NEW YORK — Donald Trump’s ability to attract white evangelical voters has confounded analysts.
The reality television star and thrice-married Presbyterian has said he’s proud to be Christian, but he also has said he doesn’t repent to God for his sins, has flubbed Bible references and has referred to communion as “my little cracker.” He says he is firmly anti-abortion, but in the past has supported abortion rights.
Still, he has won the support of a third of self-identified born-again Christians across the dozen or so states that have held GOP contests and where exit polls were conducted.
What is the appeal for evangelicals, who comprise a large segment of the GOP? Here are a few of the many theories attempting to explain the vote:
After years of being on the losing side of the culture wars, on gay marriage and other issues, and amid fears of marginalization of people of faith, evangelicals are seeking protection, even from a candidate they may consider morally flawed, said David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, a research firm on trends in evangelicalism and other traditions.
“They feel their faith convictions are being steamrolled,” Kinnaman said.
In a January speech at evangelical Liberty University, Trump said, “We’re going to protect Christianity, and I can say that. I don’t have to be politically correct. We’re going to protect it.” And he promised, “If I become president, we’re gonna be saying Merry Christmas at every store. … You can leave ‘happy holidays’ at the corner.”
According to this argument, evangelical support has been exaggerated because voters can identify themselves as born-again Christians in exit polls even if they’re not at all active in the faith or reject core conservative Christian beliefs. Surveys by the Pew Research Center and the Public Religion Research Institute indicate more frequent churchgoers are less likely to support Trump. Still, many evangelical leaders agree that Trump has surprised them by drawing a notable share of the conservative Christian vote.
American evangelicalism has a strong entrepreneurial streak. Many pastors have relied on the principles advocated by management guru Peter Drucker to build congregations. Marketing and branding are commonly used, and staff often have titles – such as chief operating officer – borrowed from the corporate world.
Trump, a billionaire real estate developer, can appeal to this group in part on his business success. Last fall, he was prayed over by several prosperity gospel televangelists, whose views many evangelicals consider beyond the mainstream, but who still draw many followers.
FAITH IN POLITICS?
Evangelicals are in the midst of a major transition in how they approach politics. Religious-right institutions such as the Moral Majority, which emerged in the 1980s and ’90s, are shells of their former selves or have closed altogether. Few groups of influence have emerged to replace them.
Many evangelicals are thrilled by the change. Millennials especially tend to blame the rhetoric of the religious right, on gay rights especially, for a trend among some in the general public to equate Christianity with bigotry. Young Christians with such concerns would be less likely to support Trump, but they do point to a movement in flux.
What should be the new strategy? Depending on which church evangelicals attend, they may not have much guidance on how their beliefs should inform their involvement in public life.
“Theologically, if you were to ask what’s the evangelical view of political theology, you can’t really get one,” said Bryan McGraw, a political scientist at evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois. “Institutionally, a lot of pastors have reacted to the excesses of the ’90s and 2000s by drawing back a little bit.”
According to this theory, evangelical leaders over the last few decades share part of the blame for conservative Christian support for Trump. After years of persuading evangelicals to seek political influence and power, Christians are now following that advice too closely, putting political interests ahead of their values.
Richard Cizik, president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, said the anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric from some evangelical leaders over the years has primed a segment of Christian conservatives to favor Trump. Trump has called Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists and said he wants to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the country.
Cizik, who works to build relationships between Christians and Muslims, said the recent anti-Trump declarations from some prominent evangelicals “strike me as a little hollow.”
“After all, how many of these leaders who signed these statements have come out before to speak against anti-Muslim bigotry in the past?” Cizik said. “Is there maybe just a little bit of hypocrisy here?”