It may seem ironic that we Evangelicals, who profess everyone’s need for redemption, helped to nominate Donald Trump, who professes no such need. But we did: he swept the Bible Belt primaries, losing only Texas to favorite son Ted Cruz. According to NBC News exit polls, Mr. Trump won a combined forty percent of the Evangelical vote in the  GOP primaries and caucuses as of May 10, shortly after he effectively wrapped up the nomination. Mr. Cruz by then had a combined thirty-four percent of the Evangelical vote, in second place in that regard. Mr. Trump’s share of the Evangelical primary vote, of course, rose thereafter.

I first felt my own need for redemption as a teen in Newport News’s Ferguson High School. One of my best friends there had suddenly gotten religion – a common experience during the Jesus Movement of the late nineteen-sixties and early seventies – and I walked the aisle at his church. My conversion felt powerful. Shy as I was, I often preached until crowds clogged the school’s halls, forcing our assistant principal to stop me.

I wanted everyone to see what I saw: each of us is made in God’s image and endowed with an invisible spirit – a means of connecting with something universal and eternal.

Slowly something happened to our movement. As a William and Mary law student in the late seventies and early eighties, I watched Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, the Portsmouth-based show I had enjoyed as a teen, begin to mix politics with its religious programming. Nationally, of course, American Evangelicalism was by then becoming associated with a conservative stance on a number of social issues, including abortion, homosexuality, and the expression of religion in public places.

Our culture-war emphasis came at a cost: we Evangelicals became less inclined to see the image of God in our political opponents. In other words, our focus on social issues made us lose touch with the core of our democracy – our political equality as God’s children – an understanding that our earlier spiritual renewal made particularly available to us.

Our nation was founded on Enlightenment philosopher John Locke’s notion of equality before God. As law and philosophy professor Jeremy Waldron observes, “Locke accorded basic equality the strongest grounding that a principle could have: it was an axiom of theology, understood as perhaps the most important truth about God’s way with the world in regard to the social and political implications of His creation of the human person.”

In Enlightenment terms, this “axiom of theology” is a “self-evident truth,” and the American Framers accorded the Declaration of Independence’s Equality Clause – “all men are created equal” – this foundational status.

Instead of discovering in the Declaration the core of our own faith, however, many of my fellow Evangelicals have reconstructed America’s Revolutionary past with a “Christian nation” narrative. This rather tribal outlook on our country’s origins tends to exclude other faiths and denies the universal truth at the heart of the American experiment in self-government.

The “Christian nation” narrative is also godless at its core. It suggests that our political rights spring from historical accident and not from our status as God’s children. G. K. Chesterton, the Christian apologist, in his book What’s Wrong with the World stood against a similar notion of the origin of English rights, quoting and then countering Edmund Burke:

“I know nothing of the rights of men,” [Burke] said, “but I know something of the rights of Englishmen.” There you have the essential atheist. His argument is that we have got some protection by natural accident and growth; and why should we profess to think beyond it, for all the world as if we were the images of God!

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address claims that America was dedicated not to the Christian God, exactly, but to Chesterton’s proposition, a universally shared spark of divinity reflected in our essential – that is, our political – equality. America was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The proposition is attracting some harrowing answers, and the issue is again joined.

We Evangelicals were not wrong per se to mix religion and politics, but we have fought our culture wars as us-versus-them moral battles at the expense of the Equality Clause, which Lincoln rightly calls “the father of all moral principle among us.” This moral principle guided some past Evangelicals to support political movements that led to the abolition of slavery, to women’s suffrage, and to Civil Rights legislation.

Our own efforts at political action, however, have culminated in our support of Mr. Trump, an autocrat at heart who shows little inclination to see God’s image in Mexicans and Muslims, among others. After some political defeats, we Evangelicals see ourselves as weak and as a mere special interest; we seek Mr. Trump’s protection, and he has promised it to us.

We seem willing to give up on our nation’s 240-year-old experiment with equality in favor of a king. We fit a biblical precedent, that of ancient Israel, who rejected God by crying to the prophet Samuel to “give us a king!”

Unlike ancient Israel, of course, America isn’t a theocracy, but the spiritual core of the Equality Clause suggests an outlook on democracy based on a people’s status as children of God – government by “the people in mass . . . inherently independent of all but moral law,” as Jefferson puts it. In a real sense, we Evangelicals are rejecting the spiritual essence of our nation’s founding.

Instead of breaking through “the gates of hell,” as Jesus envisioned the church, we Evangelicals may pay dearly for arranging for our own protection.

Bibliography

1 Samuel 8 (KJV) (“Give us a king!” quote)

Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith) (2012-05-12). What’s Wrong with the World (Kindle Locations 2085-2086). Kindle Edition.

Erler, Edward J. “Harry Jaffa and Original Intent Jurisprudence.” Introduction. Storm over the Constitution. By Harry V. Jaffa. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 1999. Xvii-Xl. Print. (For Jefferson’s “moral law” quote, page xxix.)

Jaffa, Harry V. “What Were the ‘Original Intentions’ of the Framers of the Constitution of the United States?” University of Puget Sound Law Review 10 (1987): 351-448. Web. 22 July 2013. <http://digitalcommons.law.seattleu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1246&context=sulr>. (For Lincoln’s “the father of all moral principle among us” quote, page 417.)

Matthew 16:18 (KJV) (“Gates of hell” quote)

Mitchell, Travis. “Evangelicals Rally to Trump, Religious ‘Nones’ Back Clinton.” Pew Research Center’s Religion Public Life Project RSS. Pew Research Center, 13 July 2016. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.

Waldron, Jeremy. God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations of John Locke’s Political Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print. (Page 6)

11 thoughts on “Why we Evangelicals nominated Trump

  1. All ideologies are idiotic, whether religious or political, for it is conceptual thinking, the conceptual word, which has so unfortunately divided man. Jiddu Krishnamurti

  2. I find your assertion that Evangelicals who support Trump do so because they want a king’s protection offensive. Such a statement is a good example of what is wrong with modern politics. Namely, both sides seek to expose ‘hidden’ motivation in those with whom they disagree.

    Gone are the days when the starting point of any honest discussion was that we all want what was best for our nation. We should return to the notion that, though we may disagree with the means, our goals are the same.

    You are correct in stating that modern American Evangelism became more involved with politics because of social issues such as abortion, homosexuality and expression of religion in public places. But, to limit any group to one issue is a mistake. People are more complicated than any single issue.

    I consider myself a conservative because I disagree with the publically expressed philosophy of liberal politicians that the federal government is the solution to every stated problem. Though for a few things (namely, national defense) solutions are best addressed at the national level, most other issues (including social issues) are best addressed at the state and local level.

    The Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states ‘The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.’

  3. I’ve often wondered why we American Christians feel we are the particularly holy, called-out ones to the exclusion of other nations, current and past. Surely England, Spain, the Roman and Mongol empires, the Muslim caliphates and dynasties, the Soviet Union and the Incan empire all believed they were destined by whichever god they worshipped to flourish at the expense of those they conquered.
    My beliefs? We are not smarter (though we think we are), nor more industrious (though we act as though we are), nor more religious (though we believe we are), than other nations. Our short-sightedness usually stems from our lack of interest in other cultures whether in our own or other countries. I remember when, in the early 1980s, the information was buzzing about the Christian (American) media that South Korea had the largest congregation in the world (in Gwangju City). What a blow! And then to find out that the growth was a direct result people attending ‘home churches’. In a typical example of trying to catch up the stateside churches either started home churches, advertised the ones they already had, or changed the name from ‘bible studies’ to ‘home churches’. Did the number of Christians increase? I haven’t heard. Perhaps one of you has heard.
    I find myself caring more about what my relationship is with my God and my extended family, both familial and spiritual. Am I pressing in? Am I allowing myself to hear the truth about myself from all of those? And with that new knowledge, am I being changed by them all? I leave it to my families to decide whether I affect a change on them.
    So I have no idea where American Christians stand (or what they stand for) now. Whether America itself is holier now, I very much doubt it. But I hope all of us will have a better understanding of who we are and who we want to become.

  4. I don’t think most Evangelicals voted for Trump as much as they voted against Hillary. She wanted to accelerate our Holocaust of the unborn to all 9 months and said that deeply held religious beliefs must change. Besides the loose way she held our national secrets as Commander-In-Chief and a huge myriad of other reasons, but the first one is quite enough in itself. If you can’t legislate morality, what’s law for anyway? Meaningless mantras…

  5. Inga, hi! I’ve come to think the same: most Evangelicals voted primarily against Clinton in the general election. My post, though, was written before the general election and concerns the Republican primaries.

  6. Hi Peter,
    Thank you for this thoughtful and beautifully written post.
    As you might remember, I was raised Jewish, but also in the Interfaith Community my parents helped to found in Alexandria. My 3 grandchildren are being raised Catholic, but their parents have discovered a non-denominational Christian community based church.
    You are absolutely correct that we need, all of us, to set aside our biases and keep our core beliefs as we reach out and welcome ALL of God’s children into our hearts and homes, without prejudice, without reservation and without questioning their beliefs.
    Thank you for this, it really meant a lot to me

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