Trump & evangelicals

Krattenmaker-tomBy Tom Krattenmaker
 Award-winning Portland-based writer
Recent book: The Evangelicals you Don’t Know
Tom’s article also featured on USA Today

It’s nice to see evangelical Christians citing good-sense reasons for their presidential preferences these days. It seems that many are looking not so much for piety but for traits like leadership, strength, competence, and straightforward truth-speaking.

Too bad right reasons are leading so many to a wrong choice.

Donald Trump, despite making little effort to look and sound evangelical in his campaign, enjoyed substantial and important support from conservative Christians on his way to a series of Super Tuesday wins, as he did in South Carolina a few days before. Why? To hear it from many of his evangelical supporters, it’s because they’re convinced he would be not a godly president, but a good president.

To put evangelicals’ view of Trump in perspective, consider what we’ve seen over recent decades during a time of tight ties between evangelical voters and the Republic party.

For Republicans seeking the GOP nomination and robust evangelical support in general elections, there has been an imperative for candidates to prove their conservative Christian bona fides. For some, such as George W. Bush, the job came naturally because they actually were evangelical. For others — think John McCain — the attempt was strained but evident nonetheless.

And the candidate’s message, conveyed through evangelical lingo and “dog-whistle” references to scripture and hymns, has generally gone like this: “I am one of you (or at least a lot like you).” Hence, Marco Rubio recently sounding like an evangelical preacher with his stump-speech references to Jesus Christ and the “free gift of salvation” and, in the campaign’s earlier stages, Scott Walker—remember him?—making a big show of the Christian devotional book he always carried with him.

Meanwhile, the rhetoric from the supposed evangelical “kingmakers” has emphasized not only or primarily a candidate’s qualifications, but his faith and theological convictions, leading many a bemused critic to wonder whether the candidates were running to be commander in chief or pastor in chief.

Not that Trump has completely dispensed with telling evangelicals what they want to hear. He promises to defend the nation’s Christian heritage and to make sure that no store employee is stopped from saying “Merry Christmas.” (Whether this will happen by executive order, legislation, or moral suasion Trump has not said.)

But he has frequently botched his biblical references, his “Two Corinthians” blunder at Liberty University serving as Exhibit A. And his “faith walk,” as an evangelical might phrase it, has included many a stumble, especially his admission that he has never asked God for forgiveness. So much for humbleness before the Lord.

So now, with Trump appearing to be well on his way to the nomination, we find little pretending about this boastful, pugnacious billionaire mogul with the two divorces, the trophy wife, the penchant for insults, and the shaky record on hot-button social issues that have been such a prominent part of evangelical politics: gay marriage and abortion. Instead, we hear Trump-supporting evangelicals citing reasons we might expect to hear from non-evangelical voters—reasons that are actually logical when taken at face value.

One of Trump’s evangelical supporters in Oklahoma sums it up this way: “You’re voting for a president; you’re not necessarily voting for a pastor.” Adds this supporter, a retired human resources executive named Less McNiff: “I like the fact that he’s strong.”

It sounds like common sense. As does this comment from the Robert Jeffress, a prominent and politically active evangelical pastor from Texas: Noting how little Trump is saying and doing to model biblical values, Jeffress says, “Okay, let’s let the church do that and let’s just depend upon government to do the other.”

To which many non-evangelical critics of the Christian Right would say, “Exactly! We’ve been urging this for years!”

So here’s to the validity of the reasons many evangelicals are citing for supporting Trump. Here’s to basing one’s presidential choice on a candidate’s strength, competence, consistency, electability, rigorous policy proposals, and the like.

If only they were leading to a candidate who actually had these things.

A member of USA Today’s Board of Contributors, Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion in public life and communications director at Yale Divinity School. He is the author of the book The Evangelicals You Don’t Know.

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