Donald Trump, who has been leading the national polls for the Republican nomination since this past summer, has strong support among evangelicals. Given Trump’s beliefs, lifestyle, crude language, and some of his positions on issues, this is baffling. As Jonathan Merritt argues in The Atlantic, “Trump is immodest, arrogant, foul-mouthed, money-obsessed, thrice-married, and until recently, pro-choice. By conventional standards, evangelical Christians should despise him.”
Nevertheless, in various polls, significant percentages of evangelicals (as high as 45 percent of white evangelicals in a December 2015 CNN poll) say that they would vote for the real estate mogul. Granted, his support among evangelical leaders is limited primarily to proponents of the prosperity gospel such as Paula White and Kenneth and Gloria Copeland. In a July 2015 World Magazine survey, only four percent of 94 prominent evangelicals said that they supported Trump for president while 75 percent declared that “they absolutely would not vote for him in primaries.” In a December 2015 World poll, none of these leaders reported that he or she would vote for Trump if the presidential election were held that day.
So what makes Trump so attractive to rank and file evangelicals, especially older white ones who have limited education? Evangelicals have typically preferred candidates who express faith convictions similar to their own and have a strong record of involvement in the life of the church. Such candidates abound in 2016: Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio, and Rick Santorum all fit this description — Trump does not.
Growing up, Trump attended Sunday school and worship services with his parents at the First Presbyterian Church in the Jamaica section of Queens. He still labels himself a Presbyterian, although he now worships (admittedly primarily on Easter and Christmas) at Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, a Reformed Church of America congregation where Norman Vincent Peale, the famous advocate of the power of positive thinking, long served as pastor. Although Trump has repeatedly declared on the campaign trail that the Bible is his favorite book, he has declined to specify what biblical books, passages, or teachings he most values. Trump has declared that he is a Christian and that Christianity is a “wonderful religion,” but he has not discussed his beliefs about Jesus. Moreover, the real estate tycoon forthrightly asserts that he has never asked God to forgive his sins. Trump’s various statements about religion suggest that his faith is neither deep nor well-informed.
In addition to not being an active church member or describing his faith journey (as George W. Bush, Barack Obama or several other current candidates for the Republican nomination have done), Trump’s personal history does not comport well with evangelical values. He has been married three times, made part of his fortune by operating gambling casinos, frequently uses coarse language, and has displayed little concern for the poor, orphans or refugees — groups evangelicals profess to want to help.
Russell Moore, the head of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, calls Trump “an unrepentant serial adulterer who has abandoned two wives for other women” and “spoken in vulgar and harsh terms about women, as well as in ugly and hateful ways about immigrants and other minorities.” Moreover, Moore protests, much of Trump’s wealth has been derived through an “industry that preys on the poor and incentivizes immoral and often criminal behavior.”
Considering these liabilities, what makes Trump so appealing to many evangelicals? Various pundits conclude that evangelicals (and many other political and social conservatives) find Trump’s blunt, bold statements, including his willingness to stand up to the hostile, secular media, and his messages to be attractive, especially his strong criticisms of the Republican establishment and Obama’s approach to immigration and foreign policy. Their sense of alienation from the mainstream political process also fuels evangelicals’ support of Trump.
Most evangelicals, of course, like Trump’s pro-life position and opposition to same-sex marriage. They also resonate with Trump’s promises to defend the religious liberty of Christians and to fight to keep Christianity from being further removed from the public square. Troubled by terrorist threats, economic woes, and perceived moral decline, many evangelicals see Trump as a strong leader who could help restore America’s place in the world (he continually pledges that he will “Make America Great Again”), preserve traditional values, and increase their safety and prosperity. Sadly, civil religious patriotism and their own economic advancement seem more important to numerous evangelicals than supporting a candidate whose faith commitments, personal morality, lifestyle, and policy prescriptions (although Trump has been very vague about this) line up with their own.
Most prognosticators predict that Trump, despite having been the front-runner for months, will not win the Republican nomination. People, they argue, become more pragmatic and thoughtful the closer they get to voting. Thus far, while Jerry Falwell, Jr., Franklin Graham and some prosperity preachers have praised Trump, few evangelicals have publicly criticized his outlandish and harmful statements about Muslims or refugees or some of his policies as contradictory to Scripture. It is time to do so. Trump told radio host Hugh Hewitt that “deep down, maybe they (the Gospels)” influence his decision-making. Clearly, evangelicals and others who desire candidates whose views are directed by biblical values have better choices.
Dr. Gary Scott Smith chairs the history department at Grove City College and is a fellow for faith and politics with The Center for Vision & Values. He is the author of “Religion in the Oval Office” (Oxford University Press, 2015), “Faith and the Presidency From George Washington to George W. Bush” (Oxford University Press, 2009), “Religion in the Oval Office” and “Heaven in the American Imagination” (Oxford University Press, 2011).