• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Why It’s Not Just Nominal Evangelicals Supporting Donald Trump

(RNS) — Since Donald Trump became president, many of us have wondered: Why would reasonable, mainstream evangelicals support him?

Until now, we’ve tried to answer that question by analyzing it politically. But looking outside politics might actually provide the clue.

During the election campaign, many evangelicals consoled themselves in the face of Trump’s rise to power that it was only nominal evangelicals, those many millions of Americans who blithely call themselves “born-again” or retain some other slight, vestigial linkage with the great tradition of revivalism, who were supporting him. Real evangelicals, whom we might better call observant evangelicals — the people who regularly went to church, read their Bibles, prayed, tithed and so on — surely were supporting someone else.

Alas, the poll data so widely reported seem to provide no comfort of this sort at all. White evangelicals both nominal and observant supported Trump in large numbers, and still do.

A couple of explanatory factors have already been widely discussed. Unlike black evangelicals, whose worship typically features themes of corporate oppression, suffering and liberation, for most of this century white evangelicals have subsisted largely on a spiritual diet of highly individualized piety. Their preaching, hymnody and spiritual practices have combined to emphasize the central value of one’s personal relationship with Jesus. So long as that relationship remains intact, one might infer, everything else is relatively unimportant.

Except abortion. That, for a generation now, has been the No. 1 issue of our time. The deliberate choice by evangelical leaders —especially, but not only, those who were involved in the Moral Majority — to focus on abortion as the litmus test for righteousness in politics has meant that Candidate A might be more obviously Christian than Candidate B on a long list of important issues, but if Candidate B is “right” on abortion, Candidate B gets the evangelical vote.

What then if Candidate B is a blatantly impious person? Well, evangelicals are nothing if not pragmatic, and while they would prefer a candidate who prays and worships and reads the Bible like they do, if abortion is what really matters, then abortion is what really matters.

Beyond a narrow focus on personal piety and abortion, however, what about other economic or political issues? It’s not as if evangelicals don’t care about them. In fact, some evangelical leaders have tried to broaden the evangelical outlook and agenda to include such crucial items as religious persecution, sexual slavery, poverty, AIDS and more. And evangelicals, like anyone else, care about their own economic welfare.

So why Trump? Here two other factors come into play.

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