A Trump Presidency Might Not Be All Bad. How Can Evangelicals Engage?

Many prominent evangelicals supported Donald Trump in the election.Reuters

There is no denying the facts: 81 per cent of white American evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, that's more than voted for Mitt Romney back in 2012. With the outcome of the election really quite close, this helped Trump secure the White House. White, American evangelicals might not be solely responsible for the reality of Mr Trump being the 45th President of the United States, but the way they voted in such large numbers for him was clearly a major factor.

According to Matthew Lee Anderson, the founder of the Mere Orthodoxy website and a prominent evangelical republican critic of Trump, this means US evangelicals will now be associated with the errors and mistakes of the Trump administration. And of course, you get no prizes for guessing that Anderson thinks there will unquestionably be many mistakes.

When it comes to political engagement, Anderson said in a recent interview on the new Holy Political Podcast that backing moral character and making it a condition of receiving a vote is a crucial part of our witness as Christians. So for Anderson, evangelical support for Trump is hard to fathom. After all, his character is so obviously flawed.

Even allowing for a belief that all humans are imperfect, Trump publicly exhibits many repulsive attitudes and behaviours. Whereas historically, US evangelicals might have prized moral character, instead, frustrated by the ground lost in recent decades and out of a "anyone but Hilary" mentality, many decided to throw their lot in with a man whose campaign slogan was borrowed from a by-gone era and whose foreign policy involves building a wall and flirting with President Putin. For Anderson, this can only end in disappointment.

Interestingly, Anderson concedes that some evangelicals voted for Trump because they could see no other option. Their voting for him was not on account of how much they liked him, but rather how depressed they were by all the alternative candidates. Yet according to Anderson, US evangelicals should have considered what their mass support for Trump would do to their already maligned reputation. In other words, if evangelicals had stopped and considered what damage supporting Trump would do to their national reputation, they might have reconsidered.

But for me, this raises more questions than answers. Is reputation really what should be on our minds when we vote? How do we deal with a situation where a person's policies are consistent in some areas with our worldview, but the person's character is troubling? Does moral character trump policies? I'm not sure there are any easy answers.

Still, that's all history because whether we like or not, Trump is about to become president. Now the question is: how should evangelicals engage with a Trump presidency? Anderson argues that first and foremost evangelicals in America should be prepared to be the first to criticise when Trump gets it wrong - which could mean a very busy four years. In this, not only is Anderson absolutely right, I also think US evangelicals could learn from how evangelicals over here operate.

In the UK, for some decades now evangelicals have been active in political campaigning and this trend is on the up. The setting up of groups such as CARE, the Christian Institute and Christian Concern have helped facilitate evangelical involvement with the political process and with some success. Moreover, these groups can focus on politics in a way entirely inappropriate for some parts of the church. All three groups are different but each brings something unique to the table.

Whether it's the CI's resources and media work, or CARE's policy expertise or CC's persistence in standing up for religious freedoms, these groups are supported by evangelicals from a range of political positions. Behind the scenes there is a lot of collaboration and unofficial working together. This allows for a better, more co-ordinated response. Such coalitions, where the common aim is held in higher esteem than your political badge not only can work, it can also facilitate more creative policy responses – a point Anderson readily accepts.

For ages, in the US evangelicals and the Republican Party have been seen as synonymous. Yet democrat supporting evangelicals do exist. Anderson said that the way evangelicals in the UK worked across political dividing lines to try and influence government was an example to evangelicals in the States. Perhaps the Trump presidency is what is needed to break down the association of the Republican Party and evangelicalism and to engender more mutual co-operation between Democrat supporting evangelicals and those who back the Republicans. If this leads to more effective campaigning and lobbying State and Federal Government, surely this is a good thing.

Let's say Trump survives four years. If he wants another four, he'll need evangelical support again. So it is within his interests to continue to engage with evangelicals. It's also worth remembering that the new Vice President, Mike Pence is a confessing Christian. US evangelicals should find ways to build relations with his office. They should pray for him and for Trump. This is both an opportunity and a responsibility, to speak out and to speak up.

US evangelicals helped make Trump's presidency happen. Now they must take the responsibility of being the first to criticise Trump when he gets it wrong and the first to praise him when (perhaps 'if' is better) he gets it right. In this, Anderson believes they can learn from UK evangelicals. If an unitended outcome of the Trump presidency is that it helps reignite evangelical engagement with politics in the US, we might even say the Trump presidency was not all completely bad.

James Mildred is the co-founder of the Holy Political Podcast, a new podcast looking at politics from a Christian perspective. He is on Twitter @JamesMildred. You can listen to the interview with Matthew Lee Anderson on Trump and evangelicals here.