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Evangelicals in the Age of Trump

Evangelicals lost more supporting Trump than they would have under a Clinton administration.

Evangelical turnout was record high for Trump. I am not pleased by this. Certainly a lot of that was #NeverHillary, single issue Pro-Life voting, and the perennial furor whipped up over how this was the only election that mattered (I didn’t have an evangelical friend or family member who didn’t struggle with their vote.) But I also heard a heckuva lot of equivocating, prevaricating, and excusing Trump. The comments in this podcast from an evangelical philosopher I respect and these from a theologian I sort of respect represent a disturbing pattern in the contemporary evangelical mind: that they have political identity issues. In a political coalition, as in a church, there are particular callings that groups and individuals bring to the table to help guide its nature and agenda. Evangelicals and the religious right stumped for decades that character, the good fruit of the religious life, matters in our leaders. The turnout last night and the comments I’ve read and heard seem to have shrugged off this special vocation like an old coat. What will replace it?

Of course voters consider more than one thing when casting their vote, and it’s no sin to vote for a preferred (or even un-preferred) candidate. This is a democracy after all. But I never thought that the democratic process would eclipse the calling of a coalition so thoroughly. I expected (hoped!) that Donald Trump’s naked repudiation of the values that evangelicals–my people–have advanced for years would have cost him at least some of his bottom line. That didn’t happen. Evangelical enthusiasm for Trump was higher than for either George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, deeply moral and religiously minded people (the latter especially so.)

Reaction is a big factor of course. It was quite plain that Hillary just wanted religious folks to straight up change their minds on a lot of sacred cows. This made her an epically bad candidate, (particularly due to her unprecedented refusal to speak in the language of religious sensibility in the way that Obama effortlessly could.) Add this to the Rust Belt flipping their states (and the bird) at the elites who pretend to care about them, plus racism, and Hispanics and women not turning out to be the safe monoliths that Democrats thought. It’s been a populist upset of the century. But an evangelicalism that fades comfortably into this political movement without bringing anything to inform it subordinates itself to a post-religious right. Evangelicals made themselves heard but they failed to find their voice.

It seems to me that The Benedict Option–the idea that Christians need to, in some sense, withdraw from public life to rediscover their own faith in a fresh way is more important under a Trump administration than a Clinton one. The latter had us staring down the barrel of lawsuits and schools losing their accreditation (which could still happen, just without the Justice Dept’s help.) But the former has more temptations: trading eschatology for nationalism, virtue for power, revival for populism. In the wake of what looks like success, I think we are facing our greatest temptations and tests. Meeting them will have to come with the rediscovery of doctrine, common life, and spiritual disciplines–subjects long neglected by evangelicals as a coalition.

The challenges evangelicals will face over the next four years will come from within, not from without. I pray that evangelicals are equal to the task and feel a rightful discontent with the moral catastrophe of a man they have elevated to the presidency. Though we may feel some relief from having dodged the bullet of a hostile Democratic agenda, we cannot claim any victory. For what does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul?

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