Those shuffling sounds you hear are the boots of establishment conservatives scurrying toward supporting Donald Trump’s run for the presidency. Will conservative Christian evangelicals — particularly those who have been vehemently opposed to The Donald during the primaries — do the same?
Although it is Monday morning quarterbacking to the max, some evangelicals are still arguing over whether real evangelicals or only EINOs — “Evangelicals in Name Only” — voted for Trump. In a piece in The Christian Post titled “Don’t Blame Us. Evangelicals Led the Opposition to Trump,” Napp Nazworth argued, “True evangelicals — the evangelicals who participate in the work of the Church, are among the least likely to support Trump.”
Nazworth makes an interesting argument, but it is hard to dismiss the evangelical credibility of such Trump supporters as Liberty University’s Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, the son of the legendary preacher Billy Graham, and the prosperity gospel’s Kenneth Copeland.
While it is true that many evangelical leaders chose to support Ted Cruz during the primaries, and The Christian Post, an influential online Christian news service, issued an unprecedented editorial condemning Trump, the question now is: What will conservative Christian evangelicals do in November?
“I expect to see Trump at the Values Voter Summit this fall, ranting about the war on Christmas … and promising to restore America’s Christian values.”
An early May survey by the Barna Group, an evangelical polling firm, found that while 67 percent of registered evangelical voters viewed Donald Trump unfavorably, 81 percent of them viewed Hillary Clinton unfavorably. The evangelical magazine World did a survey of “evangelical insiders” and found that 51 percent of the 77 respondents said they would never vote for Trump, while 21 percent said they would vote for him. Only 1 percent said they would vote for Clinton. Slightly under 50 percent of respondents said they would vote for a third-party candidate, regardless of that candidate’s chance of winning.
And, in a recent, albeit unscientific, survey recently appearing on the website of the American Family Association’s OneNewsNow news site, readers were asked if they believed that Donald Trump fooled evangelical voters during the GOP primary. As of this writing, of the more than 1,300 that responded, 50 percent said yes, he did, 39 percent said no, he didn’t, and 10 percent were not sure.
Perhaps the most succinct way of framing the dilemma facing evangelicals was recently stated by Sam Rohrer, head of the American Pastors Network: “‘Will I vote the lesser of two evils or not vote at all?'”
Despite the fact that the American Family Association had trumpeted the candidacy of Ted Cruz, and unmercifully criticized Trump, Rob Boston, director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told Truthout that he believes “the group will gravitate toward Trump. It may not be a warm embrace, but a side hug will do.”
In an email interview, Boston added:
The specter of Hillary Clinton is a kind of get-out-jail-free card for many of the anti-Trump evangelicals. No matter what they might have said about Trump in the past, Religious Right activists can use fear of Clinton to justify changing their position. They’ll argue that a lot is at stake with an open seat on the Supreme Court and assert that Trump, while not perfect, is the only thing standing between the nation and a capitulation to Clinton’s far-left, socialistic platform of free abortions for kids, mandatory attendance at gay pride and a trans person in every bathroom.
Boston maintained that if the Christian right could warm to Newt Gingrich — the former disgraced speaker of the House, “a thrice-married serial adulterer of low morals, a calculating political Svengali who exploits religion in his thirst for political power” — then support for Trump will not seem like such a stretch.
“I expect to see Trump at the Values Voter Summit this fall, ranting about the war on Christmas, bemoaning that kids can’t pray in school and promising to restore America’s Christian values,” Boston added. “Throw in a little Muslim bashing, add some vague charges about the out-of-touch Washington establishment, and it’s a wrap. The crowd will swoon.”
According to Frederick Clarkson, a senior fellow at the Massachusetts-based Political Research Associates, many evangelical leaders “have a history of ideological flexibility,” which opens the door to Trump. “Pat Robertson in 2008, and Ralph Reed in 2012, supported the adulterous, thrice-married, twice-divorced, pro-choice, pro-LGBTQ rights former mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, in past elections, so we can reasonably expect that they could come out quickly for Trump,” Clarkson told Truthout.
“I would expect that Trump and such professional Christian right leaders as Tony Perkins and Jerry Boykin of the Family Research Council will eventually find a way to come to terms with Trump,” Clarkson added. “I would also anticipate that Mike Huckabee would join his fellow former GOP primary contender Ben Carson in publicly supporting Trump.
“Kelly Shackelford of the Texas-based First Liberty Institute, a prominent Christian right public interest law firm, has told the press that he is open to supporting Trump if he makes the right noises about judicial nominations and especially with a view toward advancing a Christian right view of religious freedom. That is an area Trump may be able to develop that would provide Christian right leaders some wiggle room to swallow their reservations and put on a brave public face.”
“Some of the more thoughtful, moderate evangelicals may choose to sit out the election or vote only in the down-ballot races.”
Nevertheless, according to Clarkson, supporting Trump “may be a bridge too far for some” Christian right leaders, particularly those like Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention; Sam Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, who has said Trump would have to support immigration reform, which of course for Trump is impossible; and Michael Cromartie of the influential Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, who sees evangelical support for Trump as a defeat for everything he has worked for in building a more moderate public face for evangelicalism.
Sandy Rios, a radio talk show host for American Family Radio, is unapologetic in her disdain for Trump, and is deeply disappointed with the preachers who have supported him, and evangelicals who voted for him. “I think a lot of what we’re seeing is that our application of our faith in Christ is crumbling at the edges,” said Rios, a Cruz supporter.
“Our pastors are not preaching the whole truth,” Rios said, “and because there’s such poor teaching and because, in addition to that, I think that people are biblically ignorant, they don’t understand that their commitment to Christ comes with a price.”
AFA.net’s incendiary columnist Bryan Fischer has argued that while “The GOP establishment will find a way to rally behind Trump immediately,” social conservatives face several choices: vote for Trump over Hillary Clinton as the lesser of two evils; vote, but leave the presidency slot empty; vote for a third-party candidate; write in a candidate of their choice; or stay home.
Bottom line: Fischer, an extremely anti-gay social conservative, is urging his readers to vote for Trump, the lesser of two evils, and then get back to work “doing the things that Christian citizens are supposed to do.”
Some evangelical leaders, like Michael Brown, the author of 25 books and host of the nationally syndicated daily talk radio show, “The Line of Fire,” has concluded that Trump triumphed because he is “a brilliant salesman and promoter, a master of the media,” and “he has masterfully appealed to American fears and anger — fears of terrorism, fears of economic collapse, anger with the political system, anger with American weakness — to the point that his supporters are looking to him as a quasi-savior figure.”
Evangelicals’ voting for Trump is “not so much an indictment on Trump as it is an indictment on the American people. God could well be giving us exactly what we deserve.”
Ralph Reed, the former head of Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, who now heads up the Faith and Freedom Coalition, told The New York Times that if evangelicals believe that Trump has evolved on some of their issues — particularly abortion — they will support him. “Contrary to the stereotype that is often assigned to them by the larger culture,” Reed said, “evangelicals are far more forgiving and extend far more mercy to political figures and others than is understood.”
Trump has his work cut out for him, but Frederick Clarkson sees a path toward bringing in more support from the religious right. “If he can make a coherent argument that he really supports the tripartite Christian right agenda on life, marriage and religious liberty, he may be able to make far greater inroads than he has to date.”
Americans United’s Rob Boston pointed out that while “Some of the more thoughtful, moderate evangelicals may choose to sit out the election or vote only in the down-ballot races, right-wing evangelicals who long ago elevated Ronald Reagan above Jesus Christ, there’s really no choice here.”
“Some of them may talk about principles now,” he said, “but by convention time, if not sooner, I expect them all to be in line.”