The vulgarity President Trump reportedly used last week to describe certain countries in the developing world has gotten a lot of attention. Trump held a private, frank, blunt conversation with congressional leaders where he used a word others have used to describe places considered awful.
For some in his base, it might please them. After all, he is the president who thrives in not being politically correct. It makes the president seem bold enough to say out loud what others think but won’t bring themselves to say. In reality, the question over the specific word is distracting from his point that immigrants should be judged based on the nations they come from, and his point is just another straw on the camel’s back for many in the religious right. That back is already breaking and presents an electoral problem for the Republican Party.
Trump was always a devil’s bargain for most evangelicals. As long as he stood against Hillary Clinton, many evangelicals could rationalize supporting him. He may not be what they would want, but surely he was better than Clinton. Besides, with Antonin Scalia’s death, the Supreme Court really was in play in the 2016 election. Many who may not have liked Trump still stayed with the Republican Party nominee to secure a conservative appointee to the court.
Trump is, however, very much what the religious right has long rejected. The moral majority from which modern evangelical political activists descend rose in response to the immorality of the 1960s and ’70s. Sensing that American norms and morals were quickly changing for the worse, Jerry Falwell Sr. and others rallied to push back against a culture embracing sex outside of marriage, pornography and licentiousness. So it is no small irony that Falwell’s son, Jerry Falwell Jr., helped rally many evangelicals to a man who embodies all the things Falwell Sr. stood against. Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, even posed with his wife in front of an old cover of Playboy that featured Donald Trump.
Of course, evangelicals could rationalize everything away because Trump was not Clinton. The “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump boasted of groping women may have given evangelicals qualms, but they could mumble “but Hillary” to summon their resolve to stick with the Republican nominee. But Clinton is no longer running. We have Trump on the global stage, and Christians have little to contrast him to.
Some evangelicals will never abandon loyalty to the president. The Rev. Robert Jeffress — a leading evangelical and the pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas — and Falwell Jr. have hitched their wagons to Trump and will ride off into the sunset with him.
Scripture commands we care for the widows, the poor, the orphans and the refugees, but some of the president’s evangelical supporters are cheering on the government breaking apart families through immigration policies.
Scripture commands Christians to behave in ways that reflect God, not man, but the president’s evangelical supporters are celebrating a repeat adulterer who embodies American hedonism where pleasure and happiness are the highest goods.
Still, a large number of evangelicals have convinced themselves that their politics and faith are two separate things and they can champion a politician like Trump without it affecting their souls or salvation. They have rationalized their way into a bastardized version of Martin Luther’s two kingdoms theology. (Luther believed that “God has ordained the two governments: the spiritual, which by the Holy Spirit under Christ makes Christians and pious people; and the secular, which restrains the unchristian and wicked so that they are obliged to keep the peace outwardly.”) These evangelical activists believe God has ordained the two governments and never the two shall meet, so what they do in politics has no bearing on the church or the advancement of God’s kingdom.
This will keep a solid base of shallow evangelicals for the president, but Trump won the electoral college by only 70,000 votes spread over three states, while losing the popular vote. There is a sizable though overlooked minority within evangelicalism, and they threaten not just the president’s power, but the GOP’s majority.
According to the Pew Research Center, 61 percent of white evangelicals approve of the president’s performance, a 17-percentage-point decline from the 78 percent of white evangelicals who said the same thing in February.
A subset of evangelicals are increasingly attracted to a Protestantism that derives from reformed theology. The GOP is risking losing some of these “reformed evangelicals.” The party was supposed to be the party that championed the concerns of people of faith. Instead, it is a party that demands people of faith support a party ahead of their God.
Trump’s statement about Haiti and African nations runs headlong into this. Many of these evangelicals take seriously the need to spread the gospel and so have funded many missionary causes around the world. They have also increasingly adopted children from these countries.
For many, Trump’s characterization of the countries is not the point. The point is Trump believes people from these countries are undesirable immigrants. Many reformed evangelicals now have children from those countries, have funded missionaries to those countries, and consider citizens in those countries their partners in ministry and mission. Trump’s attack is an attack on their work to glorify God and care for their children. They believe all people regardless of nationality and background are made in God’s image and deserve honor and respect.
In 2018, Trump will not be on the ballot. But the Republican Party’s majority in Congress will be at stake. The party’s willingness to condone and enable Trump’s behavior and his willingness to rub Christian noses in his behavior are driving these evangelicals away.
These evangelicals are patriotic Americans, but their Christianity comes first and they realize they cannot separate their vote from their faith. As they see fellow Christians beclowning themselves to defend the indefensible, they want no part of it. So they will wash their hands of it and stay home or they will join African American and Hispanic Christians in voting for those who have spoken loudly against the rise of white nationalism and Trump’s abhorrent behavior.
Historically, midterm elections see a low turnout. A Democratic wave inarguably exists. Depressing evangelical turnout only helps the Democratic wave wash over the GOP.
Reality is dawning on a growing number of Christians in America. The continued Christian defense of Trump not only hurts the Christian witness in America as Christians are lumped into the same Trumpian tribe. A minority of evangelicals will withdraw, realizing they need to, in the words of Jeremiah, seek the welfare of their cities and leave national politics to others.