White American evangelicals have long feared that their best days are behind them. Now that 81 per cent have voted for Donald Trump despite his campaign fuelled by racism, xenophobia, sexism, and pathological lying, they may have ensured the destruction of their own movement. Ironically, by voting for Trump, many white evangelicals hoped that a vote for Trump would ensure their movement's survival.
A brief survey of evangelical priorities, especially among my fellow white evangelicals, can help explain both their intentions behind voting for Trump and why this was a flawed move in both the short and long term.
Abortion as a Wedge Political Issue
If you want to understand white evangelicals and how they vote, you need to understand how they view abortion. Evangelicals have accepted a kind of dogmatic approach to fighting abortion where the only path to success is a ban on the federal level by electing conservative Supreme Court justices. More importantly, any sacrifice that can be made to save the millions of unborn lives by this means is worth it. This reasoning alone is what drives many evangelicals to vote for any Republican nominee, dismissing other social justice or global issues out of hand.
The first time I witnessed the ultrasound of my first child, I gasped in awe at the wonder of his life. That moment drove home my own opposition to abortion over the years. However, that respect for unborn life doesn't mean a ban is the most effective path forward to actually eliminate abortion in large numbers.
In fact, two global studies found that access to contraception played a larger role in reducing abortion, while restrictions resulted in women seeking abortions in other countries or in off the record 'clinics'. While many factors have driven the decrease in abortions across America in the past eight years, even the states with open access to abortion saw a decrease that is being credited in part to greater access to birth control.
In other words, evangelicals turned out for Trump in large numbers because of an approach to opposing abortion that global studies have already thrown into serious doubt.
The Issues We Don't Talk about
Besides abortion, there are other reasons that explain white evangelical support for Trump that we dare not overlook. With his tough talk about global affairs and economic promises serving as a smoke screen of sorts for his lack of experience and long history of bankruptcies, Trump has promised that he would stand up for evangelicals.
This may appear to be a curious statement in a majority Christian nation, but there is a very real narrative in America that liberal forces are turning against Christians and persecution is just around the corner. This is evident in fear-driven campaigns about whether someone says "Merry Christmas" vs "Happy Holidays" or the government's role in making same sex marriage legal and preventing discrimination against LGBT individuals.
One church in Iowa went so far as filing a lawsuit against its state's anti-discrimination law even when every person in charge of enforcing the law assured the church that it would be exempt on religious grounds. The church eventually dropped the case, but the spectacle of this lawsuit provided ample fodder for Christian and conservative news sites to speculate about what the government "may" do.
Trump campaigned hard at Liberty University, a conservative evangelical stronghold, and assured evangelicals that he would be "for them". As white evangelicals nurtured their own persecution complex, they found assurance in the words of Trump, while completely overlooking the actual impact of his other words about topics such as racism, immigration, and sexism.
Why People Fear Trump
I understand that many white voters turned to Trump in large numbers because they felt abandoned by Republican party establishment, and the white evangelical priorities of abortion and self-preservation were just a part of the picture. However, in the midst of the evangelical quest for self-preservation and a flawed opposition plan to prevent abortion from actually happening (which isn't the same thing as outlawing it), many white evangelicals have overlooked the reasons why many women, minorities, immigrants, and many other groups have been devastated by Trump's election.
Besides the way that Trump's campaign fuelled by racist and xenophobic remarks have energized racist and white nationalist groups to openly berate, intimidate, and even attack those of other races, there's no denying that Trump's policies could be devastating for American citizens who are not white. These fears are widespread, and those evangelicals who are not white especially feel abandoned.
The Irony of Evangelical Self-Preservation
Most damaging of all for the evangelical movement, white evangelicals have flipped the script of morality for politicians and undermined their own identity. They have more or less stripped their priorities down to self-preservation and opposition to abortion. You can't have a movement committed to sharing good news to outsiders if you're focused on self-preservation and covering your lack of social justice concern with a single wedge issue. Few will be interested in hearing "good news" from a group like that.
According to this latest evangelical evolution, a candidate may talk about grabbing women, assaulting women, discriminating based on religion with a Muslim database, or treating all immigrants as a potential threat while still enjoying unqualified evangelical support. Conservative evangelical analyst Ed Stetzer went so far as accusing evangelical supporters of Trump of selling out. Former Christianity Today editor, Katelyn Beaty, called out the evangelical movement as indefensible.
The evangelical movement isn't the sum of these recent failures. Beaty's own critique lists the many triumphs of the evangelical movement. Perhaps the survival of the evangelical movement in America may hinge on whether we can reclaim words of Jesus to the righteous:
"For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was ill and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."
Matthew 25:35-36, NIV UK