There has been much hand-wringing in recent weeks about the persistent support of Donald Trump among “evangelicals.” Why in the world would so many Christians support a rude and crude candidate like Trump, whose pro-life credentials seem obligatory at best, and who specializes in vilifying Hispanics? If we are to believe the polls, the American evangelical mind may remain quite scandalous, to use Mark Noll’s term.
I would suggest, however, that we need not despair quite so much. I frankly do not believe that most of the people identifying as “evangelicals” in these polls are evangelicals (or conservatives) in any useful sense. The sympathy for Trump is, instead, a holdover of the worst aspects of American civil religion and Bible Belt culture.
Perhaps the greatest problem with such polling is that polls depend on people’s own self-understanding of a term like “evangelical.” Such a term’s definition may be murky, at best, or simply incoherent. What is going on in a respondent’s mind when they say yes, I am an “evangelical” and I support Donald Trump for president? I would propose three possible trains of thought, inarticulate as they are most of the time, that explain the minds of such voters.
1) “I am an evangelical, because I am a Republican.” Polls often get answers that people think should be true about themselves. Thus, there is a pop association of good folks who love God, family, and country with the Republican Party. Donald Trump will “make America great again”? In this train of thought, that aspiration becomes an evangelical tenet!
2) “I am an evangelical, because I love Fox News.” See #1. Although Fox’s more serious-minded journalists briefly took Trump on in the first debate, the following weeks have seen the network kiss and make up with Trump. Sean Hannity has effectively turned his show into a campaign commercial for Trump. Again, “evangelicals” in this train of thought are the sort of folks who love Fox News.
3) “I am an evangelical, regardless of my theology or church involvement (or lack thereof).” I strongly suspect (and I desperately hope) that, could we find out, there would be something of an inverse relationship between church attendance and theological sophistication on one hand, and Trump support on the other. The people who identify as evangelicals, then, are often talking about a certain cultural profile (white, Republican, Fox News-watching) more than particular churchly or doctrinal commitments. It was instructive that WORLD Magazine’s recent survey of evangelical “insiders” (full disclosure: I was among those polled) showed more hostility toward Trump than any other Republican candidate, and virtually no support for him. We can assume that WORLD Magazine, of any outlet in America, knows who real evangelicals are.
-See also The Atlantic‘s “What Do Donald Trump Voters Actually Want?” Many of them seem to be “motivated by giddyness at the chaotic spectacle of his success.”
[UPDATE] Keith Miller @TheSuburbsGuy points out that “Trump’s at just 11% among those attending nearly weekly or more frequently.”
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