, the evangelicals-in-name-only, favoured Trump at much higher rates.
Second, for a generation American evangelicals have been told the voting booth is where they can enact cultural transformation. Many believe that getting Christian candidates, particularly Republicans, into office is the only way to steer the country towards God and away from immorality and destruction. This sentiment is so strong in some communities that the term “Democratic evangelical” is an oxymoron. Therefore, no matter how unappealing Donald Trump may be, many evangelicals feel compelled to hold their nose and vote for him nonetheless, because to vote for Hillary Clinton and the values espoused by the Democratic Party is viewed as cooperation with evil.
Third, after decades of losing battles in the culture war, evangelicals are desperate for a victory. One would think the failure of the Religious Right to end legal abortion, preserve traditional marriage, or slow the advance of secularism would lead evangelicals to seriously reconsider their marriage to the Republican Party, and some have. Many more, however, are so fearful of the cultural changes that have occurred in recent years that they are willing to jettison their moral standards and pin their hopes on anyone promising to turn back the clock.
The 2016 election may be what finally exposes the idolatry of politics that has gripped the evangelical movement
Most Christians are not attracted to Mr Trump as much as they are frightened by a future in which they are pushed further to the margins. This has been at the heart of Donald Trump’s campaign and his vow to “Make America great again”. Most evangelicals find some of Trump’s views and much of his personal behaviour deplorable, but they are willing to overlook those shortcomings if he can succeed where more godly politicians have failed.
In the 1990s, figures within the Religious Right condemned Bill Clinton for his immoral personal behaviour, but some of these same leaders are now lining up behind Donald Trump and excusing his unrepentant indecency. The reason, as one political commentator noted, is that the Trump campaign has managed to convert values voters into nostalgia voters. The power evangelicals once enjoyed, both culturally and politically, is slipping away as the country becomes more secular and multicultural. To those lamenting this change, Trump isn’t just promising to make America great again, he’s promising to make it Christian again.
The lesser of two evils?
In my conversations with evangelical pastors and committed church members, I often hear distain for Donald Trump. “I can’t stomach him,” one person told me, but she planned to vote for him anyway. Hillary Clinton is aggressively proabortion, pro-same-sex marriage, and is unlikely to enact measures to protect religious liberties for conservative Christians. In addition, she would certainly appoint progressive judges to the Supreme Court, which is regularly polled to be among the highest concerns for evangelical voters this year (see box).
Mrs Clinton has been a national figure in the States for three decades, and a very polarising one. She was vilified in the 1990s for her association with the political scandals of her husband’s administration, and more traditional parts of the country still struggle with a woman who exhibits unfiltered ambition. Her reputation among Republican evangelicals has been so negative for the last 25 years that one Christian radio host has taken to calling her “Hitllary”. As a result, many Christians have chosen to vote for Trump as the lesser of two evils option. This was the view of prominent theologian Wayne Grudem. He said voting for Trump was "a morally good choice" and that there was "nothing morally wrong with voting for a flawed candidate if you think he will do more good for the nation than his opponent." However, following the release of a video which showed Trump making obscene comments, Grudem withdrew his support and called for Trump to "repent" and withdraw from the race.
Why the US election isn't as democratic as you may think...
Although many outside the US are drawing conclusions about Americans based on our presidential candidates, they might be surprised to learn that only 14 per cent of eligible voters chose either Clinton or Trump during the primary elections, (where both parties vote to nominate a candidate to represent them in the general election) and less than 30 per cent of eligible Americans voted at all.
Even worse, separate primary elections are held in each state over six months, meaning states that vote early have far greater influence over the outcome as underperforming candidates drop out
of the race before most citizens ever have a chance to cast a ballot. Therefore, the vote of a socialist in Iowa or a racist in South Carolina in February carries significantly more sway than a moderate in California or a Christian in New Jersey in June.
In a country that prides itself on being the oldest constitutional democracy in the world, it seems inconceivable that we employ a decidedly undemocratic system for selecting our presidential nominees. Are Trump and Clinton the presidential candidates Americans want or deserve? No. But they are the candidates our system is perfectly designed to produce.
While Grudem was forced to re-think his position due to recent revelations, other Christian leaders have refused to back Trump from the beginning. Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and Max Lucado, a prominent Texas pastor and bestselling author, are two prominent voices in the #NeverTrump movement. Moore in particular has advised Christians to reject the lesser of two evils argument. He said, “When Christians face two clearly immoral options, we cannot rationalize a vote for immorality or injustice just because we deem the alternative to be worse.”
Exodus or exile?
The intense feelings this year’s election has provoked among Christians is an opportunity to re-examine our assumptions about voting and politics in general. Is our angst really a result of the unappealing Clinton-Trump decision, or is that merely a symptom of a deeper malady?
The history of Christian political practice in the United States is complicated and marked by both triumphs and failures, but a very simplified version reveals an oscillation between political engagement and disengagement.
Those in favour of political disengagement and cultural separation find justification in God’s call to his people to “be holy as I am holy” (see Leviticus 20:26) and to come out of Egypt. This Exodus approach views the culture, and especially the political sphere, as inherently ungodly and tainted by every vice. This narrative is deeply embedded in the American psyche, going back to the Puritan settlers who escaped Europe to worship freely in the New World. It was also the preferred view of American fundamentalists between 1920 and 1970. They largely withdrew from politics, the academy and pop culture into safe enclaves of holiness to await Christ’s return. This Exodus model views the culture the way the Hebrews viewed Egypt. It is a pagan empire fit for judgement and best left to its own destruction.
The Supreme issue
The nine justices on the United States Supreme Court wield enormous power and are appointed by the President for life. For many years the court has been evenly divided with four conservatives, four progressives, and one swing vote. However, in February a conservative justice died unexpectedly and a replacement will be appointed by the winner of the presidential election in November.
Given the ages of the remaining eight justices, it is very likely the next President will select between two and four members of the court, which may determine the future of American law for the next 40 years. This has many evangelicals very worried because they view the Supreme Court as the decisive field of battle in the culture war. Abortion and same-sex marriage were not legalised by popular vote or the passage of laws by the Congress, but by the decision of five justices on the Supreme Court.
If Hillary Clinton is elected, not only will any hope of reversing abortion and gay marriage be lost, but evangelicals fear the steady dismantling of religious freedoms for those holding traditional views of marriage and sexuality. This concern is not unfounded. Hillary Clinton, a lifelong Methodist, has made her views on these matters very clear and they are unwaveringly progressive. Donald Trump, despite his many failures, has promised to appoint conservative judges. Although he has a track record of breaking promises – both to his voters and his wives – some evangelicals would rather gamble with Trump than lose for certain with Clinton.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to legalise samesex marriage in 2015, the Exodus approach has found a renewed appeal among some American Christians. Ron Dreher calls it the Benedict Option as he believes it is time for Christians to copy the fifth-century monk St Benedict and pursue a “communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life”.
The far more popular view since the 1970s, and still today, is one of aggressive cultural engagement. Advocates find inspiration in the story of the Babylonian exile when God’s people found themselves surrounded by a pagan culture. Through Jeremiah, the Lord told them to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile…for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7, ESV). This verse has become ubiquitous at Christian conferences and ministry events in the US. It is also used to justify Christian political activism, including the pragmatism of voting for an imperfect candidate like Trump.
A more excellent way
What if there is another option? The internal argument among evangelicals between a posture of Exodus or Exile, in my view, is fundamentally flawed because both postures, while biblical, are at best sub-Christian.
In the Old Testament, the Lord’s instructions to his people to withdraw from Egypt and to engage in Babylon were pragmatic responses to undesirable, and unchosen, circumstances. The Israelites did not choose to be slaves under Pharaoh’s thumb, nor did they ask to be refugees expelled from their land by Babylon’s army. Withdrawal and engagement, therefore, were making the best of a bad situation and a means of preserving God’s people so they might fulfil their future purpose of blessing the whole earth.
In the New Testament and through the incarnation we see a very different model of engagement. Scripture tells us that Jesus chose to empty himself, take on the form of a servant, and dwell among us. Unlike Exodus and Exile, incarnation was a choice.
God is inviting us to reconsider our motivations for political engagement
While the Old Testament stories are driven by fear and a desire for self-preservation (even the call to seek the welfare of Babylon was ultimately selfinterested), Jesus said that he came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Love is the central motivation of the Incarnation. Although there is much wisdom to be learned from the stories of the Exodus and Exile, I do not believe they are models to be emulated by Christians today. They were specific commands of God, to a specific people, facing specific circumstances. Instead, we are called to have the same attitude as Christ Jesus and emulate the humility, self-sacrifice and love displayed through his incarnation.
My great concern for evangelicals in the United States, whether they are pragmatically voting for Trump or withdrawing from politics altogether, is how they are embracing fear as a legitimate motive for followers of Jesus Christ. Both politicians and so-called Christian leaders are stoking the anxieties of evangelicals to drive them into the voting booth or to drive them out of the culture, but as Henri Nouwen said, “Fear only engenders fear. It never gives birth to love.” Fear makes us self-consumed and incapable of putting the interests of others ahead of our own.
Ultimately, whether a Christian casts a ballot for Clinton, for Trump, or neither is of secondary concern. The more important issue is how we cast our ballots. Are we driven to vote because of anger, or from a posture of love? Are we seeking only what is best for ourselves and our tribe, or are we voting in a manner that loves our neighbours and even our enemies? Are we entering the voting booth in fear or in faith?
This is the hidden opportunity in 2016 for the Christian community in America and the secret grace offered to us by the unappealing options of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. God is inviting us to reconsider our motivations for political engagement, and he is, like a skilled physician, diagnosing the illness that has manifested so many painful symptoms. He is asking us to release the fear that has been at the heart of the American evangelical movement for 40 years, and gently reminding us that without faith it is impossible to please God.
Skye Jethani is an author, speaker and ordained pastor. He co-hosts the Phil Vischer Podcast and his most recent ebook is The Voting Booth: A new vision for Christian engagement in a post Christian culture. He tweets @skyejethani. For more information visit skyejethani.com