This is the question that has vexed me for the past six months: Why are so many evangelicals supporting Donald Trump?
Though he calls himself a Presbyterian and claims the Bible as his favorite book (just ahead of The Art of the Deal!), no rational mind should consider him an orthodox Christian. The church he calls his home says he is not an active member. He has abandoned two previous wives. He boasts of his past sexual exploits. In the perhaps-not-sinful-but-definitely-creepy category, he has said that if his daughter were not, well, his daughter, he would probably be dating her. His crass way of speaking and all-around rudeness have been ever-present on the campaign trail, from his calling Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly a bimbo to mocking a New York Times reporter for a physical disability. He has maintained the fortune his father left him by taking advantage of bankruptcy laws and advocating the use of eminent domain to take property away from poor people for worthy causes, like parking lots for Atlantic City casinos. Oh, right, he has also profited off of casinos, which prey on the poor and most needy of our society. Nothing in his business career lends itself to a Christian portrayal of honoring God with his work, no matter if everything he did was legal.
Of course, Christianity is a religion where the elect are saved by grace through faith alone. Leaving aside the fact that true faith exhibits good fruit, none of these things, on their own, show that Trump is anything other than a sinner — which all of us are.
Well, except, according to Trump, the Donald himself: Last summer, he told a gathering of people that he could not remember ever asking God for forgiveness.
And yet, according to a recent poll, Trump has the support of 37 percent of evangelical Republicans. Cue Mugatu!
How can this be happening? Jerry Falwell, Jr., notwithstanding, it is not because evangelical leaders have flocked to his support — according to a World magazine survey of evangelical thinkers and influencers, Marco Rubio received the support of 48 percent of its participants, followed by Ted Cruz at 28 percent. In the survey, Trump commands a robust five percent. Many Christian conservatives in Iowa have pledged their support to Ted Cruz. Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, contributing a particularly stinging rebuke in National Review‘s now-infamous “Against Trump” special issue.
Institutionally, Christians are decidedly not flocking to Trump. Why, then, are the rank-and-file?
I have seen two convincing explanations. 1) It’s the economy, stupid — evangelicals are just as worried by the disappearance of the middle-class as any other group. 2) His self-proclaimed “evangelical” voters are Christian in the same sense that Trump himself is — by which I mean, they are not evangelical Christians.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Trump supporters overwhelmingly oppose gay marriage, yet only 48 percent consider themselves pro-life with regards to abortion, a lower percentage than both socially conservative voters and establishment supporters. The kicker: Only 38 percent of Trump supporters attend church or some other house of worship on a weekly basis. So while a plurality of evangelical voters (along with a plurality of conservative voters, moderate voters, and liberal voters, because LOL nothing matters) support Trump, they appear to be evangelical in name only, without any traditional ties to an evangelical church or the orthodox Christian faith. As Michael Brendan Dougherty has written, these voters live in Fishtown, the invented city in Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart. These are the voters who have suffered the most under this era of globalism, declining institutions, and multiculturalism. (And really, you should be reading Dougherty, who has written the best analyses of this crazy presidential campaign thus far.)
Trump voters are the shrinking nominal Christians, the middle 50 percent of Americans who were never very religious in the first place, but clung to the Christian label because, well, that’s what good Americans did. As the built-in advantage that came with being a Christian in America has quickly waning, many of the nominals have seamlessly made the transition to “nones” — claiming no religious faith and easily falling in line with the new orthodoxy and new tolerance regarding issues like gay marriage and transgender rights.
Many of the nominals, however, have not been as adept at adapting to the vast cultural change that has occurred in this country over the last ten years. They are still not hardcore Christians, but they still cling to the label. They still vote for “values.” They still claim the United States was “founded as a Christian nation.” They may even go to church on Christmas and Easter. And the pace with which what is deemed “acceptable” and “tolerable” in American society has changed has been far too rapid for them to keep up.
So when Trump runs for president, and he speaks loudly, brashly, and rudely — when he speaks how the proverbial uncle-at-the-Thanksgiving-table would — all of these nominal Christians that have been left behind both economically and culturally feel like they have found their man. And when Trump says something outrageous and everyone criticizes him, these nominals only cling to him even more, because only he has the guts to say what needs to be said.
Trump supporters have been alienated from all the blessings of American society that all of the other presidential candidates wanted to extol this election season — they have been alienated from the economic recovery, alienated from the changing culture, alienated even from their neighbors. Trump supporters don’t deserve our scorn, mockery, or contempt. They need our mercy and grace. In a word, Trump supporters — including some of his self-proclaimed evangelical supporters — need Jesus.