Mr. Trump, Evangelicals, The Globe, and Crucial Distinctions

Canada’s newspaper of record, the Toronto Globe and Mail, expresses astonishment that Donald Trump, “a profane, thrice-married worshipper of Mammon,” could poll so highly among evangelicals in Iowa and beyond. The story then goes on to quote some dubious explanations from some dubious sources as to why this could be.

Having spent more than a little time studying evangelicals in North America, let me add the following observations to the mix.

1. The phenomenon of evangelicals supporting a decidedly non-evangelical candidate goes back at least as far as Ronald Reagan. It was Reagan who helped American evangelicals get over their scruples about supporting a clearly non-evangelical candidate—even over a clearly evangelical one (Jimmy Carter). Reagan was divorced and attended church less than any president since George Washington. He apparently knew little Scripture and gave no evidence that prayer, churchgoing, Bible-reading, or any other basic marker of serious evangelical piety importantly structured his life.

Reagan did, however, made the right noises about hot-button ethical issues (notably abortion), even if he ended up doing precious little about them (a record that would extend to both Bush presidents), and he appealed on other grounds to middle America—which is where evangelicals preponderate.

2. What about those “other grounds” in this election? As David Frum, among others, has noted, social wedge issues important to many evangelicals (such as abortion and homosexuality) no longer galvanize the broader base in the GOP. Note that no candidate is addressing any of those in this campaign in hopes of gaining evangelical support…for fear of losing the support of others.

What is being discussed instead are other major questions of domestic and foreign policy. Now, here’s the point about evangelicals and politics. Most evangelical churches do not teach any particular view on these subjects: There is no “generic evangelical view” about immigration policy, or intervention in foreign conflicts, or tax rates, or the minimum wage.

Much more importantly, however, these churches also generally fail to train their congregants in how to think about such subjects in a Christian way. Instead, Sunday after Sunday and small-group-meeting after small-group-meeting, they emphasize one’s personal spiritual life, one’s family life, and one’s eternal life. Such a relentless focus on oneself and one’s significant others leaves evangelicals  to decide about matters of domestic and foreign policy largely on other grounds. By default, therefore, they tend to make up their minds like anyone else of their ethnicity, education, class, region, and the like.

3. Having said all that to explain a bit better why evangelicals might support the likes of Mr. Trump, however, I conclude that a more basic issue qualifies all the others. The very categories of “evangelical” or “born again” are useless in polling, in fact, unless such categories are tied to regular churchgoing, orthodox theology, habitual Bible-reading, and other basic features of genuine evangelical life. As I and many others long have argued, when such features are taken into account, many generalizations about “evangelicals” disappear. In particular, weird behaviour inconsistent with evangelical principles (such as, for instance, supporting “a profane, thrice-married worshipper of Mammon”) starkly diminishes.

Consider, for example, what happens when such basic indicators of “observant” or “genuine” evangelicalism are considered: Behold, support for the likes of Donald Trump shrinks remarkably. (Look here.) That remaining support might be explained in terms of points 1 & 2 above. But there is a lot less to explain in the light of point 3.

Alas, evangelicals and Donald Trump share one primary characteristic when it comes to coverage in journals such as the Globe: They are people whom all right-thinking people (such as newspaper reporters) tend not to admire. Indeed, they seem from that vantage point to share a range of secondary characteristics: unsophisticated, even loutish; uninformed, even wilfully ignorant; fearful, even xenophobic; and heavy-handed, even brutal. No wonder such folk expect to see evangelicals supporting Donald Trump.

It’s just that, if we look properly, things are more complicated, and more interesting.

7 Responses to “Mr. Trump, Evangelicals, The Globe, and Crucial Distinctions”

  1. Carmen

    Hi John,
    Hope all’s well with you. Many thanks for these useful qualifiers! One question: In your ‘Mashable’ reference (the first ‘here’ link in your article), it reports that born-again evangelicals support Cruz 37% and Trump 17%. But support from churchgoing evangelicals (a ‘more observant’ subset of the first group, right?) remains the same for Trump but decreases for Cruz (down to 39%). How does this article back your point about the more observant the evangelical community, the less supportive they are of Trump?

  2. Carmen

    Oops – typo: the percentage for Cruz support among churchgoing evangelicals is 29%, not 39%.

    • John

      Thanks, Carmen. You’re right: the significant decrease is among Cruz’s supporters, not Trump’s. What caught my eye initially was the relatively low support for Trump, and I read the rest too quickly…and according to my *own* hermeneutical expectations! (That is, I saw what I expected to see.)

      Indeed, were I not so humble (and you so sharp-eyed), I’d be tempted to edit the post and drop the Mashable reference. But that would be dishonest…and not exactly in keeping with the point of the post, among other values!

      • John

        On second thought, I’d better remove that link so as not to confuse readers who don’t get into the comments. But I’ll these comments here as a stinging reminder to myself not to read too quickly!

  3. None

    Reagan & both Bushes put conservative justices on the Court, which is almost all a president can do w/r/t abortion.

  4. Steve Wilkinson

    Great observation on polling/press Evangelicals vs real Evangelicals. And, you’re closing paragraph was spot-on.

    But, aside from what “None” said above in the comments about court justices,** it’s often more a matter of not being able to vote for a candidate who is known to have a problematic view on the wedge issues.

    It’s not about the conservative being sure the candidate is going to ban abortion or reverse SSM, etc. But, that they can’t imagine what must be going on in the mind of someone who has pushed for those things, which certainly disqualifies them as a good leader or decision maker.

    My guess, is that if there are enough conservatives (or, maybe better, non-committed-liberals) in America to take the vote, they’d elect anyone at this point to keep the liberal (whoever that is) out. That’s scary, but I think that is the reality of the current situation.

    ** The stakes are really high for court appointments in the next presidential cycle (which is where we’ve seen the power really is), so any even semi-conservative who realizes this, is going to NOT vote for the liberal, no matter who the conservative is. It isn’t even so much about the wedge issues as it is about the Supreme Court justices being postmodern interpreters of the Constitution on the liberal side. That horrifies anyone who cares about what America was supposed to be about. (That said, I also think many conservatives are blind to how much their rights have been eroded by their own party.)

  5. picturefinder

    Tucson resident Renay Cunningham, 56, said she had never paid much attention to politics in the past. She plans to cast her first ever vote for Mr. Trump after hearing his proposed policies to curb illegal immigration, which include building a giant wall on the southern border and making Mexico pay for it.

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