Anyway, why can’t you look at the results of the 2016 election and read it as a sign of evangelicals’ evolving maturity, an indication that they are now more pragmatic than idealistic, more political than moralistic?
Alan Jacobs certainly doesn’t read it that way. He continues to interpret the vote as an indication of evangelicalism’s great hypocrisy. On the one hand, the religious right used to talk about the necessity of moral character when assessing a political candidate:
As Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, recently wrote, “In the 1990s, evangelicals largely spoke with solidarity on the centrality of character in leadership, and of character as something essential to the credibility required of one who would hold a major position of leadership, in particular, one who would be elected President of the United States.”
But then 2016 happened and the editors at First Things, for instance, capitulated and abandoned moral conviction:
[The editors of a magazine] which seeks to “promote religiously informed analysis of culture, society, theology, and politics” — supported Trump for purely pragmatic reasons, saying that his concern is “that we’re moving toward a post-national, globalist future where there are no borders.” To the question “How do you merge your viewpoints as a citizen of the United States and a Christian public thinker?” Reno merely replied, “It’s a mistake to expect the laws of the country to reflect the imperatives of the New Testament and the Sermon on the Mount.
Jacobs offers this assessment:
This is a classic case of what psychologists and cognitive scientists call “motivated reasoning”: The incentive to abandon a commitment to “the centrality of character in leadership” was so strong that Christian leaders, by and large, yielded to it. Suddenly moral uprightness was not significant after all; perhaps it was even a red herring that could distract believers from more vital concerns.
The other way of looking at this is to notice a distinction between authoritarianism and liberalism about which Conor Friedersdorf wrote last winter:
Friedersdorf goes on to say that evangelicals (and others) may have voted for Trump because he scratched the itch of their discomfort with difference and diversity. He promised a country of “greater sameness and oneness—the ‘one right way’ for the ‘one true people’—lie just at the other end of the ‘shining path.’”
Karen Stenner, then a professor of politics at Princeton University, studied places like the former Yugoslavia that descended into bloody civil war, as well as citizens of successful democracies in Europe and North America, and identified the conditions and political predispositions that make civil strife most likely. She found that across eras and countries, some humans, who she calls “libertarians,” strongly prefer individual freedom and diversity, while others, who she calls “authoritarians,” possess a perhaps innate discomfort with difference that causes them to prefer sameness and unity, even if coercive measures are needed to enforce it.
That is not actually true if evangelicals do believe in character. In fact, evangelicals showed a willingness to live with diversity in electing someone who veered so far from their moral outlook. They knew that Trump was not like them but understood (I suppose) that for political interests they could hold their nose and tolerate someone very different. That’s as plausible a reading of evangelicals as Jacobs’ — conservative Protestants as libertarian rather than authoritarian.
And notice on the other side how the people who are supposed to like difference and diversity — liberals, even the producers of late night television comedy — cannot tolerate the difference and diversity that Donald Trump represents. By insisting that Trump is rotten, bad for the country, indecent, a moral cretin, liberals now look like the real authoritarians — the people who can’t tolerate diversity.
And oh by the way, notice too what Jacobs completely ignores — that the other candidate wasn’t exactly the one upon whom to expend your commitment to moral fiber in political candidates. Not only did Hilary Clinton poorly handle mostly all aspects of her campaign that suggested coloring outside the legal lines, but she also represented what evangelicals feared from another Democratic POTUS. That fear was another administration that in the name of tolerating and celebrating diversity was also willing to impose it on people who dissented. Think a florist being forced to provide flower designs for a couple’s wedding that she found morally objectionable. How libertarian is that?
But voting for someone with dubious morals instead of castigating a POTUS for sex in the Oval Office, that sounds down-right liberal.