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How Can Evangelical Christians Support Trump?
Anyone who sincerely wishes to understand the motivations of evangelical Trump supporters shouldn’t jump to the ‘racist’ conclusion
By Mark David Hall
Because I’m an evangelical Christian, people sometimes ask me how evangelicals could vote for Donald Trump when many of his statements and actions conflict with the moral teachings of Christianity.
I am not the best person to address this question. Although a lifelong Republican voter, I cast a protest vote in 2016 rather than vote for Trump. Moreover, I publicly urged my fellow conservatives to do the same. I argued that Trump was a boorish, imprudent and immoral candidate who should not be trusted. Nor did my opposition end with the election. Along with the historian Thomas Kidd, I publicly condemned Trump’s equivocal talk about race after the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Hundreds of Christian scholars of American history, politics and law signed our open letter.
But, like many of my fellow evangelicals, I voted for Trump in 2020. To understand why, it may be helpful to turn to a broader question, one suggested by the recent death of Marion Gordon “Pat” Robertson.
The Birth of the Religious Right
Though the son of a longtime Democratic member of Congress (A. Willis Robertson, in office from 1933 to 1966), Pat Robertson is considered a founder of the Religious Right. He endorsed Jimmy Carter’s candidacy in 1976, but he began supporting Republican issues and candidates shortly thereafter and, in 1988, ran for president as a Republican (he lost in the primaries to George H.W. Bush).
Robertson’s party switch, while prominent, was by no means unique. Large numbers of white evangelicals shifted from the Democratic to the Republican Party in the late 1970s and early 1980s under the leadership of Religious Right activists such as Phyllis Schlafly, Jerry Falwell, Paul Weyrich and Pat Robertson himself.
Why did so many white evangelicals switch from being Democrats to being Republicans at that time? Most scholars contend that these leaders and voters were motivated by opposition to the Supreme Court’s decisions on school prayer, Bible reading and abortion, as well as to the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, LGBTQ activism, secularism, communism and socialism.
“Not so fast,” objects historian Randall Balmer and almost every critic of American Christian nationalism. According to Balmer, the “real catalyst for the Religious Right” was a 1971 federal district court case, Green v. Connally, that upheld a 1970 IRS policy that denied tax-exempt status to private schools that discriminated on the basis of race. Because today’s Christian nationalists supposedly arose from the ashes of the Religious Right, critics of Christian nationalism—including Carolyn Baker, Anthea Butler, Obery Hendricks, Bradley Onishi, Sarah Posner, Katherine Stewart, Samuel Perry, Jemar Tisby and Andrew Whitehead—recount this origin story because it helps substantiate their assertion that white Christian nationalists desire to oppress racial minorities.
Is This Story Plausible?
Unless you are an uncritical foe of Christian nationalism, you may be asking yourself how a 1971 federal district court decision became the catalyst for the rise of the Religious Right. Indeed, even critics of Christian nationalism seem to recognize that few Americans get excited about district court decisions, which may be why Hendricks, Tisby and John Fea claim (inaccurately) that Green v. Connally was a Supreme Court decision.
Balmer provides little evidence that more than a handful of people were upset by Green v. Connally. Instead, his argument relies heavily on his recollection of a comment Weyrich made at a “closed door meeting” in 1990. According to Balmer, Weyrich remarked that “what got us going as a political movement was the attempt on the part of the Internal Revenue Service to rescind the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University because of its racially discriminatory policies.” Unlike Green v. Connally, the Bob Jones controversy did result in a U.S. Supreme Court decision and opinions. The case was decided in 1983, several years after the Religious Right had coalesced.
The litigation involving Bob Jones University began in the 1970s. The IRS regulation and Green v. Connally did indeed lay the foundation for it, and it is a sad truth that some Americans wanted to protect the ability of private schools to discriminate on the basis of race (or prohibit interracial dating, which was the specific issue in the Bob Jones case). But, according to Robert Freedman, “many of these Christian schools were not racially discriminatory, and their defenders resented being labelled as racists.” It is simply bad history to credit the rise of the Religious Right to this single issue.
Every serious student of the Religious Right understands that its founding members were motivated by numerous objectives, including returning teacher-led prayer to the public schools, defeating the Equal Rights Amendment, banning pornography, restricting abortion and protecting the independence of religious schools. Even if the last-mentioned concern had something to do with race, as it undoubtedly did for some, it is going much too far to conclude that the “real motivation” behind the founding of the Religious Right was “protecting segregated schools,” as Balmer claims.
The “closed door meeting” at which Balmer heard Weyrich’s claim may well have taken place behind a closed door, but it was attended by 26 evangelical scholars and leaders, and the four major papers presented at that meeting, along with comments on them, were published in 1993 as an edited collection. In the first substantive essay in this collection, the historian George Marsden observes that the Religious Right had mobilized in response to “ethical issues such as abortion, pornography, the Equal Rights Amendment, and symbolic religious issues such as school prayer.” He does not include support for segregated schools as an issue, even though he presumably heard the same comment by Weyrich that Balmer recalls.
I cast my first vote in a presidential election six years before Balmer’s fabled meeting, and I did so proudly for Ronald Reagan. I did not identify myself as a member of the Religious Right, although it is fair to say that my political views were compatible with the movement’s aims. I was (and am) opposed to abortion, communism and overreach by the federal government. As a product of racially integrated public schools, I can confidently say that “protecting segregated schools” played no role in my vote.
Pat Robertson ran for president in 1988, and by any definition he was more evangelical than his main opponents. At that time, I was a senior at Wheaton College in Illinois (the quintessential evangelical school), where I was active in our campus’s chapter of Students for Dole. Indeed, I even traveled to Iowa to work for Sen. Bob Dole in the caucuses.
Why would I support a nonevangelical over a fellow evangelical? Simply put, politics is the art of the possible; it shouldn’t be about tribalism. I thought that Dole was more electable than Robertson and that he was better prepared to be president of the United States.
So Why Trump?
This brings us back to the original question: How can white evangelicals vote for Donald Trump? First, it should be noted that evangelicals who were serious about their faith voted for almost anyone other than Trump in the Republican primaries before the 2016 election. They were far more likely to favor Ben Carson, Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio than the twice-divorced playboy who was not a cultural conservative. But once Trump won the nomination, evangelicals faced an essentially binary choice between him and Hillary Clinton. Many voted for the candidate they considered to be the lesser of two evils.
To be sure, some evangelicals have come to adore Trump. But even today, statistics show that the more serious individual evangelicals are about their faith, the less enthusiastic they are about the former president.
It was easy for me to cast a protest vote in 2016 because I live in a deeply blue state—I was confident that my vote wouldn’t make a difference. I knew it wouldn’t matter in 2020 either, but I held my nose and voted for Trump anyway. I still considered him to be a less-than-virtuous person (to put it mildly), but I thought his executive orders on religious liberty were wonderful, his judicial appointments were outstanding, and he had been relatively constrained in his use of violence around the globe.
Most notably, Trump’s presidency resulted in a Supreme Court that has overturned the second-worst Supreme Court decision ever made—an outcome that will hopefully result in saving many lives. For me and every other evangelical I know, overturning Roe v. Wade was long our top political priority.
I understand that readers who don’t share my political priorities may disagree with my vote in 2020. But it is profoundly uncivil, not to mention inaccurate, to claim that I and most of my fellow evangelicals voted for Trump because we are racists or because we were motivated by, in Hillary Clinton’s words, “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, [and] Islamophobic” views.
Such accusations do nothing to persuade Trump voters to change their minds. Instead, they merely contribute to the increasingly toxic political environment in the U.S. It is irresponsible to level such accusations unless they are supported by a great deal of evidence—evidence that Balmer and the critics of Christian nationalism don’t come within a light-year of providing.