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Support for Trump reveals ‘values deficit’ among evangelicals

By ERIC MOUNT

Contributing columnist

In the words of evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr., evangelicals “have found their dream president.”

Eighty percent of white evangelical Protestants voted for President Trump; and with their current 75-percent support (either “mostly favorable” or ”very favorable,” according to a January 2018 Public Religion Research Institute poll), they are making history. That number puts their current support at an all-time high over his previous numbers as a candidate and in office, placing him ahead of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush at their peaks.

It makes them the only Christian group to have elevated its support during the past year and now the only Christian group to maintain a positive percentage at the end of 2017. Only 42 percent of the general population is supportive, according to the same poll.

A recent rejoinder concerning the “dream” comes from an impeccably credentialed evangelical and Republican, Michael Gerson.  His article, “The Last Temptation,” in the April issue of The Atlantic is subtitled “How Evangelicals Lost Their Way and Got Hooked by Donald Trump.” Wherein lies the disparity between these contrasting estimates?  There is a values deficit, it turns out.

Gerson was chief speech writer and senior policy advisor for George W. Bush, an outspoken evangelical himself; and he is now a nationally syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, as well as a policy fellow for the One Campaign and a visiting fellow with the Center for Public Justice. It is his judgment that certain evangelical leaders, such as Falwell and Franklin Graham, are “acting like slimy political operatives, not moral leaders.”  They have “lost their interest in decency.” They are able to “wink at Stormy Daniels, at nativism, at racism, at misogyny.” In so doing, they are betraying a great evangelical tradition.

Gerson knows the tradition well. He was reared and educated (at Wheaton College) in it.  Though difficult to define, evangelicalism surely “encompasses a ‘born-again’ religious experience, a commitment to the authority of the Bible, and an emphasis on the redemptive power of Jesus Christ.” In contrast, Gerson cites Trump’s materialism, his tribalism and hatred for the “other,” his strength-worship and contempt for “losers” as contradictions of Jesus’s radical ethic of neighbor love.  

Before the Civil War, northern evangelicals assumed a connection between moralism and social justice. They stood for temperance, humane treatment of the mentally disabled and prison reform; but especially and mainly, they “militated for the end of slavery.” Southern evangelicals tended either to cite proof texts that justified slavery or to claim that the “spirituality of the church” meant that they should concern themselves with the saving of souls rather than social change. Northern evangelicals, in contrast, were optimistic that their social activism and missionary activity could advance the kingdom of God on earth. The Civil War quelled the optimism, and the emergence of higher criticism of the Bible and the theory of evolution “drove a wedge between evangelicalism and elite culture.”

This wedge triggered two very different responses. Religious progressives sought common ground between faith and the new science and higher criticism, and they often espoused the Social Gospel, which sought to reform economic, political and other institutional structures.  Emergent fundamentalism reacted not only against higher criticism and evolution, but also against the Social Gospel. Progressive social concern became suspect.

As fundamentalism became increasingly reactive and politically irrelevant, Billy Graham and some other evangelical leaders broke with fundamentalism and urged greater cultural and intellectual engagement.  Graham cultivated relationships with presidents and integrated his crusades. However, he and the other white evangelical leaders either sat out or even opposed the civil rights movement. They instead focused their attention on Christian schools, school prayer and abortion.  

According to Gerson, evangelical politics “remained decidedly conservative and also decidedly reactive.” Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, they had no system of social thought to guide them in seeking to advance the common good, and their political agenda has been narrowly reactive. President Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief is an impressive exception.  

There have been other important efforts by individual Christians and evangelical ministries on behalf of refugee resettlement, treatment of addiction and foster care, to cite only a few examples, but, says Gerson, “such concerns find limited collective political expression.” The reason social justice is not a high priority for many white evangelicals (Many African-Americans and Latinos have evangelical theological views), is their “relative ethnic and racial insularity.”  “Nearly all denominations with large numbers of evangelicals are less racially diverse than the country overall.” (By contrast, the Catholic Church is one-third Hispanic.)

In light of our nation’s history of slavery and segregation, Gerson sees racial prejudice as “a special category of moral wrong.”

“Americans who are wrong on this issue do not understand the nature of their country.  Christians who are wrong on this issue do not understand the most basic requirements of their faith.” Gerson is not saying that most evangelicals are racists, “but every strong Trump supporter has decided that racism is not a moral disqualification in the president of the United States.”

As long as Donald Trump agrees with them on “religious liberty”, gays (hiring, serving and marrying), abortion and Muslims, they remain ardent supporters. For Gerson, “that is more than a political compromise.  It is a revelation of moral priorities.”

We began with a survey revealing that only very supportive white Protestant evangelicals among Christian groups increased their support of President Trump during 2017 despite his record on race. Fellow evangelical Michael Gerson has made a telling diagnosis of racism as the central moral problem.

Still another evangelical, Michael Emerson, author of Divided Faith, cites the effect of President Trump’s election on race relations in evangelical churches: “The election itself was the single most harmful event to the whole movement of reconciliation in at least the past 30 years.”  The white evangelical soul-searching continues.

SO YOU KNOW

According to a January poll from the Public Religion Research Institute, 68 percent of white evangelical Protestants had a positive — “mostly favorable or very favorable” — view of President Donald Trump. The same percentage had a favorable opinion of Trump a year earlier, but those giving Trump a “very favorable” rating rose from 25 percent to 32 percent.

Among white mainline Protestants, 41 percent had favorable views of Trump in January 2018, down from 57 percent in January 2017. Catholic support for the president dropped from 38 percent to 36 percent; support from “unaffilliated” people dropped from 34 percent to 28 percent; and support from Protestant people of color dropped from 32 percent to 16 percent.

Unfavorable ratings for Trump — “mostly unfavorable and “very unfavorable” — rose in every category from 2017 to 2018.