Evangelical exiles: How Trump is driving some believers away from the GOP

Donald Trump visits Great Faith International Ministries in Detroit on Sept. 3, 2016 (Evan Vucci/AP).

Donald Trump may “love the evangelicals,” but the feeling is certainly not mutual among a good portion of them.

More than half of the most committed evangelical Christians didn’t support Donald Trump for president in the Republican primary. And although a majority of them have resigned themselves to backing him rather than supporting the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, evangelicalism is changing in ways that may not be apparent to the casual observer.

Trump’s candidacy, in fact, is helping to accelerate the trend pushing some evangelicals away from an automatic affiliation with the Republican Party. Evangelicals oppose Trump for a few reasons: They view his character as repugnant and his temperament as dangerous. And while many of them do not like Clinton, they are not as alarmed by their policy disagreements with her as they are by the idea that the church would align itself with someone like Trump.

Two individuals I’ve encountered over the past few months most vividly demonstrate the changing face of evangelicalism, which is increasingly looking past national solutions and focusing on local activism and community building.

Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, oversees an old-guard institution that for decades was part of the religious right and that was known for its reactionary positions and its hostility toward those it disagreed with. Under Daly, that’s changing.

Daly is still conservative on abortion and gay marriage, but he doesn’t emphasize these social issues, and when he discusses them, it’s in far less combative terms than James Dobson, its founder, ever did. He represents a trend that has been developing for nearly two decades of conservative Christians under a certain age realizing that because their views are no longer the cultural norm, they need to adopt a different approach in dealing with those they disagree with.

Michelle Higgins, 35, is a church minister and local activist in St. Louis. Higgins is trying to bridge the very wide gap between theologically conservative Christianity and the Black Lives Matter movement. She identifies both as an evangelical and as a Black Lives Matter activist. She is a part of both groups, but in the minority in each. Conservative evangelicalism is largely white, and the Black Lives Matter movement is mostly secular in orientation.

Daly and Higgins are following a similar path. They share the same fundamental beliefs and want to live them out in the public square very differently from evangelicals of the past. They reject the idea that Christians are at war with mainstream culture, and instead seek to work for the common good.

It’s unclear how this will play out politically, but a growing and active subset of Christians are determined to reclaim the evangelical label, and to reject the idea that they are a monolithic voting bloc that marches in lockstep with the GOP.

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Yahoo News Senior Political Correspondent Jon Ward talks with David Kinnaman, president of Barna Research Group, about why evangelicals have traditionally had an outsized influence in U.S. politics and what it means to be an evangelical in America today.

In April, Daly sat in Denver on a couch in front of several hundred people next to Ted Trimpa, an attorney who’s been active in fighting for gay rights on behalf of the Gill Foundation, one of the biggest funders of LGBT causes.

Daly and Trimpa have worked together for the last few years to fight human trafficking in Colorado. That’s something that would never have happened at Focus on the Family under James Dobson, the man who founded it in 1977. Dobson turned it into a cornerstone of the Christian right for the next 30 years, but retired in 2009.

“For many years, Focus on the Family was the big evil, and we were in pitched battle over issue after issue,” Trimpa told the audience at Q, an annual conference focused on how Christians can have a positive impact on American culture.

Daly, however, told me that his attitude toward culture is markedly different from Dobson’s, due in large part to their age difference. Dobson, who did not respond to requests for an interview, is 80. Daly is 54.

“All of the culture warriors — Jerry Falwell, Dr. Dobson, Pat Robertson, Chuck Colson — to my knowledge, they were all born in the late ’20s and the ’30s. And I would say, generationally, they were people that were coming out of a social structure that their belief was rather normative,” Daly said. “And when they were losing power, when they were losing that social cohesion, they panicked.”

“I don’t blame them. I think that’s a completely normal reaction,” Daly added. “So they begin to try to call out the poor direction we were headed. … If I were born in the ’30s, I may have been doing the same thing. But I was born in the ’60s.”

Daly’s approach, he said, is more focused on the question of “How do we engage a world that really doesn’t know us and express the heart of God to them? … For me, it’s how do we engage people?”

But Daly has had to fend off plenty of criticism in the process from more conservative Christians, whose views still dominate much of the American church.

“I had some donors who called and said, ‘Look, if you’re going to work with people like him, I’m not going to support you anymore.’ For me, that’s not acceptable. And it was more like, ‘Keep your cash,’” Daly said, on stage next to Trimpa. Daly’s blunt repudiation of what he called a “Pharisee” attitude drew enthusiastic applause from the mostly Christian audience.

“Ted is not my enemy. He’s somebody that Christ died for, just like me,” Daly said.

Gabe Lyons, the 41-year-old founder of Q, who was moderating the discussion, noted that one donor pulled $1 million in funding from Focus on the Family.

Both Daly and Trimpa described ways in which developing a relationship and finding common cause with someone whom they’d viewed with suspicion in the past had changed their perception of the other.

“One of the first things that I learned in getting to know Ted is he has a deep respect for religious liberty. He’s concerned about it. We wouldn’t agree on some aspects of that, on public accommodations and some other things, but I was surprised to hear Ted show deference to religious liberty, because my monolithic view was that everyone in the gay community wants to trump religious liberty. And now I understand that that’s not totally accurate,” Daly said.

Trimpa added: “We spent far too much time in the gay community, and in the left progressive community, vilifying Christianity and looking more skeptically at evangelicals.”

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Michelle Higgins, a young evangelical Christian and Black Lives Matter activist, tells Yahoo News Senior Political Correspondent Jon Ward what is at the root of her faith.

Michelle Higgins is a 35-year-old mother of two young children who lives in St. Louis. Her father, a black man, pastors South City Church, a mostly white Presbyterian congregation. Higgins herself is director of worship and outreach at the church.

For the last few years, Higgins has grown increasingly active in the social justice movement. In 2014, she helped start a group called Faith for Justice, “to create on ramps,” as she described it to me, for evangelicals of all colors to take part in social justice work.

Late last year, Higgins’ worlds of faith and activism collided. She was invited to speak at Urbana, a conference for evangelical college students organized by the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a 75-year-old organization that helps students organize Christian groups on their campuses.

Higgins, in the course of a passionate 30-minute talk largely about racial injustice, criticized what she described as a myopic focus on abortion among many Christians.

“We could end the adoption crisis tomorrow. But we’re too busy arguing to have abortion banned. We’re too busy arguing to defund Planned Parenthood,” she said. “We are too busy withholding mercy from the living so that we might display a big spectacle of how much we want mercy to be shown to the unborn. Where is your mercy? What is your goal in only doing activism that is comfortable?”

Higgins later explained to the New York Times that her personal views on abortion are that “babies are fully human from conception” and that “it would be good to see adoptions increase and abortions decrease.” She told the Times she opposes abortion, but also said she is “against the ‘pro-life’ demands that abortion should be fully banned and carry criminal charges.”

Higgins’ comments at Urbana prompted criticism from anti-abortion groups and several others. “I fail to see how a half-hour harangue by a left-wing church lady who tells white evangelicals in the audience that they ought to be ashamed of their pro-life activism, and of their ancestors for evangelizing Native Americans, is going to build bridges,”Rod Dreher wrote in the American Conservative. He also published several responses to his column, a few of them critical.

Tobin Grant wrote in a piece for the Religion News Service that Higgins was pointing out that “Christians have been willing to be political and activist on issues such as abortion, but not on issues such as racism and inequality, that are more uncomfortable to address.”

“Higgins did more than promote a message that racism is sinful. She placed support of #BlackLivesMatter squarely in the mission of God,” Tobin explained.

“Black Lives Matter is not a mission of hate. It is not a mission to bring about incredible anti-Christian values and reforms to the world,” Higgins said. “Black Lives Matter is a movement on mission in the truth of God.”

While she may be more liberal politically on issues like abortion and gay marriage, Higgins shares with white evangelicals like Daly a commitment to revering the Bible as the written word of God, and a devotion to a precise set of theological beliefs.

“Evangelical, according to, really, a theological persuasion … means, ‘I truly believe in the historical existence of Jesus, that he was born, that he walked this Earth, that he died, that he rose again, and that my life is centered around him. And therefore, my actions should mimic his, and more than that, should be bound up in — hidden in everything that he did. Since I’m risen with him, my life is hidden in him,’” Higgins told me. “And that, to me, means that I go forth and I tell the world that this Jesus can change everything that is wrong with the world.”

Higgins shares something else with Daly that distinguishes them from older generations of evangelicals who identified with the Moral Majority. They are both open to finding common ground with people they may strongly disagree with on certain issues, and ready to work with them for the common good.

Higgins said she does not share the political position of many in the Black Lives Matter movement. “Black Lives Matter as a political ideology is connected to the rebuilding of a liberation movement, and that is so off-putting [for] a number of people, especially Christians, and specifically people who really, really like capitalism,” Higgins told Religion News Service earlier this year.

But Higgins said she formed Faith for Justice because she “wanted evangelicals to know that there is a group of people where you can come and talk about your love for Jesus and your love for justice with no shame,” and because she wanted to help other Christians be “fearless in our associations with people who do not believe everything we think.”

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And so there is a new crop of evangelicals who are not defined by fearfulness about their rapidly diminishing status in mainstream culture. They do not “panic,” to use Daly’s term, when majority opinion is in favor of a sexual ethic at odds with their belief system, because they have been grappling with this reality for years or even decades.

What no one seems to know, however, is how the new evangelicals will behave politically in the coming years. Many reject reflexive loyalty to any political party, but the Democratic Party has not been welcoming. It has become overtly hostile over the past decade to those who oppose abortion and are marriage traditionalists. Only 17 percent of “white evangelical Protestants” support Clinton, according to the Pew Research Center.

Daly said “there was a rational reason” for this.

“You know, when they looked at a pro-life perspective or a pro-marriage perspective, those things seem to resonate within the Republican Party,” he said. “I tell my Democrat friends — I say, ‘If the Democrats were supportive of those two positions, I think there would be many, many Christians there too — many more.’”

The 2016 presidential election is crystallizing many of the dilemmas facing modern evangelicals. This new generation doesn’t like either Trump or Clinton.

Trump, Daly said, is “belligerent. He’s denigrating. He’s everything we’re not.”

But evangelicals also have significant concerns that a Clinton administration would be hostile to conservative churches and organizations on the issues of religious liberty.

And so many are figuring out in real time this year how to proceed when there are no good options for president. Will they choose the lesser of two evils? Or will they throw up their hands and give up on politics all together? When I visited an evangelical congregation in Atlanta called Renovation Church, I interviewed several congregants, and all were deeply conflicted about their choice this election.

“I think there are certainly some ethical concerns with Hillary Clinton. There are a lot of differences from what I believe how the federal government should be run,” said Sam Rauschenberg, a 31-year-old policy aide in the state government. “At the same time, it’s probably more of a continuation of the last eight years, which is not near as potentially harmful having someone who denigrates whole groups of people and won’t listen to the counsel of those around him either.”

Rauschenberg, who comes from a conservative political background, said he was “at a place right now where I’m either choosing whether I’m going to vote for [Clinton] or leave that part of the ticket blank.”

He said this election is causing him to rethink his attitude toward the Republican Party.

“I think that it’s really calling into question — probably in a good way — whether these party allegiances that have been so sacrosanct in our country for so long, that if you’re a certain faith, you vote this certain way (or certain racial group),” he said. “And these lines are blurrier now.”

Rauschenberg represents an evolving evangelical perspective on politics that is a rejection of older evangelicals’ Manichean view of the world. The new evangelical worldview is more comfortable with nuance and ambiguity in public life. These Christians will participate in national elections, and some will run for office at the national level or work for governors, members of Congress and presidents. But the average evangelical will put more effort and time into local solutions and community building, through politics but also through the most anonymous, low-profile activities: teaching arts classes, joining neighborhood gardens, volunteering in homeless shelters and the like.

“When we get past this particular election, no matter who’s president — Democrat or Republican — it’ll force some good soul-searching about how should Christians think about politics,” said Gabe Lyons, the founder of Q.

“Why do we put so much faith in, like, a president to be able to really lead cultural change? I think we should’ve learned this lesson by now, over the last 30 years,” said Lyons. “A new generation does see that, man, our faith’s been hijacked in many cases by political causes, and we want to be true to our faith.”

Lyons put his finger on a common theme that emerged in conversations with the new generation of evangelicals: Think local.

People “are looking for leadership,” he said. “I’m not sure it’s going to come from the presidency. I think, in fact, it’s going to come in our local communities, from civic leaders, from business leaders, from church leaders, who decide we’re going to work on this together and have a common respect of one another — even as we learn to live alongside people we completely might disagree with.”