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Trump’s Evangelical Voters Are Not Hypocrites

It is widely believed evangelicals acted hypocritically when they voted for Trump. This is mistaken.

In a recent feature for Vox, Sean Illing interviews Stephen Mansfield, author of the new book Choosing Donald Trump, a guide to understanding why evangelicals went all in for Trump.

Throughout the interview, Illing’s questions reveal he has little familiarity with evangelical Christianity — he bakes assumptions into his line of questioning that contrast with a Christian framework at a fundamental level. Illing’s assumptions do not represent an idiosyncratic interpretation of evangelical political habits; they’re actually widely held. Surprisingly, Mansfield’s responses also seem to misunderstand the psychological disposition of this same group of voters.

Let’s take a look at Illing’s questions, which I think function as the best summary of the case for seeing Trump-voting Christians as hypocritical.

Q1: Why did so many Christian conservatives flock to Trump?

Q2: One question I have is why should any of these people have believed that Trump was with them? Or that he could be trusted? The man’s entire life is stuffed with lies and distortions and debaucheries.

Q3: Why did [some evangelical leaders] prostrate themselves before Trump? Were they just opportunists looking to elbow their way closer to power?

Q4: I look at this behavior from the outside and think: These religious leaders are charlatans. If they were willing to bend the knee for a man like Trump, who personifies everything they claimed to despise, then they’re frauds — all of them. Is that unfair?

Q5: If Trump turns out to be a moral and political disaster, is the religious right in this country permanently damaged?

Q6: Even for a skeptic like me, it was shocking to see all these people who for so many years preached the importance of moral character completely abandon everything for the sake of raw political calculation.

Q7: Again, from the outside, I look at this and conclude that religion was never as paramount as these people claimed it was. I think it was always a prop, used to justify deeper values and biases.

Q8: I think you’re making excuses for these religious leaders. I think you’re not giving them credit for knowing exactly what they’re doing. I don’t think we should give them the benefit of doubt and assume they’ve been duped. In fact, I think it’s imperative that we do the opposite and call them on their hucksterism.

Q9: What do you think becomes of the fractured relationship between the Christian evangelical community and the Republican Party? This was always a tenuous alliance, and it appears to have finally blown apart. What happens now?

There is a thread that runs through these questions. The underlying rationale, embedded throughout Illing’s inquiry, is that evangelicals are hypocrites for casting their vote for Donald Trump.

Here’s my reconstruction of Illing’s perspective:

(1) Evangelicals place a great deal of value on virtuous living. They believe holiness is of paramount importance.

(2) If evangelicals are going to be consistent, a decisive electoral consideration for them will be the personal character of the candidate.

(3) Donald Trump does not live virtuously; he does not possess a high moral character.

(4) Evangelicals overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump.

(5) Evangelicals are hypocrites.

Evangelical Christians have no issue with the conclusion, i.e. (5) — after all, that’s one thing a robust doctrine of sin does for you: it dramatically familiarizes you with your own shortcomings.

That being said, the above argument is not a good one. It doesn’t establish that evangelicals were hypocritical on this occasion. In other words, there’s no good reason to think that by voting for Trump, evangelicals have behaved hypocritically. I’ll offer a weak reason for thinking this and then a stronger one.

What About Hillary?

Why should we not conclude that evangelicals acted hypocritically? Take a look at the argument once more. The second claim — claim (2) — suggests a candidate’s moral qualities should be supremely important to evangelicals. Yet what’s missing from the picture thus far is any reference to Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump’s main opponent in 2016 for the presidency.

Why is this a significant omission? Because elections inherently require comparative judgments, not absolute ones. Evangelicals, like all voters, had to weigh the prospect of a Trump presidency not absolutely but relative to the alternative: Hillary Clinton.

For Donald Trump, the nomination of Hillary Clinton was a blessing from on high. Evangelicals have a very low opinion of Hillary’s character. What this means is the election wasn’t between a candidate evangelicals believed to be morally unworthy and a candidate evangelicals believed to be morally upstanding; many evangelicals saw in Hillary someone even more morally compromised than Trump.

But it might be asked, “What about the primaries?” Interestingly, in the primaries, evangelicals did not rally behind Trump. Enough of them did, certainly, but they were not a monolithic voting bloc by any stretch; Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz picked up significant evangelical support at the leadership and individual level. The divide at this stage in the electoral process had to do with intensity of religious commitment: regular church attendance seemed to correlate with higher levels of support for Cruz, Rubio, and others.

During the general election, evangelicals coalesced around the Republican nominee, but there’s a case to be made that Hillary’s presence in the opposite corner did a lot to sway those Christian voters who were uneasy with Trump into a place of support for him.

It should be noted that just because I’m pushing back against the claim that evangelical support for Trump is ipso facto hypocritical doesn’t mean I’m saying it is morally in the clear. Lots of actions are immoral without being hypocritical. Jerry Falwell Jr. and Robert Jeffress are Christian leaders whose support for Donald Trump is morally problematic, but for other reasons. They are guilty of disastrous theological and political reasoning, not to mention a shameful violation of norms, such as honesty, that their support for Trump has required them to commit.

But if evangelical voters saw Hillary as even less scrupulous than Trump, then it means they were not acting hypocritically when they backed her chief rival.

This argument isn’t very satisfying, which is why I’ve characterized it as weak. Don’t get me wrong: I think it accurately describes the psychological states of many evangelical voters. But it’s weak because it doesn’t provide justification for Trump enthusiasm, which is what many of these voters went on to exhibit. This is an argument for reluctant Trump support, which grew rarer as the general election rolled on. The fact that many of these voters became fervent Trumpistas indicates they went beyond mere “lesser evil” reasoning; it is more accurate to say they genuinely embraced Trump.

Evangelicals Believe God Can Use Secular Leaders

So we need the stronger argument, which involves rejecting (2), above, as plainly false.

Illing assumes that because evangelical sexual ethics places a premium on holiness, this must mean a candidate’s sexual life is instantly elevated to the highest consideration. Illing assumes that because evangelical standards of decency require kindness, gentleness, and love, this must mean a candidate’s treatment of others automatically overrides other factors. But this is not an accurate read of evangelical priorities.

Evangelicals give themselves wide latitude to have their causes advanced by ungodly men. They are perfectly willing to give political support to secular presidents, kings, and rulers who in return offer to promote their policies. That’s just it — evangelicals care more about a president’s policies than his piety. They would rather back an atheist who can be counted on to carry forward their agenda than a Christian who could not.

To my knowledge, in 2016, there were very few attempts to turn Trump into an ethical exemplar for Christians. Throughout the election evangelicals were by and large unequivocal in their depiction of Trump as morally compromised. Some tried to soften just how morally compromised he really was, but there was no one arguing that Trump is a paragon of virtue. The argument was never that Trump’s lifestyle choices were commendable but that he possessed the characteristics and the resolve to make the right choices for our country.

Anecdotally, every Christian Trump supporter I spoke to said something along the lines of: “I realize he doesn’t care about our faith, but all that matters is what he does as president.” The same sentiment was sometimes captured in folksy sayings: “We’re electing a commander-in-chief, not a pastor-in-chief.” The idea is that, since this is the realm of politics, evangelicals should prioritize political goals rather than personal holiness.

This is not a theologically novel position, forced on Christians by the exigencies of the present age; this is longstanding Christian tradition. Here is the apostle Paul, writing to Christians to inform them what their postures should be toward civil government:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (Romans 13:1–7)

Was this written at a time when Christianity and citizenship were intertwined so that rebellion against one’s government represented rebellion against the Christian church? That would come much later. Paul wrote this when the idea of a Christian ruler was still a far off dream. Constantine would not issue the Edict of Milan — making Christianity legal — until 313, and Theodosius would not issue the Edict of Thessalonica — making Christianity the state-sponsored religion — until 380. That’s obviously quite a while after Paul wrote his letter to the Romans.

Evangelicals have accepted the necessity of secular leadership. It’s not hard for them to accommodate this because they understand the distinction between civil government and ecclesiastical authority. So it is not necessarily the case that evangelical support for Trump is hypocritical in nature.

As I said above, that doesn’t get evangelicals off the hook. But then again, that’s not the goal here. I’m not providing apologia for Trump voters; I’m providing political analysis.

Still, if we wanted to make a case for the immorality of Trump support, and if the charge of hypocrisy is off the table, what can we say that Trump’s evangelicals got wrong?

There are lots of things we might say. To offer just one, consider a recent piece by Michael Gerson in the Washington Post.

Gerson acknowledges — rather weakly, it must be noted — that Trump has made a decisive difference as president. That certainly seems correct when one considers how different things would have gone, in key areas, had Hillary won the presidency. When it comes to the judiciary and to the issue of religious freedom, Trump has been far better for evangelicals than Hillary would have been. These are issues of supreme importance for Christians.

Where’s the negative in all this? While it’s easy to point to concrete examples of Trump carrying forward the evangelical agenda on judges — for example, by citing the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court bench — it’s harder to make the more abstract point about Trump’s effect on social and political norms.

Gerson writes that the chief cost of backing Trump has been his “assault on truth.”

Trump embodies a posture toward truth that is deeply troubling. He lies with stunning regularity. At one level, it’s understandable. In the business world, a brand must advance a narrative that helps it attain its objectives — the “truth” of the matter is not a consideration that brands care about, so long as being untruthful doesn’t hurt the brand’s business prospects. Trump’s political brand needs the narrative to go a certain way, which licenses the White House to engage in misinformation campaigns offering counternarratives utterly unconnected to any basis in reality. I’m describing a propaganda machine, which is what the White House communications strategy sometimes resembles.

Gerson writes:

The pattern is invariable. President Barack Obama is a Kenyan; the Mexican government deliberately dumps criminals across the border; “thousands and thousands” of people in New Jersey celebrated the 9/11 attacks ; Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s father consorted with Lee Harvey Oswald; vaccination schedules can be tied to autism; Obama was “wiretapping” Trump Tower during the presidential campaign; Obama asked British intelligence to spy on Trump; at least 3 million immigrants voted illegally in the 2016 election. Any source that disputes Trump is personally defamed or dismissed as “fake news.” And how is truth ultimately adjudicated? “The country believes me,” Trump said earlier this year. “Hey, I went to Kentucky two nights ago. We had 25,000 people.” Confronted by a reporter about his routine deceptions, Trump answered, “I can’t be doing so badly, because I’m president and you’re not.” …

The problem is not just the constant lies. It is the dismissal of reason and objectivity as inherently elitist and partisan. It is the invitation to supporters to live entirely within Trump’s dark, divisive, dystopian version of reality. It is the attempt to destroy or subvert any source of informed judgment other than Trump himself. This is the construction of a pernicious form of tyranny: a tyranny over the mind.

In addition to Gerson’s worries, we might point to other components of the Trump package that make it a bad deal for evangelicals.

Trump is the president least intellectually suited to the demands of the office we have ever had. He is not only incurious, but anti-curious. Someone who lacks an interest in intellectual development may realize this is a deficiency and, for the good of the country, work extra hard to study up and prepare himself. Trump sees himself as intellectually ready, which means he doesn’t realize how unserious he is.

This is not an elitist point: Andrew Johnson did not have formal schooling, while Trump graduated from one of the top universities in the world — yet despite being a bad president himself, Johnson’s intellectual energies were on another level when compared to Trump’s. Choosing a president who embodies such a disdain for the intellect is injurious to the country in ways that are not easily and immediately discerned.

Evangelicals should not be so quick to make political judgments based on policy outcomes alone. There is more to a country’s health than its policies. The decision to back Trump is not justified simply by being cleared of the charge of hypocrisy.

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