White evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. That set off much breast-beating on the religious left as well as among some conservative “Never-Trump” Christians. Whatever the wisdom of casting a vote for The Donald, the willingness of serious believers to look beyond their faith in voting for president is a healthy political development.
American religious groups have never spoken politically with a single voice. Not even Christians — Catholic, mainline Protestant, and evangelical believers long trended in different directions. Race, income, class, and more influenced voting behavior.
However, evangelicals traditionally talked a lot about personal character, family values, and Christian beliefs. They often also came across as hopelessly naïve, easily swindled by politicians who knew how to talk the talk even if the latter didn’t walk the walk spiritually. Sometimes even the most dubious candidates claimed to have rediscovered God’s light, apparently long- and well-hidden within.
God gave some useful guidance. For instance, by their fruit you will know others, he said. But ultimately man can only view a person’s exterior while God looks at the heart. Scripture gives few political lessons. Believers are to be salt and light, which should include the political realm. But even sincere faith is no substitute for wisdom, which God offers to give us, as well as knowledge, skill, judgment, and temperament. There is no reason for Christians to only support Christians for secular positions. Indeed, Martin Luther once proclaimed that he preferred to be governed by a smart Turk than a stupid Christian. Certainly there are many Christians I would not want making decisions over my life.
Still, evangelicals, perhaps more than members of other religious groupings, in the past seemed determined to back those who claimed to seek and receive God’s guidance. Presidential candidates such as Ted Cruz made a plainly sectarian pitch for votes: the president should begin his day on his knees, insisted the candidate who gave strikingly little to charity. Some contenders who took a softer approach, such as John Kasich, nevertheless ensured that their religious beliefs were known. Even Donald Trump claimed to be a man of faith, though no one other than James Dobson appeared convinced.
However, Trump collected plenty of Christian votes in the primaries and 81 percent of the ballots cast by white evangelicals in the general election. Much of that support was reluctant. But more than a few votes were offered with enthusiasm. And almost everyone who backed Trump recognized that he represented the antithesis of Christian values.
His supporters were motivated by a very practical reason: they believed Hillary Clinton would be a worse president. Some were most worried about pro-life issues. Others about religious liberty. Some focused on foreign policy and other practical political questions. But all believed that America would be better served if Donald Trump ended up sitting in the Oval Office.
The spectacle of evangelicals backing Trump triggered more than a little tut-tutting about religious hypocrisy by Clinton’s supporters. As well as some blood-letting within evangelical ranks. Russell Moore, head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, criticized candidate Trump. Now some Baptist leaders are talking about withholding contributions and even abolishing the panel, which represents the Southern Baptist Convention in the public realm. Leftish evangelicals Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne wrote an article worrying about the damage done “the reputation of evangelicalism” by the identification of so many white evangelicals with Trump’s candidacy.
Yet the willingness of evangelicals to so fervently embrace a candidate so at variance with Gospel values actually suggests a healthy step by evangelicals along the path to treating politics as a matter of prudence, not faith. That is, except in the most unusual case, where a candidate’s theological views dictate morally unacceptable policy outcomes, it really doesn’t matter if a politician shares one’s religion. Certainly it would be better to have someone of good rather than bad character as president. Nevertheless, if forced to choose, better to have a president who would avoid nuclear war and national bankruptcy than one whose personal life is pristine.
In the case of Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton the winner isn’t clear. There’s little evidence that Trump believes much of anything. His positions on issues as important as abortion and immigration shifted dramatically; what he will actually do about them remains a mystery. His personality and temperament raise especially worrisome questions. Clinton was a known evil, bound to have bad consequences. Predicting what America will look like after four or eight years of Trump is far more difficult, with a much wider range of possible outcomes. A voter, evangelical or other, could reasonably come to different conclusions.
What is important is that evangelicals not allow their policy agreements to blind them to Trump’s moral deficiencies. And he, like anyone else, should be called to account. The wealthy and powerful, too, need to know that they ultimately are accountable to God. In churches across America that message should be reiterated. In fact, having vested the presidency, arguably the world’s most powerful position, in Trump’s hands, his supporters have unique responsibility to be alert for any abuse of their trust.
Moreover, they should apply the same lesson throughout the political system. Evangelicals should run for office and work in government not as Christians, but as citizens who happen to be Christians. They should emphasize their commitment to the common good of all citizens, using their winsome conduct as a witness to their faith. They should act with humility, aware that they, no less than unbelievers, are afflicted by the limitations of original sin.
Perhaps most important, Christians should have modest expectations of government. One enthusiastic South Carolina Trump supporter said after his victory: “I hope we can restore our country to a God-fearing nation again.” I hope so too, but I also recognize that this is not Donald Trump’s or even the government’s job. The role of politics is to create a framework within which sinful human beings with very different visions of the good and transcendent can nevertheless work together to meet common needs and confront common dangers. Returning “to a God-fearing nation again” is up to God, not government. Belief and virtue cannot be compelled.
Both major party candidates fell far short of what America required as president, but a religious believer could vote for either one while recognizing their moral and practical failings. Evangelicals who backed Donald Trump should remember this election as a reason to more sharply separate religion and politics in the future. The best candidate is the one most able to perform the practical requirements of the political job he or she is seeking.