Why did so many Christians vote for Donald Trump?

28 Mar

Exploring the Evangelical-Trump Connection

Introduction

By now, if you’re paying even the slightest bit of attention, you’ve seen the statistics coming out of the November 2016 presidential election. Donald Trump, although despite losing the popular vote by some 3 million votes (unless you believe his narrative that many of them were fraudulent), nonetheless won enough electoral votes to defeat Hillary Clinton and propel him into the Oval Office. This was certainly not the first time that a presidential candidate lost the popular vote, but won enough electoral votes: George Bush did it over Al Gore as recently as 2000.

But perhaps the most surprising twist to come out of Trump’s stunning victory was the exit polls, which identified different voting blocs who voted for him. Or maybe it wasn’t so surprising, after all. The reality seems to be that many of the Christians who voted for Trump were being consistent with their voting record in the past regarding Republican candidates. In other words, many voted down party lines.

According to a Pew Research article analyzing the statistics from the exit polls, Smith and Martinez comment that in actuality, not much has really changed in terms of voter orientation. They state:

The 2016 presidential exit polling reveals little change in the political alignments of U.S. religious groups. Those who supported Republican candidates in recent elections, such as white born-again or evangelical Christians and white Catholics, strongly supported Donald Trump as well. Groups that traditionally backed Democratic candidates, including religious “nones,” Hispanic Catholics and Jews, were firmly in Hillary Clinton’s corner.[1]

Although statistics are obviously going to be disputed by some, the basic numbers that most seem to have settled on are these: roughly 80-81% of self-identified “white, evangelical Christians” voted for Trump, or basically 8 out of 10; conversely, from that same voting bloc, only 16% voted for Trump. 60% of white Catholics voted for Trump, whereas only 37% backed Clinton.

In certain states, such as in Florida, the numbers were even more disproportionate: there the numbers were 85% who voted Trump, with just 13% voting for Clinton.[2] It would be too simplistic at this stage simply to argue that most white evangelical Christians voted for Trump because “they couldn’t stand Hillary,” whatever the reasons may have been. And there were a lot to choose from: even though she is a self-confessed Christian, and regular church attender, there was a massive level of distrust—and disgust too—among large segments of evangelicals.

In a Washington Post article written just prior to the election, Bailey commented on a strange phenomenon taking place at the time. Despite Trump’s shocking comments about women (the infamous “pussy-grabber” comments that had just been leaked), his serial infidelity and so much more, many evangelicals preferred to overlook all of it. Many figured that each new revelation would destroy his chances to get into the Oval Office, but he was like the “Teflon Don”–nothing seemed to stick to him. Even more bizarrely, scandals that would have destroyed most candidates’ careers only seemed to strengthen Trump’s drive toward the White House.

Despite his words and actions being far from “Christ-like,” many evangelicals supported Trump because, they believed, if he were elected, he’d stand up for their values. Oddly enough, however, it was Clinton who seemed to be more in line with some sort of “Christian ideal” than Trump. Clinton, for example, was a long-time attendee of a United Methodist church, had longstanding ties to evangelical leaders, taught Sunday School, and even attended weekly prayer breakfasts when she was a senator. So why did so many evangelicals hate Clinton so much? Was it simply because she attended a liberal church, or what? It turns out that the root of their dislike for Clinton, like in so many cases, ran far deeper.

Bailey summarized the problem when she stated that

She [Clinton] symbolizes much that runs against their [evangelicals] beliefs: abortion rights advocacy, feminism and, conversely, a rejection of biblical ideas of femininity and womanhood. Perhaps even more significantly, Hillary Clinton, as an outspoken and activist first lady, is inextricably tied in the minds of conservative Christians to their loss of the culture war battles beginning with Bill Clinton’s first term in 1993.[3]

Trump and Franklin Graham

But it turns out that there wasn’t a pat answer, such as the following one: “Evangelicals hated Hillary, and so the only option left was Trump–despite his glaring flaws.” The issue of whether or not to support Trump in his election run-up was in fact deeply divisive among many Christians. For example, in an opinion piece in the Dallas News shortly before the election, Pieper and Henderson tried to persuade Texas Christians to examine their Christian convictions prior to the vote. Their argument was simple enough: one can’t be a Christian and vote for Trump. They stated bluntly: “A Christian who supports Trump either does not understand this person and his positions, or supports him in spite of Christian convictions.”[4]

Trump at Liberty University, 2016

Further complicating the issue, though, were the many high-profile evangelical leaders who publicly supported Trump’s election run, which led to division amongst many Christians. The list includes such prestigious names as: Franklin Graham, head of Samaritan’s Purse; theologian and author Wayne Grudem; Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr., who controversially invited Trump to speak there; biographer and radio host Eric Metaxas; and Focus on the Family president Dr. James Dobson. Other high-profile evangelicals such as author Max Lucado, however, denounced Trump; and the Christian Post, in their first-ever political stand, came out against him also.[5]

And we mustn’t forget about many high-profile American pastors who supported Trump also, such as the following: Dallas Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress; Florida’s health-and-wealth gospel preacher Paula White; and Texas-based pastors Mike Murdock and mega-church pastor Joel Osteen. Trump even found a few African-American prosperity pastors who supported him too: pastor of Detroit’s Great Faith International church, Bishop Wayne T. Jackson, and Mark Burns, to name but a few.

Pastors praying for Trump, 2016

Some have suggested that among prosperity preachers who supported Trump, this was a natural fit in terms of their theology. God blesses us financially; Trump bringing jobs back to America, and creating wealth, can easily be made to fit into that theological paradigm. Interestingly, however, Trump did not seek to align himself with A-list prosperity preachers, but rather what might be considered more of “D-list” preachers with smaller churches. Since most of these were African-American pastors, it worked out well for both, as Anthea Butler explains:

Connecting to Trump gives them [African-American prosperity preachers] a huge boost in national visibility. In return, Trump gets photo-ops with black congregations and pastors and credibility with white voters and some evangelicals. It may be tempting to think of these relationships as solid endorsements, but they are best seen as “entrepreneurial relationships” benefiting both parties.[6]

Therefore, for some pastors who supported Trump, it turned out to be a “win-win” scenario, perhaps more akin to a backroom business deal that is mutually beneficial to both parties. But even this doesn’t explain the massive numbers who voted for Trump. Are there other factors involved?

Evangelicals and Economic Factors

Myriam Renaud’s article exploring the question of why so many white evangelicals voted for Trump argues that it would be all-too easy to assign the reason to issues like repealing Roe v. Wade, or future Supreme Court nominees. She notes that there were basically two main factors identified as the main reasons why so many evangelicals voted for Trump instead of Clinton:

In total, nearly half of white evangelicals considered the economy or national security most important when choosing between presidential candidates. Even when the Pew Research Center asked them which issues—not limited to a single one—were “very important” to them in deciding how to cast their votes, terrorism (89%) and the economy (87%) ranked higher than Supreme Court appointments (70%) and abortion (52%).[7]

Therefore, the principal motivations for many white evangelical Trump voters were concerns about the economy, and the security of the nation. Given his anti-Muslim and anti-Hispanic rhetoric during his campaign, one could perhaps understand why evangelicals might embrace Trump, if they were truly that concerned about national security.

But at first glance, their support for Trump’s economic aims may seem strange, because (at least on the surface), most of those white evangelicals are better off financially than among non-Hispanic whites. So why such concern over the future of the economy? Reynaud claims it has to do with the fact that although they may still be financially doing well enough, they aren’t doing as well as they did in the past; labeled the “new poor,” they are feeling increasingly “left behind financially.”

The support for Trump may indeed seem strange, though, given the fact that so many evangelicals objected to his lack of character, integrity, racism, misogynistic tendencies, and so forth. For example, according to a Barna Group survey, 49% of white evangelicals believed that he lacked “strong moral character,” and just 15% considered him to be “authentically Christian.”

Reynaud further maintains:

Trump successfully tapped into their [white evangelicals] economic anxiety—justified or not—with his slogan: “Make American Great Again.” Hillary Clinton, with her insistence that America was already great, probably appeared horribly out of touch. Trump, in contrast, agreed with the new poor that the nation’s economy was in trouble. He promised seemingly quick fixes like eliminating trade agreements that appeared to favor foreign companies over American ones, forcing U.S.-based companies to keep jobs stateside instead of shipping them overseas, and reducing competition for jobs with a tough stance toward illegal immigrants. In his first press conference as President-elect last week, Trump pledged to be “the greatest jobs producer that God ever created.”[8]

Conclusion

What I’ve discovered so far, in researching this topic, is that there is not a single, easy answer as to the question: why did so many Christians vote for Donald Trump? Partly, the loathing for Hillary Clinton, that so many evangelicals still have today, explains some of the reason why that 80% of white evangelicals voted Trump. Her association with Bill Clinton’s policies, and allegations of multiple affairs (ironically, despite her faithfulness to him throughout); and moreover, Clinton’s reversal of many of the Reagan-Bush era policies related to abortion, contraception and family planning, still dogs her to this day.[9]

Prosperity preachers, too, may have aligned themselves with Trump because his stated aims fit into their own theological agenda, and it helped increase their exposure. But perhaps most surprisingly, at least according to Reynaud’s research into the subject, one of the major reasons why so many evangelicals were willing to overlook Trump’s glaring character flaws and still vote for him, came down one major reason: they supported the candidate whom they believed most guaranteed their economic future and well-being. Secondarily, then, their distrust and fear of Hillary Clinton obviously played a major role also.

So what does being a Christian have to do with one’s economic future? Does that alone explain the overwhelming support for Trump among white evangelicals?

One thing is certain: the nation is, right now, being quite literally divided over Donald Trump’s presidency. Compounding this division is the fact that such a disproportionate number of white evangelicals voted for him—and many continue to support him publicly—isn’t helping that at all. In my opinion, it’s only contributing to the already-widening divide. The reality is, too, that this current situation has only revealed issues that were already there; it’s just that they were perhaps below the surface. Now, however, they are being revealed, and the picture isn’t a pretty one.

In the next article, I want to delve into the issue of how the church in America feels embattled and under threat. How many of those 80% who voted for Trump did so because they believed he would be the best candidate to ensure that their status as American Christians wouldn’t be threatened?

Read the Next Article in the Series: Why do so Many Christians Support Donald Trump?

Footnotes

[1] Smith, Gregory A., and Jessica Martinez. “How the Faithful Voted: A Preliminary 2016 Analysis.” Nov. 9, 2016: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/09/how-the-faithful-voted-a-preliminary-2016-analysis/ (Accessed 28 March 2017).

[2] Bailey, Sarah Pulliam. The Washington Post, “White Evangelicals Voted Overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, Exit Polls Show.” Nov. 9, 2016: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/11/09/exit-polls-show-white-evangelicals-voted-overwhelmingly-for-donald-trump/ (Accessed 28 March 2017).

[3] Bailey, Sarah Pulliam. The Washington Post, “The Deep Disgust for Hillary Clinton that Drives so Many Evangelicals to Support Trump.” Oct. 6, 2016: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/10/09/the-deep-disgust-for-hillary-clinton-that-drives-so-many-evangelicals-to-support-trump/ (Accessed 28 March 2017).

[4] Pieper, Christopher, and Matt Henderson. Dallas News, “10 Reasons You Can’t be a Christian and Vote for Donald Trump.” Nov. 6, 2016: http://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/commentary/2016/02/29/pieper-and-henderson-10-reasons-you-cant-be-a-christian-and-vote-for-donald-trump (Accessed 28th March 2017).

[5] Dias, Elizabeth. Time Magazine, “Donald Trump’s Prosperity Preachers.” 2017: http://time.com/donald-trump-prosperity-preachers/ (Accessed 28th March 2017).

[6] Butler, Anthea. The Washington Post, “How the Prosperity Preachers Supporting Trump are Using Him to Sell Themselves.” Sept. 9, 2016: https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/09/09/how-the-prosperity-preachers-supporting-trump-are-using-him-to-sell-themselves/ (Accessed 28th March 2017).

[7] Renaud, Myriam. University of Chicago Divinity School, “Myths Debunked: Why did White Evangelicals Vote for Trump?” Jan. 19, 2017: https://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings/myths-debunked-why-did-white-evangelical-christians-vote-trump (Accessed 28 March 2017).

[8] Reynaud, “Myths Debunked.”

[9] Bailey, “The Deep Disgust for Hillary Clinton.”

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