There is nothing more to say about Donald Trump. This week he will accept his coronation as the GOP’s candidate for president. Delegates are duty bound to vote for the man. His opponents on the left and the right have no recourse but to wait for the next outrageous thing he will say (without understanding that outrage and counter-outrage is the fusion that powers his personality machine.) The die is cast.
For the little people who claim to be evangelicals, all we have left is to try and convince our aunts and uncles, moms, dads, and the nice old ladies at church to not vote for Donald Trump. But this is very hard to do now. A new poll puts evangelical support of Trump at ⅘.
The expected self mortification has commenced from pastors, bloggers, etc. I admit I’m not encouraged by the statistic but a small dose of reality might be in order. Here are a few reasons why I think the self directed outrage from evangelical pundits is an overreaction.
1. Though Trump is the antithesis of all conceivable Christian values, he has given them all a thumbs-up. It is an unprecedentedly hollow endorsement. Anyone in their right mind can see that he just wants their votes and doesn’t actually care for the Bible (and none of my evangelical friends and relatives who support Trump think so.) But if the GOP has nominated an unprecedentedly immoral man he is running against a candidate (also an immoral one) that has not acknowledged the existence of evangelicals. This would not be hard to do. Even Bernie Sanders spoke at Liberty. But her Methodist background notwithstanding, Hillary Clinton deliberately eschews religious speech at every turn. Even for a Democratic Party candidate, this is more than a little unusual. Hillary’s core beliefs and values may be roughly the same as Barack Obama’s social gospel sympathies, but Obama was not scared to speak as a Christian. Hillary almost never does, instead preferring to encourage people to “do the right thing” or waxing about a “politics of meaning.” This kind of talk, stripped of any reference to God or belief leaves her invective against religious conservatives untempered. Churchgoers are left with her talking about how their beliefs “need to change” if they challenge the liberal consensus on “women’s health.” The question is why Clinton has not reached out to even more moderate evangelicals. If evangelicals are backing Trump now, then perhaps it is because Clinton is leaving them unclaimed and untouched. Perhaps she has her reasons, but when it comes to fishing for votes, first come first served I say.
2. This surge in support for Trump is happening after Trump has claimed the Republican nomination. Their support for him during the primaries was considerably more subdued. What’s happening now is evangelicals falling into the old habit of supporting whomever the GOP nominee is. Perhaps political inertia is an undesirable trait for a people who are supposed to keep their lamps oiled, but it’s not a feature of collective insanity or hypocrisy. It’s an insane person taking advantage of perennial and typical social characteristics.
3. Trump’s nomination heralds the decline of evangelical political clout, not its increase. That a man like Trump (a “profane man” as my grandmother put it) sailed through the sieve of evangelical morality is evidence that evangelical pastors and money-men are not the gatekeepers they once were. Evangelical support for Trump during the primary was quite thin compared to other nominees. Ironically, this decline in political importance is just the sort of thing that most millennial evangelicals want. On the blogs I follow on Patheos, The Gospel Coalition, and Christianity Today, bright-eyed evangelicals routinely denounce evangelical Christian involvement in partisan politics, hoping for a retreat to some sort of ideological purity. Is it a consequence of this desire that the evangelical-friendly GOP has now nominated Trump? Perhaps it is because we Jesus followers have relaxed our hold on partisan politics that morality and simple decency seems to have vacated it.
A quick word on the desire to be “counter-cultural:” For millennial pastors, bloggers and others who dabble in ideas and concepts, in other words, those who think for their supper, we may ask ourselves why anyone would vote the path of least resistance, why they would not claim the hallowed mantle of being “counter-cultural.” It’s because most people are not counter-cultural, nor do they want to be. They’d rather their culture be the right sort of culture that they can comfortably assimilate with–a Christian culture. So they vote the candidate they suppose will vouchsafe that culture. In this particular race, I don’t think that’s a bet that will work out, but I don’t think that’s always the wrong way to think about religion in politics, and I certainly don’t begrudge any people their time-worn temperaments. I am a product of my own after all, one that tells me that the mark of virtue is to be an outlier, marginal, alternative, unblessed by the mainstream–all without actually retreating from the comforts of society. But what if millennial evangelical political involvement in the GOP had been stronger? More vociferous? Less concerned with how uncool it is to oppose gay marriage? Maybe if we had spent more time actually working to influence the party that claims to care about our interests, instead of denouncing Christian participation in politics as a base lusting after power (though we don’t blame other groups, particularly minority ethnic populations, organizing for that very purpose) things would have turned out differently. If we lament our elders’ poor political choices, we might also take a second look at our vacation from making any at all.