For Trump’s Evangelicals, the Inconvenient Teachings of Christ

November 1, 2018
Evangelical leaders and Trump
White House Photo by Joyce Boghosian

Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election thanks in large part to overwhelming support from one particular group of folks: white evangelicals.

In fact, a whopping 81 percent of self-identified evangelicals voted for President Trump. That’s even more support that President George W. Bush received, and he’s actually an evangelical. And despite what seems to be weekly, if not daily controversy over the president’s public remarks or past behaviors, a poll from earlier this year found that 75 percent of white evangelicals still hold a positive opinion of Mr. Trump.

Given what we know about evangelicals and their social positions centered on family values, and given what we know about Trump, a thrice-married casino mogul facing numerous allegations of adultery, sexual assault, and bigotry, where does this evangelical support for Trump come from?

Timothy Keller, a prominent evangelical pastor in New York, wrote in the New Yorker that: “People who once called themselves the Moral Majority are now seemingly willing to vote for anyone, however immoral, who supports their political positions.”

So do evangelicals simply not believe the president’s vast accusers and critics? Or do they recognize his sins, if you will, but view their support of Trump as a lesser of two evils, or a cause for the greater good?

I'm Jonathan Beasley, and this is the Harvard Religion Beat, a podcast from Harvard Divinity School examining religion's misunderstood and often underestimated role in society.

Today, I’m speaking with Dudley Rose, Professor of Ministry Studies here at Harvard Divinity, and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. I wanted to get his insight into some of the historical and present-day factors that are behind evangelical support for Trump. We’ll also look forward a bit to 2020 and talk what the Democrats might need to do in order to appeal to Christian conservatives in the upcoming elections.

Jonathan Beasley: So, Professor Rose. We’ve heard and read about how Evangelical Christians feel as if they are being left behind or perhaps looked down on as a kind of besieged minority. Trump really has stood up for these people and he's told them, effectively, that he's here to protect them, and he's here to protect those values. Could you talk more about this? And is one of the main reasons that white evangelicals support Trump out of fear of perhaps losing that way of life or those values that they hold so dear?

Dudley Rose: That's a fascinating question, I think, Jonathan. If you think about it, the doctrines, like the right of discovery, Manifest Destiny, a new promised land, sound pretty aggressive to our ears today, right? We've become more sensitive to the language of racism and sexism, for example, and the rights of the powerless and the oppressed—at least at a lip-service level we have. And one genius of Christian nationalism espoused by many white Evangelical Christians is a real sleight of hand: They claim that they are victims of the progressive left and that they are the oppressed party. It’s genius. People of enormous privilege and political power turn the argument on its head and claim protections designed to safeguard people without privilege and power.

It has skewed debates on issues such as religious freedom, for example. Religious freedom was a concept devised to protect the freedom of religious expression of people in minority religious traditions and movements. But some evangelical Christians have argued, with some success, that their religious freedom is compromised by those who have different beliefs from them—for example, that marriage can be between two people of the same gender who love each other.

This has nothing to do with an evangelical Christian's freedom to practice their religious tradition; it has to do with the desire to prevent someone else from practicing theirs. So, the real issue at play with Christian nationalists is the belief that they should have dominant control of the culture, and for them, not having that dominant control feels like oppression.

JB: So, it's been interesting to see Trump's public stance on abortion rights change over the last two decades. For example, in an interview in 1999, he stated he supported a woman's right to choose. But in 2015, as he was laying the groundwork for a future presidential bid, he shifted his stance and said he no longer supported the pro-choice movement.

Is abortion really the ultimate red line for evangelicals in terms of who they will support politically? And would that explain Trump's sudden change of heart on this issue, knowing he'd have trouble winning over evangelicals in a Republican primary?

DR: I think it definitely does explain his change of heart, and they've made a big play about that, right, that he once was lost and now is found. But Marjorie Eagan wrote a powerful and wonderful piece in the February 5, 2018, Boston Globe that revealed a lot about the evangelical Christian identification with anti-abortion, and she noted in that article that in 1971, two years before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion, the biggest white Evangelical group in America, the Southern Baptist Convention, supported the legalization of abortion.

The late Jerry Falwell, the founder of the Moral Majority, did not give his first anti-abortion speech until 1978, five years after Roe v. Wade. So, though the opposition to abortion is what many think fuel to a powerful, conservative, evangelical right, 81 percent of which voted for Donald Trump, it was really race, according to Randall Balmer, who is the professor of religion—and head of the department, I think—at Dartmouth. And he says to many white evangelical Christians, the Civil Rights Movement and the end of segregation caused great distress and the Republican southern strategy from a long time ago took note of that, but over time, it became politically more and more unfeasable to blatantly appeal to racism in the political sphere, although sadly, Charlottesville and anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim rhetoric that we're hearing now may be testing that hypothesis. But in any case, in the light of it becoming less feasible as a blatant strategy, several years after Roe v. Wade, leaders like Paul Weyrich, one of the founders of the religious right, realized that the anti-abortion movement could be marshalled effectively.

Balmer says—and quote here—"That was, after all, a far more palatable, acceptable crusade, one with a seeming high moral purpose, unlike the race-based crusade against black children."

JB: According to Jerry Falwell Jr., Evangelicals found their dream president in Trump, and Franklin Graham, the son of the legendary preacher Billy Graham, has called for Evangelicals to fall in line in their support for Trump or to face God’s wrath.

But some other prominent Evangelicals, such as Jim Wallis, a public theologian and activist, and national columnist Michael Gerson, have been vocal in pointing out what they view as the hypocrisy of Mr. Trump’s Evangelical base. 

Gerson writes in the Atlantic that, “Trump’s background and beliefs could hardly be more incompatible with traditional Christian models of life and leadership.”

So, getting back to the original question: How can evangelical Christians justify their support for Trump, despite his many statements and his many actions—and we all know what they are—despite those being counter to the doctrines of the Christian church and the teachings of Jesus Christ? How do they reconcile that?

DR: Let me start by saying I have affection for many people on the religious right. My grandfather was a Southern Baptist minister whom I loved dearly, and many of my family still are, so I don't want to paint it with a completely covering brush. But it's interesting to note that in all of the discussion that you and I have had, all of the things that we've talked about as the motivations for white Christian nationalism, we've never mentioned the teachings of Christ at all. In fact, I would suggest that's because they're quite inconvenient. Remember in our last election, for example, even using the world "compassion," a pretty good term for what Jesus espoused, was categorized as communism, socialism, and definitely not Christianity.

JB: So, what do you think Jesus would think about Donald Trump? What would he say to Donald Trump as they were doing this interview, if they were interviewing each other instead of you and I? What would they talk about?

DR: Well, I'm going to turn to Matthew and just take it straight out of the Bible. I don't know if this is what Jesus would say, but I think he might say something like this, and you all know the passage from Matthew 25. I think he might say, "I was hungry and you gave me no food. I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. I was a stranger and you did not welcome me. Naked and you did not give me clothing. Sick and imprisoned and you did not visit me."

“And then they would answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or imprisoned and did not care for you?’

“And then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ ”

JB: I wanted to also ask you this, Professor Rose, and this is something that I've been thinking about recently. There's been a sense among some Trump supporters that when they voted for Donald Trump, it was choosing a lesser of two evils in their mind.

There was a candidate that evangelicals did not identify with at all and who was completely antithetical to their values in Hillary Clinton, and then there was Donald Trump, who we’ve talked about being a champion of their values, even though they may not agree with him all the time and the things that he does all the time.

Is there something there with either scripture or just the nature of ministry in general in having to choose between a lesser of two evils, or is that just how it goes sometimes?

DR: Maybe just how it is sometimes, I think. But I do think there are some interesting things to say about that. I mean, it's true that many people in the religious right didn't hold the same values that Hillary did, maybe around such things as abortion and so on. But in my mind, her characterization of a whole swath of people as a "bucket of deplorables" was much more illuminating, in terms of the divide, than actually particular values. It was really sort of writing off a whole group of people with a pretty horrible kind of moniker.

So, if I were to look forward to how do we get out of this polarized mess we're in, I think one of the first things we're going to probably have to do is quit calling each other names. It's going to be a difficult thing to figure out. I think we're going to have to figure out how to have hard conversations. I don't think that progressive people are going to be able to say, "Fine, we'll go back to originalist reading of the Constitution and we'll be glad to have racism, elitism, and all of that instantiated in the American system." I just don't think that's going to happen. But I do think that the extremes on both ends are not helping us try to have a conversation about the things that really matter to all of us.

JB: Looking ahead to 2020, you even mentioned a misstep, if you will, that Secretary Clinton had made and some of the ways that she characterized white evangelicals, and the fact that perhaps she did not, and the Democratic Party did not, pay attention to that group—is something that will need to change for the 2020 election? Will the Democrats, will whoever that candidate ends up being, need to focus on the 81 percent of white evangelicals who voted for Trump? How important will that be?

DR: I think they're going to have to focus on a portion of that group. There's a portion probably a sizable portion—that if they did backflips, they're not going to bring into their voting bloc. But I do think that there are a lot of people in a more moderate place, in both the left and the right, who are going to be ready by 2020 to turn to governing and not to continue this posturing that gets nowhere.

Of course, we have a lot that's going to happen between now and 2020. We have 2018, this year's interim elections. You don't really know where Mueller and all of that's going, whether Trump is going to be a candidate. We assume he's going to be, but it's a little cloudy out there that far. But I do think a figure, assuming Trump is the candidate for the Republicans, to me, if the Democrats can find a candidate that is able to talk to and really, and I don't mean talk down to, but really represent a broader swath of the American public, that's the best hope.


Writing in the Atlantic Monthly, John Fea, a professor at Messiah College and self-described evangelical, wrote the following:

“Evangelicals are people of hope, not fear. The practice of Christian hope points us to a life beyond this world, but it also requires us to act in such a way that models God’s coming kingdom. The Kingdom of God is characterized by the love of enemies, the welcoming of strangers, the belief in the human dignity of all people, a humble and self-sacrificial posture toward public life, and a trust in the sovereign God of the universe. Fear is a natural human response to social change, but evangelicals betray their deepest spiritual convictions when they choose to dwell in it.”

This podcast is brought to you by Harvard Divinity School. It’s hosted and produced by me, Jonathan Beasley, and edited by Heather Latham.

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by Jonathan Beasley