The Complicity of #NeverTrump Evangelicals in a Demagogue’s Rise

Photo courtesy of Goggla via Creative Commons 2.0.

Although the question of whether Donald Trump would win the nomination as the presumptive Republican presidential candidate has been settled, what still remains unknown is how white evangelical voters will support him in the fall. As I’ve written before, Trump depended on evangelical support for his primary victories, but he has also faced a strong and spirited opposition from other evangelicals in the #NeverTrump crowd.

Trump securing the nomination has not lessened those voices. If anything, Trump’s evangelical critics have grown more resistant in the wake of his victory. In a bruising editorial in the Washington Post last week, George W. Bush’s former speechwriter Michael Gerson argued evangelicals “must not bear the mark of Trump.” Gerson outlined Trump’s spotty personal life and unsavory character, but also his fueling of ethnic tensions, his proposed discrimination of a religious group, and his perverse and even “highly sexualized view of power as dominance” as reasons why evangelicals should oppose Trump.

Other anti-Trump evangelicals have weighed in similarly. At Vox, the evangelical writer Alan Noble warned “to vote Trump is to betray the values of both conservatism and Christianity, and the results may do serious harm to our nation and our souls.” The Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore, a leading general in the #NeverTrump brigade since last fall, recently told CBS News’ “Face the Nation” that the Trump phenomenon represented an “embrace of the very kind of moral and cultural decadence that conservatives have been saying for a long time is the problem.”

All of this is well and good. Evangelicals are right to oppose the candidacy of Donald Trump, a demagogic buffoon who has shown no respect for our democratic system, little knowledge of the Constitution, and no regard for the American people. They are wise to count his seedy personal failings, his shady business dealings, and his hotheaded, thin-skinned temperament as disqualifying over and above his politics (whatever those are). And they are honorable for insisting Trump’s unrelenting nativism, xenophobia and bigotry challenge core American tenets of liberty, equality and pluralism.

In this, they must be applauded.

Yet if they are to help prevent a catastrophic Trump presidency, the #NeverTrump folks must also be honest about the role evangelicals have played in buttressing Trump’s success thus far.

Instead, these evangelical anti-Trumpsters have pretended to be above the fray, blind to the very forces within their churches and denominations that have sustained Trump’s political ambitions. As Trump’s victory in the Republican race seemed more certain this spring, evangelicals like Moore and Noble published sorrowful essays about the choice that evangelicals would face in November. “Should Christians Vote for the Lesser of Two Evils?” Moore pondered in the pages of Christianity Today. “What remains for conservative evangelicals to do?” Noble asked. “For conservative evangelicals like me,” he continued “the 2016 election is really a choice between two evils.”

Setting aside the corrosive effect that viewing those who run for public office as evil has on our politics, these comments depend on willful ignorance of a basic fact of the 2016 election.

Evangelicals are not deciding for the first time whether or not they will vote for Donald Trump in November. They have been voting for him since the first caucuses and primaries in February, often proving critical to his victories in Bible Belt states like Alabama and South Carolina.

Some anti-Trump evangelicals have argued these voters are not “real evangelicals” or come mainly from those who don’t attend church very much. (I have shown, instead, that the data does not support such conclusions.) But all of this only obfuscates the unavoidable truth of this election year: Trump is winning because evangelicals are voting for him.

Evangelicals who don’t want to see Trump in the White House have a choice before them. They can continue to parse the election data, looking for ways to distance themselves from Trump’s evangelical voters or determine they don’t qualify as “true” evangelicals.

Or they can take stock of those sitting beside them in their pews, the one-third of evangelicals who have voted for Trump, and acknowledge the reality that has brought us to this place.

There’s little reason to think Trump’s evangelical backing will diminish from the baseline support he established in the primaries. The question that remains, however, is what leaders of the #NeverTrump movement will do to ensure it doesn’t grow from there by November.