5 reason white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump

Looking across the Atlantic from the UK, it's difficult to see how the millions of white evangelical Trump supporters (80 per cent of them voted for him, and 26 per cent of the votes cast in the 2016 election were from this base) reconcile his leadership with their faith.

Surely American evangelicals are lovely warm people who offer hospitality to people in need and who take seriously the call in Matthew 25 to treat vulnerable people - homeless, prisoners, those in poverty - as though they were Jesus himself. Don't they?

Well yes, they are. Very nice people indeed. I went to the US from London a couple of weeks ago to meet white evangelicals for the UnHerd documentary Believers in Trump. They are indeed very lovely, just as I expected.

But this is America, and there's a difference between personal or church-wide acts of kindness and compassion, and expectations of government. Many of the evangelicals I met believed in small government; it's not the government's job to take care of people, it's up to people to take care of themselves and the church should step in when people aren't capable of self-management. It's a widely held view in the US, as the recent debates about universal healthcare have demonstrated. That 'divided by a common language' thing again.

When the language extends to theological interpretations based on Scripture, though, surely that's going to be more consistent, wherever we are in the world?

Yes and no.

Firstly, it's important to remember that, while we don't hear very much about Trump other than his belligerent and pretty brutal rhetoric - which he posts on Twitter - Americans hear a different story. And American Christians, especially those who mistrust mainstream media, hear messages which don't usually make it across the pond.

As Jim Wallis of Sojourners told us: 'Big megachurch pastors tell me, I have these people for two hours a week, Fox News has them all week.' (Just to be clear, Wallis is not a Trump fan.)

And the Christian media industry is huge in the States. The 21st century version of 'why should the Devil have all the good music' is the highly sophisticated use of social media and online outreach to disseminate socially conservative Christian messages, both informing and reinforcing the views of the millions of faithful Christians. The late 20th century version was of course the huge Christian TV stations which set the agenda - spiritually, socially and politically - for millions of Christians all around the world, but particularly within the USA.

But what are those views? And how do people who have traditionally valued moral character in their political leaders see the will of God being exercised through a man with a reputation for being adulterous and aggressive?

Trump's evangelical supporters have knowingly embraced with open arms a man who makes no apology for his behaviour. While we heard people talk about 'past sins' and forgiveness, they also acknowledged that he hasn't said sorry. Despite it being classic evangelical doctrine to require repentance before God's forgiveness can be released, there seems to be a dispensation for Trump's known behaviour.

Here are some of the things we heard:

US President Donald Trump was greeted as a hero at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington.Reuters

I didn't vote for a pastor, I voted for a president

We heard a very consistent message from people in different states. Many white evangelicals decided that their priorities were not moral character, but the issues on which they wanted a president to deliver. And at a time when there was a vacancy on the Supreme Court and Hillary Clinton was making a lot of noise about putting a pro-abortion judge on the bench, millions of Christians decided to hold their nose and vote for Trump.

This is new. In 2011, a poll found that only 30% of this group agreed that an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfil their duties in their professional and political life. By 2016, this figure had jumped to 72%, right at the time a presidential candidate who bragged about assaulting women took centre stage.

God has always used flawed people

Taking this argument further, some of his evangelical supporters told us they recognise God's grace in the election of Trump as President. 'A miracle', we were told, and it was certainly unexpected.

Biblical precedent in the life of David, who committed adultery with Bathsheba and then had her husband killed in battle when she became pregnant, is sometimes used to justify his position. It's just one of many similar Bible stories - the gospel message being that none of us can meet God's standards in our own strength but by God's grace we are able to be received into his family and used for his purposes - but the problem of an absence of repentance remains.

Evil kings sometimes deliver

This problem of Trump's revelling in his sinful behaviour is mitigated for some evangelicals by the 'evil kings' narrative. Jack Jenkins of Religion News Service described for us the Cyrus analogy of an evil king who comes through for God's people, so is tolerated and even thanked for having made provision for the needs and priorities of faithful believers.

This is not uncommon in conversations with evangelicals; we heard from a 55-year old dad who struggled to justify to his daughter his support for Trump. For evangelicals who elected the president but don't see him as a role model for their sons, especially in relation to his treatment of women, their discomfort is partly assuaged by recognising that God uses unlikely heroes. Another compared the president of the United States to the prostitute Rahab who sheltered the prophets and made possible the taking of Jericho.

David French, of the National Review, was quick to counter this. Listen to the documentary for his robust reminder that, in the Old Testament, God's people never directly elected their evil overlords. They found a way to make God's purposes come to pass while in exile, but that was the point: they weren't in their homeland; they were under the authority of their enemy, not their champion.

Abundance of counsel

Trump's presidency has brought full circle the mobilisation of white evangelicals which began in the 1970s with organisations like Moral Majority, founded by Jerry Falwell. Today, Jerry Falwell Jr (yes, his son) is known to have the ear of the president and is a regular in the White House.

Trump has appointed white evangelicals to key Cabinet positions, strategic staff roles, and as informal advisers. He is literally surrounded by them. And for many of his supporters, who could not have countenanced voting for Hillary, that's enough. They point to Proverbs and the many Scriptures lauding people who take wise counsel.

He might not be following the Lord himself, but his close advisers are, and so the Word will prevail, they say.

God Bless America

Which brings us full circle to the heavy overlay of broader American political assumptions on the white evangelical narrative. We started by looking at the emphasis on small government - pretty much a given in much of US politics - and conclude by recognising the prevalence of American exceptionalism. For many in this group, it comes in the form of Christian nationalism.

Jack Jenkins has developed this analysis in some detail. Pointing to examples where Trump repeatedly uses phrases like 'we don't worship government, we worship God' (conflating small government and supremacy of faith over politics), Jenkins has identified a narrative which wraps up widely held concerns among millions of white 'flyover country' voters in religious language, and gives Trump a set of shibboleths which call the white evangelical faithful to him.

He told us: 'if you claim to be a Christian nationalist, usually people don't define themselves as that. What they'll say is they believe America is a Christian nation and answer a few other questions similar to that. There seems to be a correlation with that identity and say anti-immigrant sentiment, anti-refugee sentiment, Islamophobia.;

Fear of Muslims is very real, and we heard from white evangelicals who don't want any more to arrive. Their fear of attacks on their physical security are combined with fear that they will lose followers to Islam. Their zeal for evangelism is perturbed by the threat of immigration, and some of them see it as their mission to make sure they protect America from the deceit of 'false' religions.

Listen to Believers in Trump at www.unherd.com