War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.
We might add to this list of dystopian contradictions: Evangelicals support Trump. Or at least one could be forgiven for thinking that such a statement belonged only to a world in which nonsensical statements were heralded as truth and that when such a statement is uttered in today’s world it is understood as obviously illogical. This would at least explain the hand-wringing across the country both within the Beltway Media and in the blogosphere.
For some, such a proposition is absolutely perplexing. Evangelicals, in their mind, are a known quantity, they are a group that loves their Bibles, takes their faith seriously, and would never consider voting for someone that didn’t share that love. Trump, as is made amusingly and painfully more clear on a weekly basis, does not fit this mold (Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C, etc.). So the Daily Beast attempted to answer “Why Evangelicals Worship Trump,” by settling on some combination of “he’s been quietly supporting and meeting with evangelicals for a few years now” and “he’s an outlet for them to vent their frustrations.” The Atlantic asked a similar question: “Why Do Evangelicals Support Donald Trump?” Their version of an answer was that it’s his outsider status that’s drawing their support.
Others get more to the point by saying that those who say they’re evangelical and that they support Trump are not really evangelicals. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, asked in a New York Times op-ed, “Have Evangelicals Who Support Trump Lost Their Values?” His unsurprising answer was yes. The real problem, some say, is that polls are letting people self-identify as evangelicals and not allowing real evangelicals to have the final say on who is or who is not an evangelical.
The consternation is fun to watch, to be sure, but it is borne of a myth of the evangelical voting bloc. It is not that evangelicals may not tend to vote a certain way, but that the narrative of what an evangelical voting bloc looks like and what matters to it is divorced from reality. This was obvious in 2012 when Mitt Romney, a Mormon, won 79% of the white evangelical protestant vote (more than John McCain won in 2008 and the same amount George W. Bush won in 2004). I grew up in an evangelical church that was steadfast in its position that Mormons were not Christians and that belief does not seem to have dissipated much since then. Ben Witherington, well-known professor of New Testament Interpretation at the evangelical Asbury Theoloigical Seminary, wrote a piece just before the 2012 election explaining “Why Mormonism is not Christianity.” LifeWay, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, published a poll in 2011 which surveyed 1,000 American Protestant pastors, 75% of whom said Mormons were not Christians. When the numbers were split between mainline and evangelical pastors, evangelicals were much more likely to say that Mormons were not Christian (67% vs. 48%).
Or we could look at the evangelical support of Ben Carson, who is a Seventh Day Adventist, a group which a wing of the Southern Baptist Convention has labeled a “sect.” Or we could look at any number of other candidates that have significant support from evangelicals yet who may not fit an evangelical picture as painted by both media outsiders and some evangelical insiders.
People, evangelicals included, vote their politics, which are often wide-ranging and may occasionally be counter-intuitive or contradictory. While “religion” may be very important to evangelicals, even more important to self-identified evangelicals than to any other group, it is not the only thing that matters to them. This, to their credit, is what The Daily Beast and The Atlantic tried to show, though their framing questions were the wrong ones to ask. At the heart of the myth of the evangelical voting bloc is the myth of the single-issue voter. It is this type of thinking that leads people to speak about “the woman vote” or “the black vote” as if they were monolithic and as if these groups were too simple to care about more than one issue.
Political and religious punditry will continue to lack depth of analysis as long as “Evangelicals support Trump” continues to result in disbelief. The question should not be “why do Evangelicals support Trump,” but why are we framing the question in this way, why does such a proposition seem unnatural, what does this say about our assumptions, and how has our research and analysis suffered as a result. Maybe then we can move away from punditry and toward analysis.
Image by Gage Skidmore via Flickr