The widespread evangelical embrace of Donald J. Trump—with varying degrees of enthusiasm, from giddy excitement to grieving reluctance—sent some Christian consciences into a crisis of self-doubt. How could a man of Trump’s character have attracted 81 percent of the evangelical vote?
A defining characteristic of a “conservative evangelical” is that you not only trust in Jesus as Savior but also follow Jesus as Lord. “You are not your own; you were bought at a price.” Therefore, in good conscience, you are to honor God with everything, including your vote. Whatever is not done in faith is sin.
So why did so many godly people turn out for a notorious sinner who, unlike Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, is a stranger even to the language and basic moral framework of the Christian faith?
The Trump candidacy prompted politically conscientious Christians, amid mutual recriminations, to ask what it means to vote in faith, and it will prompt that question again in the 2020 election. Do we act in fear rather than faith when we support an immoral candidate for expediency’s sake? Are we trusting earthly politics in place of the heavenly King? Or do we otherwise distrust God to do what he most often does, which is to use wicked rulers to affect his purposes for the blessing of his people and the advance of his kingdom?
A Stark Choice in 2016
For some people, a vote for Trump over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was easy. She was widely seen as the head of a criminal enterprise devoted to leveraging her position in the U.S. government to enrich herself. She lied about an Islam-offending video to cover up her mishandling the Libyan situation, which resulted in the deaths of our ambassador and three brave men in Benghazi. She generally acted as though she were above the law and had a long history of getting away with it.
Electing Hillary Clinton, in the view of these voters, would have been to knowingly elect a tyrant: someone who would use her public authority solely for her private benefit, regardless of its harm to the public interest.
For others, even for those who shared these grave concerns, the Trump alternative left them paralyzed. His shocking crudeness would lower the dignity of the office of the President. How could a man who had been driven all his life by avarice, sensuality, and self-promotion be trustworthy as president? He was personally and scandalously immoral, a notorious womanizer by his own confession caught on tape in 2005.
His thuggish attitude at rallies (“back in the day we would have carried someone like that out on a stretcher”) seemed to foreshadow a fascistic use of executive power. This brutality was evident also in his habit of petty revenge and punching down. Liberty was not a theme in his rhetoric and he never mentioned the Constitution. One bright spot on his résumé was the list of judges, supplied by the Federalist Society, from which he promised to fill federal court vacancies. But there were many signs in his past to indicate that he was a moderate, New Deal-type Democrat at perfect peace with the welfare state.
The choice in 2016 was not a hypothetical one, however. There was history and a dramatic setting involved. Evangelicals had voted overwhelmingly Republican since Ronald Reagan rescued them in 1980 from the Carter betrayal. GOP candidate John McCain had a history of tense relations with the evangelical community, but Barack Obama’s aggressive support for abortion and historic ties to the anti-Semitic and seemingly America-hating minister Jeremiah Wright, as well as to radical activist Saul Alinsky, drove evangelicals to support the mercurial Republican war hero.
Evangelical nose-holding in the voting booth began in earnest in 2012 with Mitt Romney, the Mormon alternative to the progressive statist, Obama. Nonetheless, Romney garnered 78 percent of the white evangelical vote, as much as went to George W. Bush, compared to only 74 percent for McCain.
John McCain was a fighter, but too often he fought with us, not for us. Romney seemed a good man, but too much a gentleman, as it turned out. Scrapping was beneath him, so he lost. Add to this a sense of general betrayal by the Republican establishment as successive defeats in matters of Christian concern registered no alarm in the halls of Congress. The defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the 2014 Virginia primaries was a giant tremor suggesting the earthquake that was yet to come.
Culture War Calamities
In 2016, evangelicals sought political protection and policy-results from a foul-mouthed, thrice-married brawler, a man completely incognizant of his sin and visibly uncomfortable with the language and rhythms of religion. But because of the growing ferocity of the leftist, progressive, identitarian assault from the Democrats, many Bible-toting churchgoers embraced him jubilantly.
And the assault was intense. In Obama’s second term, after 35 years of culture war over the sexual revolution and denuding the public square of any sign of Christian faith and practice, the enemies of church, home, and neighbor were storming even through the sanctuaries of private life.
In December 2013, Phil Robertson was threatened with dismissal from the popular “Duck Dynasty” television show for speaking against homosexual intimacy in a GQ magazine interview. Just four months later, in April, Brendan Eich was forced out as chief executive officer of Mozilla for privately and quietly donating $1,000 in support of California’s Proposition 8, which defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Six weeks after that, David and Jason Benham had their plans for a real estate television show canceled on account of public statements they made that disapproved of homosexuality and supported Christian morality.
If 2014 was bad, 2015 was worse. Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed by Governor Mike Pence in March, brought boycotts and protests from the NCAA, Apple, Subaru, Salesforce, and Angie’s List among many others. The next month, Memories Pizza, a small-town restaurant, was overwhelmed with threats and protests when it was reported, in response to a hypothetical question, they would not cater a same-sex wedding for religious reasons. The establishment closed permanently in 2018.
In August 2015, the Colorado Court of Appeals upheld the judgment of the state Commission on Human Rights that Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cake Shop was guilty of illegal discrimination in 2012 for refusing to supply one his frosted creations in celebration of a gay union. In December, Sweet Cakes by Melissa in Oregon was forced to pay a ruinous fine of $135,000 for refusing a wedding cake to a lesbian couple. Amidst all this, in June 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Obergefell v. Hodges that state laws barring same-sex marriage were unconstitutional. The decision legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
Then in March 2016, the North Carolina Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, popularly known as the “bathroom bill,” restricted the use of public facilities to the one corresponding to a person’s biological sex (e.g., biological men must use men’s restrooms), rather than one’s inwardly felt gender-identity. Following public controversy over this, including threats of corporate and cultural boycotts, the Obama Department of Education in May issued a “Dear Colleague” letter on transgender students, forbidding local schools nationwide to discriminate on the basis of gender-identity in sports programs and student use of bathrooms and locker rooms, regardless of “others’ discomfort.”
Throughout this time, the Little Sisters of the Poor, in partnership with other religious nonprofits including Christian colleges, had been suing the Obama Administration for exemption from Obamacare’s requirement that they pay for their employees’ contraceptives, even abortifacients.
Christians noted these developments with alarm, and resented being scolded for their concern. Hillary Clinton embodied all that was troubling many ordinary people when, in a September campaign speech, she referred to Trump’s supporters as a basket of deplorables:
You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. . . . The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it. And, unfortunately, there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.
Conservative Christian voters—along with a lot of just ordinary people—got the message: “We’re coming after you!”
In Search of a Champion
So, the Trump candidacy did not pop up in the middle of normal. Yes, we went from crying “character counts!” against Bill Clinton in 1992 to ignoring Trump’s character in 2016. But in 2016, both candidates had bad character, though one was an unknown with respect to how he would conduct himself in office, whereas the other was well-tested in that regard—and frightening. It was a safe bet that Clinton and her party would continue the work of taking a wrecking ball to what is left of Christian civilization in America.
It is true that good character is important in a leader, but it is also a secondary consideration. If, despite all his personal vices, Bill Clinton had been a Winston Churchill in his political judgment opposite Bush’s Chamberlain in the darkening shadow of a Nazi-like invasion, sensible people would have opted for Bubba.
Government’s chief role is not as moral exemplar, but in protecting life and the conditions suitable for material, moral, and spiritual flourishing. Moral example is part of that, but only a part. The overwhelming judgment among evangelicals in 2016 was that God had provided this otherwise objectionable choice, Donald J. Trump, to secure our religion, protect the unborn, boost our prosperity, strengthen our international security, and restore a rule-of-law judiciary. Another candidate in the primaries may have supported these goals, but voters judged that he would not have fought for them, or not successfully.
The choice for evangelical voters in 2020 is looking much like 2016, except that Trump has a governing record with which his Bible-believing supporters seem largely satisfied. The commanding influence in the Democratic Party of socialists like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Mass.) only tightens the Trump-Evangelical alliance, and the Biden-Harris ticket does nothing to help. The crisis events of 2020—the heavy-handed responses from Democratic state and local government to the pandemic, followed by their weakness and capitulation in the face of rioting, looting, and the destruction of public statuary of all sorts—provide the alarm and immediate threat to send them, walking through fire if necessary, to the polls.
God gives us government for our good. This is true regarding all government everywhere, even pagan and tyrannical governments. Undoubtedly, character should be a serious consideration when voting. But to make Christian character and Christian faith a decisive consideration is to say that God would not provide such people under any circumstances to govern us. But he does, and it is often for our good.
When the Apostle Paul affirmed this to us, the church was governed by an evil, imperial, pagan dictator. Today we have the privilege—a privilege everyone should have—of deciding our government by popular election, and thus the responsibility for distinguishing good from evil and better from worse in the people who seek our votes, the parties they represent, and the policies they advocate. Most governments are morally bad in both personal character and their exercise of authority, but as voting citizens we should strive to elevate good character in any way we can and encourage policies that are just, wise, and effective.