The “Evangelicals” Who Support Donald Trump

The “Evangelicals” Who Support Donald Trump August 18, 2015

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.

For years, I have been calling on evangelicals to take a big step back from the Republican Party and “Christian America” ideology in order to clarify what it actually means to be an evangelical Christian. This is not at all a question of becoming liberal. It is a matter of rooting out corrupt influences which blur people’s understanding of what “evangelical” means, and more importantly, what the message of the Christian gospel is. Sorry, folks, but the gospel has nothing to do with the Republican Party, Fox News, or the United States of America.

-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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  • First, I would not call Patheos the bastion of Evangelical thought. So a little bit of the pot calling the kettle black here.

    Second, the reason Evangelicals are supporting Trump is that contrary to popular opinion we do not believe in a theocracy. So a candidate does not have to be an Evangelical to gain our support. He just has to be honest. The Democrats and the Republicans have lied to Mainline and Evangelical believers for years, promising them to support what is held dear by them. They did this to “buy” our votes. Well I think at least the Evangelicals have wised up. They just want honesty. They want someone who will not bow to political pressure or pressure from the media. So, just look around. You might find your assumptions are a little off base.

  • Thomas,

    I appreciate the many “hopes” you have expressed here, but I fear they are against the grain of formational realities. How many evangelicals have spent hours and hours each week being formed by either listening to right wing radio and/or TV? Formations of people are like noses, everyone gets one. Or, to quote Jesus, every disciple, when fully trained, will be like their teacher. Many of our fellow evangelicals have tuned into political media for several hours a week for years if not decades now. Trump is and does what they have been trained to love. Gentleness is not what is evident to all on political radio. Rather, they are all angry men, wanting wrath on a host of people and groups and institutions, and we have made them dear friends and teachers to us, despite the proverb: “Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare.” To the extent that evangelicals have made right wing media personalities their influencers, we have become like them, and Trump is the obvious candidate to match.

  • stefanstackhouse

    If God has any special purpose at all for America (and this is debatable), then surely of central importance is our unique role as a gathering place for immigrants from every nation, ethnicity, and tribe on the planet – a place where such people can be welcomed by Christians, exposed to the gospel and its life changing power, made disciples, and then sent back home on mission to their compatriots.

    And then along comes Mr. Trump, who wants nothing better than to shut this all down – and to insult all of these visitors in the process.

    A snowball in hell will have a better chance of making it through than Mr. Trump has of getting my vote.

  • RustbeltRick

    “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?”

    Because so many Christians love rude and crude. My in-laws, who are God-fearing conservatives attending a fundamentalist Baptist church, paid good money to attend an Ann Coulter event a few years back, held in a massive basketball arena. They’ve listened to Rush Limbaugh for decades. Their house is full of books by Rush, Beck, O’Reilly, Coulter, Hannity, and the rest. There are millions of sincere Christians just like my in-laws. They hate immigrants and they love bombast, and oh by the way they are faithful church attenders, tithers, and choir members. Sigh.

    Trump isn’t an outlier, at all. He is the embodiment of several years of harsh, crude and manipulative rhetoric. It’s weird that you can’t see what’s right in front of you.

  • Jeff Wright

    I’m of the mind that for conservatives (not really accounting for thoughtful evangelicals who vote from a theologically informed perspective) that in a lot of ways Trump functions for cultural conservatives the way young Obama functioned for cultural “progressives.”

    More explanation here:

  • Daniel Thompson

    Step back from the Democratic Party as well.

  • Noah172

    This post is obnoxious. Who the heck is this writer to say who is and is not a “real” Christian based on support for a political candidate? How can any “real” Christian support Jeb! or Marco Rubio, or Hillary Clinton or Joseph Biden? How could any “real” Christian support George W. Bush or Barack Obama? My point is not that Christians shouldn’t vote or be politically active, but that we should all recognize that all political candidates, even (especially?) those who like to present themselves as “people of faith” (Bush brothers, I am looking at you), are fallible human beings who can have base motivations (such as doing the bidding of their wealthy donors), or who can be blind to the harm their policies cause. This writer should repent of his arrogance.

  • louismoreaugottschalk

    this is very good insight and you articulate it so well!
    I absolutely love it when somebody says something I’ve
    been thinking that i’ve not been able to really connect with words of my own.
    that is the great service you are doing for others IMO!

  • kierkegaard71

    Putting aside Donald Trump’s clearly ungentlemanly character (which to my mind should be disqualifying), one can easily explain evangelical support for him. the rest of the GOP takes social conservatives for granted. We are patsies for them who flock to the polls election after election, seeing them as our only option. From my point of view, Trump is a political breath of fresh air. He is not of my tribe and owes me nothing. I was listening to Gov Scott Walker and his rhetoric was so stale. It smacked of focus group generated lingo. But apart from all this, is it not conceivable that one could be evangelical and an immigration restrictionist?

  • steve burdan

    very good insight and perspective as usual! though in last para, I would add Dems in with the mix, as there are no doubt a good amount of Amer. Evans on that end of the spectrum – they may not be the Christian Flag party, but they have their own buy-in thinking about how Government should be deployed in social justice and kingdom building…IMO

  • kierkegaard71

    The author says, “There has been much hand-wringing in recent weeks about the persistent support of Donald Trump among ‘evangelicals.'”

    My question: who is engaging in hand-wringing? Foxnews is engaging in hand-wringing after Megyn Kelly asked her off-putting question. Megyn Kelly is typical of the “New Journalism”, making yourself the story. The GOP inner-sanctum is hand-wringing over the popular uprising. I am a college graduate with an advanced degree and I find much that is appealing about Trump’s positions. I attempt to be theologically sophisticated. I consider myself an evangelical. However, I discern a difference between vilifying the Mexican government’s “loose emigration policies” (shall we say) and vilifying Hispanics. I discern a difference between opposing the free-for-all of the welfare state and actually having compassion. Perhaps it might be ironic if a “reality TV” star like Donald Trump were the one to re-introduce to America reality-based governing.

  • X.M.C.

    The person I’d most expect to post a picture on Facebook in support of say, school prayer is a coworker of mine. My coworker will occasionally ask for prayer, but doesn’t attend church and isn’t looking to. Beyond some broadly conservative opinions, this coworker isn’t particularly political (at least vocally). I live in a rural area and, though I don’t understand it, I don’t think it’s unusual. Sometimes it seems like non-actively Christian people are more likely to take the standard Christian Right line than the people I attend church with. It’s almost a sort of “Christian, but not religious”. After all the recent talk about the rise of the nones, it would be interesting to explore this other group further.

    I don’t think an “inactive” evangelical identity is born out of politics, though. I think it’s just easier to comfortably hold a marginal Christian identity with your conservative politics, since the two are assumed to go together and conservative politicians often commend faith and values. Political liberals might find it more comfortable to drop a Christian identity they’re only marginally commited to.

  • John Hutchinson

    “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.”

    I think that you are kidding yourself if you believe that the ‘orthodoxy’ are averse to demagogues like Trump.

    It becomes puzzling that self-identified Evangelicals, including Wayne Grudem and Albert Mohler favor the use of torture to greater extent than other subcultural groups. Indeed, the latter theologian uses utiliitarian arguments of an atheist like Krauthammer’s, adorned with god words, as the basis by which to justify, in contradiction to the objective principles of divine and universal justice.

    It becomes puzzling that so many self-identified Evangelicals attempt to reconcile Ayn Rand with Christianity, despite the irreconcilable philosophical worldview and ethics.

    It becomes puzzling that so many self-identified Evangelicals see Bonhoeffer as one of their own, despite Bonhoeffer’s belief in an existentialist God, who really isn’t there, but that belief helps to get him through the dark night of existence.

    It becomes puzzling that Dutch “culturist”, Geert Wilders would be applauded at the Cornerstone Church, a Pentecostal megachurch in Nashville, Tennessee.

    I would suggest that it is not the nominals that are the problem but also the true ecclesiastical orthodoxy. The experience of Christ Himself was in confronting the toxic (social conservative) moralists of His day, who are just as contrary to Christianity as the libertine and secularists on the other end of the spectrum.

  • Rudy R

    Or those who claim to be Evangelicals really are Evangelicals and your hand-ringing is another failed “No True Scotsman” argument.

  • Guthrum

    I am not a Trump person, but we can see why he is so popuar. He calls it like it is, with none of the pc stuff. He is saying things that other candidates and leaders are afraid to.
    People are tired of all this pc crap ! It has gotten so bad that stores and government are removing any reference to man – woman , male – female, boys-girls. The last time I checked, there is still a difference. Get over it.

  • Ian

    It has gotten so bad that stores and government are removing any reference to man – woman , male – female, boys-girls.

    Wow! It’s got that bad, really? That’s terrible, I can’t think of anything more vile than stores not labelling toys by gender. Man, if Jesus was walking the streets of America today, you can bet his number 1 priority would be this PC stuff. It’s that bad, right?

  • Eric Boersma

    Who the heck is this writer to say who is and is not a “real” Christian based on support for a political candidate?

    As someone who’s been told that I’m not a real Christian for supporting liberal politicians and policies before, I’m personally loving this kind of posting from conservative Christians. Watching these groups eat themselves over Trump has been a long time coming.

  • Johnny Davis

    You should be mored concerned about the Evangelicals who say they support Jeb Bush – that represents a far more serious error.

  • BLSkinner

    I recently asked my Representative in the House why it took Donald Trump to get Congress working on anti-sanctuary city bills. He replied that he didn’t know. The Remembrance Project has been working for years to show Americans the effects of crime by illegal aliens. One of the mothers whose son was tortured and murdered said that Trump was able to further their goals more in 10 minutes than they had accomplished in years. I am an evangelical and a conservative. I think for myself. I am not joined at the hip with Fox News or anyone. I love Trump’s immigration paper. I love that he is shaking up Republicans who have been ignoring voters and kowtowing to donors and special interest groups. Sometimes strange people and events are needed to change directions. Perhaps Trump is here for such a time as this.

  • ugluk2

    Not sure you are right about Bonhoeffer, but otherwise I agree.

  • Rudy R

    Trump is only popular with 25% of the Republican voters, so I wouldn’t classify that as being “so popular”. Also, just speaking your mind doesn’t necessarily equate that to speaking thoughtful, logical, reasoned, truthful dialogue. He doesn’t speak truth, he speaks truth according to Donald Trump…big difference.

  • John Small Berries

    “People are tired of all this pc crap !”

    Hear, hear! Treating other people who are different from you with the same sort of respect and kindness you would like to be treated with… that’s so far outside of Christ’s teachings that it’s not even funny!

  • Anyone of these Republican candidates will be far better leaders for America than Hillary, Bernie Sanders, or Biden. Look where the Democrat party has lead us over the past 7+ years. The Democrat politicians are the party that has given us Abortion=60 million dead Americans and counting.
    NO evangelical/christian should EVER consider voting for anyone who is PRO-CHOICE Democrat or Republican.

  • Pilgrim

    I am a bible-believing Christian and I am baffled that Donald Trump has any support at all. Religion aside, he is bombastic and exhibits narcissistic behavior, is coarse and demeans women. Calling out Rosie O’Donell as a pig, Heidi Klum as no longer a ’10’ and on and on. I heard an interview yesterday with a man, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston, who has followed Trump for 27 years. Johnston has written an article, David Cay Johnston: 21 Questions for Trump on Kickbacks,

    Busting Unions, the Mob & Corporate Welfare

    Following Trump is similar with keeping up with the Kardashians. Instead of selfies of Kim’s backside, we get quotes from Trumps mouthside. To entertain the thought of Trump being president is preposterous.

    I hope all lovers of democracy will take the time to read many sources, and be the informed electorate that democracy requires.

  • Comrade Carrot-Blog Vegetarian

    I’m so glad to live in a world whose biggest problems include the fact that girls don’t have to shop in the boys aisle at Target to find sports-toys.

  • From my conversations I believe there is more evangelical support for Trump than you claim, but i very much appreciate your efforts to distinguish Christianity from Republican politics and romantic notions of America. I am on the political left but that also involves distinguishing what on the Left is inconsistent with Christianity.

  • Jerry Lynch

    The natural evolution of the increasing hate and buffoonery of the Far right: Donal Trump, the pinnacle of divisiveness. And why do “evangelicals” support him? Because they feel the media treats them like haters and buffoons, so they resonate with anyone who openly speaks his mind, no matter how looney or mean, and expresses unrepentant anger over any criticism of his views, God bless him. This is just how they want to respond to the evil liberal press, but tribal-inhibitors stop them. Sometimes. There are big exceptions, like Franklyn Graham or the Westboro Church.

  • Ryan

    Agreed. Too many people have fallen for this bullshit and are totally mixing up religion and politics, which is an extremely dangerous game.

  • Ian

    Roe v Wade was decided under a Republican president. After Nixon, the president who saw the biggest increases in abortion rate was Ford, a Republican, and the presidencies with the biggest decreases have been Democrat. In fact, the only Democratic president who saw an increase in abortion was Carter. whereas Nixon, Ford, Reagan, G H W Bush and G W Bush all saw at least one period of increase during their terms. Abortion has fallen every year of the Obama presidency, and is now lower than at any time since Nixon was president. As a per-capita rate it is lower than at any time since Roe v Wade. The last time abortion increased was under G W Bush.

    No Republican candidate has put forward a plan for how, exactly, they are going to ‘repeal’ a SCOTUS decision, or committed to putting forward and fighting for a constitutional amendment to supercede it. Republican candidates know it is a ‘say the right thing, pass the test’ issue. But candidates who make a big show of being anti-abortion, like Bush, are more likely to back policies that have the knock-on effect of increasing the number of abortions.

    So if you genuinely care about abortion, you’d vote for the candidate who is mostly likely to act in ways that will lower the abortion rate. Which pro-choice Democrats do with much greater success, historically.

    No evangelical/Christian/human being should consider voting for anyone based on uncritical acceptance of demagoguery.

  • Guthrum

    Trump only “vilified” the illegal immigrants who are criminals and have committed serious crimes here, even vicious murders, roaming around at will while the government can not get their act together.

  • blackylawless

    Nothing new, folks.

    Nativism has ALWAYS held sway in the hearts and minds of most folks over and above any notion of faith, a trifling faith comprising few, if any, crushed mustard seed. And The Donald, at least, knows this, all too well, unfortunately.

  • trinithinker70

    I am a non American evangelical, who lived and worked (legally) with US Christian Missions organization for several years. If I were not grounded in my faith and guided by the love of God, I will not be a Christian, based on what I have seen in the American evangelicalism .

    Conservatives look and sound more like a hate group, they fail to love minorities, they are fear and war mongers, love gun rights rather that protection of at risk youths and communities, hate gays rather love them, hate Muslims rather that reach out to them.

    The live by the gospel of fox news, NRA, Rush Limbaugh and other haters rather than the gospel of Christ, that says love your enemies, shelter the stranger, take care of the poor, honor and prayer for our leaders.

    It appears that American evangelical patriotism, political republicanism has become there idol. They are highly arrogant and will not even give ear to a different view. Maybe they should go to Asia , the Caribbean, India and Middle East and learn what true faith and love for Christ is about.

  • trinithinker70

    She is very right about Bonhoefer. Like Calvin and Wesley we tend to romantacise them and not see their real or underlying beliefs. Calvin for example was a flaming racist, and his theology was used to validate aparthied, slavery, and the separation of blacks in the American church until the civil rights movement

  • trinithinker70

    And the GOP, has given us hate and bigotry, gun rights that kill thousands of youths, unjustified wars in foreign countries that killed brave men and women in uniform and countless innocent people and children, imperialism and intervention that has brought shame and hate, failed foreign policy , lack of concern for the poor, separation of immigrant families because of broken immigration system, hate of blacks and minorities, hate and fear mongering , greed and systems that perpetuate poverty among blacks and minorities and benefits the wealthy. The GOP has a form of godliness, but denies the power thereof, and is nothing but a highly evolve Jim Crow movement courting undiserning evangelicals.

    I disagree with democrats on abortion and same sex marriage but on social issues, war, guns and love, they are more Christian that the GOP could ever be.

  • tovlogos

    “evangelicals or conservatives” have no theological import at all. The two high profile issues that are the bane of political conflict, would not make evangelicals any holier if these conflicts didn’t exist.
    There is a distinct doctrine of conservatives, and likewise liberals — there is also the doctrine of Judeo-Christian theology. A true Christian in the WH, if by some miracle he could actually get there, would not bring light to the world through the government — neither is this effort on God’s agenda.
    On God’s agenda is the great commission.
    Obviously Trump’s appeal has to do with his forthrightness. People are so nauseated by the constant repetition of political dialog, they don’t know what to do with themselves. Republicans are upset because Trump in not conservative enough. This is certainly not a problem for me — these two political parties are like a noose from which people cannot seem to break free; and under their authority nothing good happens. Now the liberals are morally out of control; and the conservatives are stagnant. If they would vote for a Mormon, why not Trump?
    Because it’s about being conservatives, not Christians. So, I wouldn’t vote for a republican who comes under the guise of being somehow holier.
    Being a Christian is so much more comprehensive than a political doctrine can provide. If some one wanted to vote for Trump, I wouldn’t see a problem with his decision.

  • zmster

    I agree and think the number, whichever the correct one is, is inflated due to all these reasons you’ve stated. But, even if not, the highest number I’ve seen bandied about is 20%. Even if every single one of those self-identifying “evangelicals” really meet “our” definition, that means 80% of evangelicals are not. Gee, why is that not the headline racing around social media? Usually that should warrant “Over-whelming Majority of Evangelicals reject Trump!” should it not?

  • Richard Pierard

    After years of studying and putting up with right-wing, conservative evangelicals, I have no problem with understanding evangelical support for Trump. He is tough-talking and advocates much of what they believe in the sociopolitical realm. All he needs is a religious adviser, like that lapdog preacher Joshua DuBois who advised Obama, to feed him Bible verses, pop theology, and evangelical slogans. Also I am expecting that some money-mad evangelical publishers to put out books like “The Spiritual Journey of Donald Trump” or “How Christ Changed My Life,” or “Bible Truths I learned at My Mother’s Knee.” Remember how many evangelicals fell for a divorced, two-bit, Hollywood actor whose religious handlers transformed him into a a great man of God. Soon he will have a “religious liaison” person. Just wait and see. It will be fun to watch them weep and wail when the Trump bubble finally bursts. Still, it never ceases to amaze me how ideologically blinded people are so easily duped. He’s your man–go for it!

  • Jason Westerly

    Evangelicals like Trump because for many, their religion is one of cruelty, sin, hatred, xenophobia, bigotry, warmongering, and murder. They are apostate.

    Don’t like what I just said? Too nasty? Read about how evangelicals helped Uganda devise and pass the law mandating the execution of homosexuals and the imprisonment of any who hide them or treat them in hospitals. Fortunately it was struck down. But some were murdered and evangelicals are back to support it again. Go look, and then tell me with a straight face that Jesus loves me.

    That is some pretty big evidence that something very fundamental about evangelicalism is satanic or at least, very very much ruined.