One surprising aspect of Donald Trump’s road to the Republican nomination is the role of evangelical Christian voters as core his supporters. In spite of Trump’s secular lifestyle and unfamiliarity with Christianity and even basic conservative issues, a substantial percentage of Christian voters put Trump on top of experienced conservatives like Jeb Bush and former Tea Party favorites like Ted Cruz. An obvious question is whether Christian conservatives have abandoned their principles, both of conservatism and religious righteousness, for Trump and moral relativism.
The case against Donald Trump is well known. Beyond his abrasive personality, there are serious questions about his character and political beliefs. The “savior” of the conservative cause is a three-times married man, a serial liar and a flip-flopper who has openly claimed to have bought the influence of elected officials, notably Hillary Clinton.
Alan Noble compiled a list of Trump’s immoral behavior at Vox: “Trump has boasted of infidelities, profited off gambling, mocked the handicapped, cheered and offered financial assistance for his supporters who fight protestors, supported abortion (until his fortuitous change of heart before the election), called for war crimes against innocent people, demonized minorities and immigrants, knowingly played upon racist fears, promoted open racists through social media, promoted conspiracy theories, and crudely treated women. And the list grows every single day.” Much of Trump’s behavior, both during the campaign and before, would be denounced by Christian conservatives in a normal political cycle.
This is not a normal year.
Trump supporters can be divided into two broad categories. There are the “true believers,” also called “Trumpkins,” who supported Trump from the early days of the primary. Alternatively, there are the “anyone but Hillary” voters, who don’t necessarily like Trump, but who believe that, with all his flaws, he is better than Hillary Clinton.
To issue-oriented conservatives, the second position is understandable. The first is not. That’s why it is surprising to find that many of Trump’s earliest supporters were Christians and conservatives who would normally have rejected someone like Trump as impure both morally and politically. In truth, it was these voters who provided the core of support that enabled Trump to defeat many more reliable conservative politicians.
One of my coworkers, Jay, is among the group of true believers. When Trump emerged as a candidate last year, Jay, a conservative Christian, was enthralled. When we were on business trips together, Jay watched Trump press conferences on a daily basis and chortled at Trump’s witticisms. Like most Republicans, Jay didn’t seem to think that Trump could win, but he enjoyed the show.
At some point between last summer and the winter and spring primaries, it became acceptable for Christians not only to be amused by Trump, but to vote for him. An analysis of exit polls by Christian Post found that an average of 36 percent of evangelical Christians voted for Trump. This was a large enough segment of the Christian vote to give Trump victories in many of the early states, such as South Carolina, where Trump came in first among evangelicals.
The story of how Trump made the transition from pariah to messiah among a third of conservative Christians begins with and endorsement by Jerry Falwell, Jr., son of the Moral Majority and Liberty University founder just before the Iowa caucuses last January.
In Rolling Stone, Falwell defended his endorsement, saying many evangelicals see how “personable” Trump is “and how generous he's been to a lot of people in his personal life. I think that's what makes somebody a good Christian.” This in spite of the fact that Trump seemed not to understand basic tenets of Christianity such as forgiveness and repentance.
Indeed, forgiveness was lacking when Mark DeMoss, a longtime chief of staff to Jerry Falwell, Sr., spoke out against the junior Falwell’s Trump endorsement. DeMoss was allegedly forced to resign his position at Liberty University. “As I consider the matter,” DeMoss said in Charisma News, “I wonder why it is acceptable to the Liberty board for Jerry Falwell to endorse a candidate as an individual not speaking for the university, but it is not fine for a board member to express an opinion as an individual not speaking for the university.”
Moral relativism, the belief that ethics depend on situations rather than objective truth, seems to have been at play in much of the Christian support for Donald Trump as well as in Liberty’s dismissal of DeMoss. Hillary is admonished for her lies, but Trump’s numerous falsehoods are glossed over. Hillary’s corruption is denounced, but Trump’s corruption is excused. Hillary is a liberal, but so are many of Trump’s stated positions on the issues. Trump is excused for these and other sins because he is “not Hillary.”
In his defense of his endorsement of Trump, Falwell said Trump is “ethical and honest” in spite of numerous charges of shady business dealings. At the same time, he said that the country needed “experienced and capable leaders,” yet Trump was the only Republican candidate with no legislative experience whatsoever.
Falwell also noted that Ronald Reagan, although divorced, “saved this nation when it was in nearly the same condition as it is today.” Falwell failed to note that Reagan’s divorce occurred in 1948 after an affair by his wife, Jane Wyman. To Falwell, this is morally equivalent to Trump’s divorces and his own extramarital affairs, conquests that Trump has bragged openly about. Nevermind the details, it is a similar enough situation to justify the endorsement in Falwell’s mind.
Penny Young Nance, president and CEO of Concerned Women for America, attended a meeting between Trump and evangelical leaders in June. She wrote in Christian Post that not a single Christian leader present questioned Trump about his alleged conversion from pro-choice to pro-life. This in spite the fact that Trump was the only Republican candidate to favor continued funding for Planned Parenthood, saying that the abortion provider “has done very good work” only three months earlier. Trump’s pro-choice history was ignored by Christian leaders, even as they criticize Hillary’s pro-choice platform.
How does Jay reconcile his Christian beliefs with his support for Donald Trump? He gave me an article by James Patrick Riley which likened Trump opponents to the Biblical Pharisees. Jesus denounced the “holier-than-thou” Pharisees for being hypocrites. Riley accuses Never Trump Christians being “dismissive” and “self-righteous” people who “have imbibed legalism as doctrine.” He also argues that Trump is “more righteous than you think” because he wants to enact a conservative agenda. Moral relativism rears its head once again. Trump is acceptable because he says the right things.
In the end, the exit polls suggest that those Christians who supported Trump early on were Christians who did not place a great emphasis on having a candidate who shared their religious beliefs. What kind of Christian would not prefer a Christian president? Perhaps those whose faith has been driven underground by the secular culture and divorced from practical day-to-day living, Christians who believe they are “rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing” but do not know that they “are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:14-22).
In any case, regardless of the outcome of the election, “lukewarm” Christians will share a large part of the blame. Without their support for an obvious charlatan, Trump would never have been nominated. Without the nomination of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton would not have stood a chance.
The irony is that Trump supporters, both Christian and secular, may be enabling that which they fear most. No matter who wins in November, the country is likely to be stuck with a lawless leftist who will be destructive for America.
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