For Christians who oppose him, Donald Trump is obviously someone whose behavior runs counter to the Gospel message, which stresses concern for refugees and the poor, the sick and the broken, the “losers” of society whom Trump derides. He commits the seven deadly sins with ostentation—greed, pride, wrath, and lust come readily to mind—and speaks of them as though they are virtues.
Why, then, did the majority of Christians in the United States, including the vast majority of white evangelical Christians, vote for him? Many people have made economic or cultural arguments to explain their support. But was there something about their understanding of Christianity that encouraged them to adopt, or at least prefer, Trump’s policies?
First let’s acknowledge signs that American culture is moving away from an exclusively Christian identity. The percentage of white Americans who identify as Christian is “declining every year by a percentage point or more as a proportion of the population,” Robert P. Jones, chief executive officer of the Public Religion Research Institute, told the National Catholic Reporter the day after Trump’s election.
Jones, author of The End of White Christian America, elaborated, “White evangelicals in this election aren’t values voters. They’re nostalgia voters. Trump’s line ‘Let’s make America great again’—and his last-minute saying, ‘Look, folks, I’m your last chance’—was really powerful for white evangelicals who see their numbers in the general population slipping.”
Although white American Christianity is not a monolith, a sense of decline concerns many of those who share this identity. Conservative Christians fear that political and cultural authorities don’t understand their opinions, or are outright dismissive of them. They worry about “activist judges” making decisions about religious liberty, gay marriage, and abortion rights.
Conservative Christians fear that political and cultural authorities don’t understand their opinions, or are outright dismissive of them.
“The Republican Party’s platform positions on unborn human life and religious liberty were the bridge between Donald Trump and Christian conservatives,” said Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Christian lobbying group Family Research Council, in an interview with conservative radio host Todd Starnes. “It was the party platform that brokered the deal between Trump and Christian Conservatives—a deal that was sealed in the final debate when Trump vividly described a partial-birth abortion and pledged to appoint pro-life justices.”
Indeed, one pre-election survey of evangelical leaders showed that support for Trump doubled after he released a short list of conservative Supreme Court nominees. Said the Reverend Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, “If Donald Trump wins, he would have to look back and credit that day for mobilizing evangelicals. That’s what changed the tide in many evangelical hearts.”
“Religious liberty” has become a catch-all term to describe a contentious relationship between the state and religious individuals or institutions. Points of friction include controversies about government compulsion (like a failed lawsuit that sought to compel Catholic hospitals to perform abortions, or a controversy over florists who refused to to provide flowers for same-sex weddings); neglect (such as who should fund student transportation to religious schools); or a perceived banishment (for example, removing a display of the Ten Commandments from a courthouse).
The issues go deeper still, into the realm of culture and perception. Conservative Christians resent being painted as simple bigots for their opinions. They begrudge a broader culture that sees religion as irrelevant to people’s lives or political opinions, or that expects churches to bend liberal social norms.
Since the mainstream media has been proven wrong about Trump’s victory, author and television science correspondent Michael Guillen chided the press in a recent op-ed on the Fox News website: “Perhaps now the clueless execs will engage more attentively and knowledgeably with Christian audiences.” Evangelical Franklin Graham went so far as to tweet, “I believe God’s hand intervened” on Election Night “to stop the godless, atheistic progressive agenda from taking control.”
Other Christians, feeling pushed out of the public realm, use the language of persecution. “I believe the voice of Christians is trying to be silenced,” pastor Richie Clendenen told Fox News. “We are moving rapidly toward the criminalization of Christianity.” Pastor Clendenen darkly concludes, “Christian intolerance is real in the 21st century—and many are warning it’s coming to a town near you.”
But even taking as a given that Christians feel disrespected and on the defensive, it still seems odd that they would side with someone so personally out of line with Christian moral standards as Donald Trump. How can people who object to the sexual content of PG-13 movies make common cause with a man who boasts about grabbing women “by the pussy”?
In a recent article in Commonweal, the Catholic magazine where I work, Wisconsin-based theology professor Karen E. Park suggests that Trump’s appeal has something to do with the theology of American evangelicalism itself. In the historical debate between Christian sects about salvation by faith or works, evangelicals fall in the “faith” camp. They believe in Trump because Trump said he believes.
“In the pared-down, stripped-down, non-magisterial American evangelical theology of today, the behavior of a super-sinner like Trump is irrelevant, since even with his gambling, his fornication, his divorces, and his crude and ugly behavior, he is just as close to being a Christian as anyone else,” Park writes. “He doesn’t need works; he just needs to make an individual statement (accountable to no authority) that he is a Christian. Sadly, at least for now, this seems to be enough.”
Others offer an explanation based on pragmatism. “It’s not about the lack of virtue of Donald Trump, it’s about the people who are going to be affected,” said Christian author Eric Metaxas in a pre-election interview on Fox News. “If you care about somebody, you sometimes have to work with people you don’t like.”
The alternative, he warned, would be “a couple more Sotomayors or Ginsburgs on the court,” at which point “religious liberty goes out the window.” Indeed, according to Metaxas, Christians had a moral obligation not to abstain from voting this election. He said that even if you don’t like Trump, if you don’t vote for him, “God’s going to hold you responsible for the policies of Hillary Clinton.”
Many Christians who support Trump have specifically religious motivations for doing so. But so do the many Christians who oppose him or his policies.
Across the country, Christians are playing a vital role in the protests and other blowback being directed at the Trump Administration as it works to expel immigrants, erode workplace protections, ratchet up belligerent foreign policy rhetoric, undermine efforts to combat climate change, and establish barriers to entry into the United States based on religion. Some Christians hold these positions alongside more conservative views on issues like abortion and gay marriage.
Clayton Sinyai of the Catholic Labor Network explains: “Catholic social teaching is ‘right’ on issues such as family, sexuality, and religious freedom, and ‘left’ on issues such as immigration, labor unions, economic justice, and environmental protection.”
Catholic Labor, Sinyai says, has been “working hard to inform and educate audiences of the Catholic faithful, whether they voted for Trump or Clinton, that Catholic social teaching is firmly on the side of justice for the immigrant and stranger.”
Jim Wallis, founder of the Christian community Sojourners, emphasized in an interview the importance of being not simply a political action group, but “trying to take responses to a deeper place: faith and relationships.”
Sojourners’ Matthew 25 Pledge, based on the Gospel passage, sets it forth succinctly: “I pledge to protect and defend vulnerable people in the name of Jesus.” The group is using email and social media campaigns to encourage support for the pledge, which advocates for three groups: undocumented immigrants, people of color, and Muslims.
It encourages Christian churches and groups to be a safe haven for the undocumented; Wallis states in no uncertain terms, “If you’re undocumented, they’ll have to arrest you in our churches.” To advocate for people of color, Sojourners is attempting to meet with sheriffs and police chiefs throughout the country to discuss the role of race in policing. And if there is a Muslim registry, Wallis expects to see “priests and pastors in line” ahead of Muslims.
Other groups, including Catholic Climate Covenant, encourage people to contact their representatives about current legislation. Daniel Misleh, the group’s executive director, says it is also organizing top Catholic leaders from “universities, hospitals, heads of religious orders, and Catholic institutions, as well as theologians” to sign a letter to the Trump Administration advocating for the endangered Clean Power Plan first proposed during the Obama administration.
Misleh credits Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ (subtitled “On Care for Our Common Home”) with rekindling Christian interest in environmental justice. The encyclical critiques environmental degradation, consumerism, and a “throwaway culture” that results from a bad relationship between God, humans, and creation. According to Misleh, it “has been a tremendous unifier in the faith community broadly and has helped affirm care for creation as core to all faiths.”
Using the lessons of Laudato Si’, Catholic Climate Covenant is reaching out to individual dioceses, parishes, and priests to encourage them to make social justice a priority.
“Many people are too busy, or not hearing it from the pulpit, or don’t see how ecological issues directly affect their daily lives,” Misleh says. “We have many programs that try to address this, including our new pastoral training program whereby we are invited into a diocese by the bishop to help his priests and deacons gain a comfort level in speaking about these issues from the pulpit.”
Importantly, these groups seek to connect with fellow Christians who do not share their view. Wallis says Sojourners is “trying to be unifying,” as it seeks out dialogue on Christian college campuses. Some Trump supporters, he notes, are already having “buyer’s remorse.”
Evangelicals for Social Action encourages discussion on its blog and social media accounts. One initiative, called #100Days100Dinners, seeks “person-to-person fellowship,” explains interim director Sarah Withrow King. “The more we can look into the faces of our brothers and sisters, hear their voices and stories, know their deepest fears and their grandkids’ names, the easier it will be to love one another well.”
“The more we can look into the faces of our brothers and sisters, hear their voices and stories, know their deepest fears and their grandkids’ names, the easier it will be to love one another well.”
The work is hard, but the tone of these organizations and their leaders is hopeful. Sinyai considers the life of his own church. “I attend a blue-collar Catholic parish, and a lot of my fellow parishioners voted for Trump. They did so primarily motivated by concerns about issues such as abortion and religious freedom,” he says. “However, they are also people who take their Christian obligations toward the needy and the stranger seriously, and many are prepared to speak up against executive actions targeting refugees and immigrants.”
Wallis believes that dialogue among Christians is “not just more necessary . . . but more possible.” And King says, “It’s difficult to hold commitments to love, truth, justice, and dialogue in the same hand, but that’s exactly what the Good News equips us to do.”