For all the talk of the #NeverTrump evangelicals this year, now only a small circle of holdouts remain. By this summer, 94 percent of Republican evangelicals indicated they would vote for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. That evangelicals have fallen in line behind such an unlikely, unsavory choice becomes all the more stunning when we remember how slowly and even begrudgingly evangelical Republicans got behind Mitt Romney just four years ago.
Apparently lending support to a devout, traditional Mormon proves more challenging than backing a thrice-married casino owner who can neither name a verse from the Bible nor has ever needed to ask God for forgiveness.
Still, the remaining soldiers of the #NeverTrump movement continue their attack on the candidate and his Christian supporters. In the Washington Post, George W. Bush’s former speechwriter Michael Gerson continued his year-long case against Trump and his backers. Last month, Gerson decried the “idea that America needs Donald Trump as savior,” a heretical notion that Trump himself has often stoked.
This week, Gerson questioned again how his fellow evangelical Christians could support this “avatar of the Playboy philosophy.” “I wonder how Trump evangelicals,” Gerson continued, “explain to their sons and daughters that this man is a suitable leader for a great country.”
Eric Sapp, the executive director of American Values Network, had harsher words for Trump’s evangelical supporters. “Trump’s Offer to Christians Is Same Offer Devil Made to Christ,” read the title of Sapp’s piece, and the ensuing article did not lessen its attack. Calling Trump a “thrice-married adulterer” who could not be trusted on matters like abortion or religious freedom, Sapp blasted evangelical Christians who justified supporting Trump because of his possible Supreme Court picks:
“Trump’s ‘tempting’ offer is remarkably like another made two millennia ago…when the Devil offered Jesus the power to rule over all the kingdoms of the world with justice and mercy, if only Christ would bow down to the Devil. American Christians should not take a deal Jesus rejected.
It profits a man nothing to give his soul in exchange for the entire world…how can we possibly consider doing so in exchange for Trump’s empty promise of Supreme Court nominees?”
And Erick Erickson, the conservative firebrand editor of The Resurgent, contributed a blistering rebuke to the “pastors [who] begged me to reconsider my Never Trump stance” in an op-ed in the Washington Post. Arguing that a Clinton presidency would do “long-term damage to the country,” Erickson nevertheless contended that Trump “will do far more damage to the church, which must be my chief priority.”
Erickson lamented his fellow Christians who had tried to convince him to vote for Trump by the curious argument that God has often chosen sinners to lead. “When I see Christians saying we have license to choose bad men because God chose bad men,” Erickson countered, “I see the sparks of apostasy…Christians looking for a strong man to protect the church instead of the strongest man who conquered death is a terrible thing to see.”
While these latest #NeverTrump missives repeat many of the same points made over the past year, they notably do not argue that “real Christians” are not supporting Trump as earlier evangelical writings against the Trump movement contended.
As I wrote earlier this year, for all their honor in opposing Trump, the #NeverTrump evangelicals were also unwilling to admit Trump’s support came from “true” evangelicals despite poll results throughout the primaries showing Trump winning even among the most frequent church attenders.
That fact can no longer be denied, as these latest anti-Trump editorials attest. Rather than wasting column inches questioning the evangelical bona fides of Trump’s supporters, the #NeverTrump editorials now seek to shame and rebuke the evangelical justifications for Trump.
Yet, some equivocating still remains. On Twitter yesterday, Erick Erickson offered “a random twitter storm about Trump and Christians.” In the 37 tweets that followed, Erickson argued there were three groups of Christians in this election: “(1) Actively for Trump; (2) begrudgingly for Trump; (3) still opposed to Trump.”
Erickson then categorized those groups theologically, claiming that dispensationalists and theonomists comprised Trump’s active supporters, while reformed Protestants (in other words, bread-and-butter conservative evangelicals) were only reluctant supporters of Trump, if at all. “It is telling, however,” Erickson added in another tweet, “that the most aggressive Trump supporters in the faith community are prosperity gospel preachers.”
Citing no evidence for his assertions, Erickson may be right about how support for Trump varies across different evangelical subcategories of theology, region, class and education. Hopefully, some enterprising young sociology or religion scholar is collecting real data throughout this election cycle to help us know more about who Trump’s voters are and how we measure their support.
Still, Erickson’s tweets implicitly maintain the lingering refusal to acknowledge full evangelical complicity in the rise of Donald Trump. Placing the lion’s share of Trump enthusiasm with the prosperity gospel crowd—a reviled corner of conservative Protestantism most “mainstream” evangelicals regard as heretical—is a way of continuing to see Trump and his religious support as some wild aberration, like prosperity gospel theology itself, rather than as thoroughly conventional.
In the end, Trump’s standing will not be determined by the handful of prosperity gospel peddlers who have shouted his name, but rather the millions of evangelical voters who quietly pull the lever—“begrudgingly” or otherwise—for Donald Trump.
Noting that reformed Protestants (the right kind of evangelicals, in Erickson’s estimation) will only vote for Trump unenthusiastically may tell us something about the nature of the 2016 election. However, it won’t alter the results in November nor will it absolve evangelicals from the awful selection they will have made.
There is no honor in “begrudgingly” voting for a demagogic bully who threatens American traditions and insults the American people.
Enthusiasm does not determine elections, votes do. The ballot box records only the selection made, not the vigor with which the voting lever is pulled. Protest votes, reluctant votes, and excited votes all get counted the same. The results are what we live with, not the manner of voting.
Should Trump win, it won’t matter that a portion of his evangelical supporters held their noses as they dropped their ballots. It will only matter that they endorsed the greatest stink to have ever entered American politics, and sullied themselves irreparably in the process.