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.