By Cheryl Bauer
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 is not only evidence of the power held by self-identified white, evangelical Christian voters, but of an enormous shift in principle of an electorate notorious for its adherence to rigorous moral standards.
In 1998, Dr. James Dobson, a psychologist, author, radio host, and founder of the Family Research Center and Focus on the Family, wrote a letter to his subscribers and congregants, scornfully detailing Bill Clinton’s un-fitness for office on grounds of moral failure in the wake of his conduct with Monica Lewinsky: “As it turns out, character DOES matter. You can’t run a family, let alone a country, without it. How foolish to believe that a person who lacks honesty and moral integrity is qualified to lead a nation and the world! Nevertheless, our people continue to say that the President is doing a good job even if they don’t respect him personally. Those two positions are fundamentally incompatible. In the Book of James the question is posed, “Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring” (James 3:11 NIV). The answer is no.”
The Southern Baptist Convention passed a “Resolution on the Moral Character of Public Officials” during their June 1998 meeting, affirming “that moral character matters to God and should matter to all citizens, especially God’s people, when choosing public leaders” and imploring “government leaders to live by the highest standards of morality both in their private actions and in their public duties, and thereby serve as models of moral excellence and character…”
Trump’s lavish lifestyle and reckless business practices were never a secret, nor his numerous affairs or divorces. Weighed against the moral priorities of the Christian right voting base, these deficiencies should have been enough to steer this group towards any of the other less morally repugnant candidates. For a minority, it proved to be – write-ins skyrocketed compared to previous elections, notably in red districts. In Knox County, TN, 3,837 people wrote-in their vote, an increase over 7 times the 528 write-ins cast in 2012. A staunch conservative evangelical in my own family expressed deep dismay with the Republican National Committee, choosing to reject the party’s nominee by writing in a GOP Senator who had dropped out of the race early on.
Christianity Today, a conservative Christian magazine founded by the late Billy Graham, boasting print readership of 336,000 and 8,000,000 monthly page views of their online site, reported in an article dated June 22, 2016 that “Dobson previously stated that after Rubio and Trump ‘announced they would accept the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage, we knew we could not support them.’” The article was later updated: “In an interview, Dodson [sic] said he had reason to believe Trump had recently accepted Christ. ‘I believe he really made a commitment, but he’s a baby Christian,’ he said.” (A “baby Christian” wouldn’t be given charge of a stack of bulletins in the evangelical churches I’ve attended, let alone a group of people, but I digress.)
By September 2016, a video of Trump describing how best to grab a woman was made public. Later that month, Dobson was on record again with Christianity Today, “I don’t vote for candidates or political parties. I support those who will lead the country righteously, honorably, and wisely. In many ways, this is a single-issue election because it will affect every dimension of American life: the makeup of the Supreme Court. Antonin Scalia’s sudden death made this election the most significant of our lifetime. The next president will nominate perhaps three or more justices whose judicial philosophy will shape our country for generations to come.”
Voters themselves seem to have been particularly moved by Trump’s appeals to their deepest fears. Pledges to build a wall at our southern border; to suspend immigration from certain Muslim countries, and to refuse to take their refugees of wars the U.S. has committed to; to eliminate gun-free zones in schools and military bases; to rebuild our “depleted” military; these and other sentiments appealed to the threats already perceived to their religious and second amendment rights. These ideas also seemed to empower a strong response to mass shootings and homegrown terrorism, despite most of these acts being executed by white males.
Since 2005, Baylor University’s Sociology Department and the Institute for Studies on Religion have conducted a series of surveys to study American religious beliefs, behaviors, and values. “American Values Mental Health and Using Technology in the Age of Trump: Findings from the Baylor Religion Survey, Wave 5” (September 2017) reveals that nearly half of the evangelicals surveyed believe that Muslims are a physical threat. Respondents from rural areas expressed the greatest fear of immigrants, with 13% agreeing that immigrants from Mexico are “mostly dangerous criminals,” while 48% believe that refugees from the Middle East “pose a terrorist threat” to the U.S. One of the first Trump supporters I spoke to during the campaign cited his wall proposal and emphasis on improving national security as the factors most influential in his decision.
The Christian right has long advocated for such states’ rights as denial of marriage and partnership benefits to homosexuals and access to abortion services, and rejection of state-mandated curricula for students. Other pet causes are abstinence-only sex education and religious-based conscience clauses for medical practitioners. Many outside this culture are perplexed at the group’s insistence that all citizens abide by these imperatives, but there is a deep-seeded common motivator: fear that our failure to live as a moral nation will be the cause of not just our nation’s downfall, like Sodom and Gomorrah, but of a severe penalty to be paid at God’s judgement. The stars aligned in 2016 – or was it deus ex machina? The prospect of securing a conservative Supreme Court, a devout, fundamentalist Christian running mate, and unresolved Bush-era fear of terrorism ushered in a new era of ideology for the formerly “Moral Majority”.
True progress moves everyone forward, even those pulling hardest against it. Evangelicalism is not the only brand of Christianity observed in the U.S., but it has become the most politically vocal against social progress. May all reflect on the mission of service to the needs of others Christ has called his church to and find a common ground again. After all, this is the true sin of Sodom and cause for its destruction: “She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49)
Cheryl Bauer is a member of the NewPeople Editorial Collective.