To enter the world of conservative Evangelical pastors and leaders is to enter the world of the shell-shocked. It is the land of the thousand-yard stare. In one election cycle — indeed in two brutal weeks — it appeared as if a substantial segment of Evangelical Christianity had decisively rejected the cultural work of an entire generation. Donald Trump swept the Deep South, including many of America’s most religious states — and Evangelicals led the way.
The American population with one of the lowest divorce rates — churchgoing Christians — appeared to endorse a twice-divorced philanderer who openly bragged about his serial adulteries. America’s most pro-life citizens gave a plurality of their votes to a man who loudly declares that Planned Parenthood — the nation’s largest abortion provider — does “wonderful” things for women.
Evangelical churches have been working hard on racial reconciliation, and their embrace of adoption means that even the most historically white congregations feature many racially blended families. Yet Evangelical voters pulled the lever for a man who has flip-flopped on condemning the Ku Klux Klan, retweets white supremacists, and attracts a flock of vicious online racists as some of his most loyal and vocal supporters.
Moreover, a plurality chose Trump over two men — Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio — who are not only thoughtful Christians themselves but have fought for life and religious liberty throughout their political careers. And they’ve spent years cultivating contacts in the Christian community. Is the Evangelical community cracking up? Is it — as FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver asserts — refusing to vote its faith?
The reality is more complex. It turns out that millions of “Evangelical” voters aren’t Evangelical at all, and some Evangelicals don’t vote as “Evangelical voters.” Meanwhile, those who do are in the middle of a stylistic and cultural clash that until recently prevented the non-Trump majority from uniting behind either Rubio or Cruz.
Caucus entrance polls and primary exit polls are blunt instruments, largely incapable of measuring voters’ actual beliefs and conduct. When asked by a pollster whether they identify as Evangelical, many voters simply interpret the question as asking whether they’re some form of conservative, believing Christian. The exit-poll questions don’t measure church attendance, and they certainly don’t delve into the nuances of Christian theology. Thus, in states with large numbers of conservative Christians, such as South Carolina, exit polls record astounding percentages of “Evangelical” participation. In 2016, for example, almost three-quarters of Republican-primary voters reported that they were Evangelical.
But this number is almost certainly inflated — and dramatically. The Barna Group is one of the nation’s premier research organizations dedicated to examining faith and culture, and it has consistently found dramatic disparities between the number of people who identify as Evangelical and the number of people who actually believe the traditional elements of Evangelical theology.
For example, in 2007, while 38 percent of Americans self-identified as Evangelical, only 8 percent expressed a belief — among other things — that Satan exists, that salvation is gained through grace, not works, that Jesus lived a sinless life, and that the Bible is accurate in all its teachings. In other words, 84 million Americans self-report as Evangelicals, but only 18 million pass through Barna’s theological filter.
And while exit pollsters aren’t asking self-identified Evangelicals to take a theological test, there is one measure that helps filter out the casual from the more committed believer: church attendance. Reuters has found that, throughout the South, Trump fares worse among those who attend church more frequently.
This reality may help account for the rampant incredulity among Evangelical activists. Again and again, one hears from an Evangelical that he “has never met” a Trump supporter at church. Indeed, I attend an Evangelical church in the heart of Trump country. Tennessee went for Trump in a landslide: 39 percent to 25 percent for Cruz and 21 percent for Rubio. My home county went for Trump by a margin of 40 percent to 30 percent for Cruz and 17 percent for Rubio. Yet I have never had a conversation with a single person at my church who professed support for Trump.
Yet it’s hardly correct or sufficient to say that Trump’s Evangelical supporters aren’t truly Evangelical. He does draw a significant amount of support from orthodox, churchgoing Christians. But the explanation is rather simple: Many Evangelical voters don’t see themselves as “Evangelical voters” in a political sense. They are not disproportionately concerned with traditional Evangelical issues such as life, religious liberty, religious persecution, or the fate of Israel. Instead, they’re simply voters who happen to be Evangelical, and as with many voters, their primary concerns are immigration and the economy.
Nor are Evangelicals immune from Republican anger at the political class or frustration with oppressive political correctness. Many Christians are especially frustrated with political correctness. There are indications that some Evangelicals are voting for Trump with eyes wide open — under no illusion that he shares their values — because they want to see a border wall, or to “burn down” the GOP establishment, or to defy a social-justice Left that takes every opportunity to deride or suppress conservative values. In other words, Christians can be populists, too.
This minority of non-churchgoing Christians and angry populists might be expected to lose to a united majority of committed activists, churchgoers, and constitutional conservatives. Yet Evangelicals are every bit as divided as the broader Republican electorate. Cruz and Rubio have split the Evangelical majority, and they appeal to different sectors of that movement, revealing profound cultural and tactical differences within it.
At the risk of oversimplifying, we could say that Cruz attracts the old-school-style Christian activists — those who’ve been fighting the good fight, sometimes for decades — along with those who often share their style and dedication to principle over more ephemeral qualities such as electability or charisma. In December, the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins led dozens of Evangelical activists in an effort to unite behind a single candidate (a similar effort in 2012 yielded an endorsement of Rick Santorum). After months of an agonizing and sometimes contentious process, they coalesced around Cruz, securing for him endorsements from many of Evangelical Christianity’s biggest names.
At the same time, however, World Magazine — an influential, Christian news journal — was conducting a monthly survey of 103 Evangelical “leaders and influencers” (I should disclose that I participated in the poll), and Rubio was dominant, winning the poll over Cruz every month for seven months straight. I know many of the participants, and they appreciated not only Rubio’s obvious faith but also his ability to speak winsomely and hopefully, even when engaging skeptics and critics.
Cruz’s Evangelical supporters tend to want to rally the faithful. Rubio’s Evangelical supporters want to appeal beyond the faithful. Cruz’s supporters are more doctrinaire constitutional conservatives. Rubio’s supporters are conservative but often less concerned with down-the-line conformity and often supportive of amnesty. Cruz’s supporters are proud that he defies Washington and has earned the enmity of his colleagues. Rubio’s supporters are alarmed by this penchant for conflict and prefer a candidate with a reputation for peacemaking who can reach across the aisle.
The result isn’t just disagreement but, often, tension — a tension that Donald Trump has been able to exploit. And that tension has been compounded by the same kinds of disbelief and denial about Trump’s rise that have plagued the Republican political class. Cruz’s and Rubio’s Evangelical supporters, too, nursed their grievances in the naïve belief that their candidate would be the one to capitalize on Trump’s inevitable fall.
The consequences have been enormously damaging. Evangelicals have long struggled against charges of hypocrisy — and southern Evangelicals, especially, have struggled to shed the burden of slavery and Jim Crow. Yet now the headline is that Evangelicals helped propel a vulgar demagogue to the top of the Republican field, and that Evangelicals are overlooking, ignoring, or perhaps even enjoying his obscene personal insults, his flirtation with racists, and his erratic, unlawful, and brutal policy proposals.
This is a double failure. It represents a failure of leadership — of the activists who scoffed at Trump’s rise, pursued their own agendas, and proved that they didn’t understand the complexities and divisions within their own movement. And it also represents an individual failure on the part of the hundreds of thousands of Evangelicals who’ve cast their votes for a man who flaunts his religious ignorance and glories in his public sinfulness.
But all is not lost. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” Perhaps the good in this colossal error is a necessary rediscovery of humility and a necessary chastening. Evangelicals are not as good or wise as perhaps we thought we were. In other words, there is great virtue in seeing ourselves as we truly are — warts and all. But now it’s time to shake off the shell shock, repent of foolishness and pride, and get to work. Evangelical leaders have a movement to educate and unite, a nation to protect, and a dime-store Caesar to stop.