Starting with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, the Religious Right has provided Republican Party candidates with reliable foot soldiers. Although issues always have been a priority for most evangelicals, many also preferred to vote for someone who professed to share their faith. Every election candidates for various offices would proclaim their commitment to God and personal relationship with Jesus.
It always was disquieting. People who made their living in the second oldest profession and seemed more comfortable at gaming tables than in pews expressed heartfelt devotion to the God of the Bible. The pressure to conform was strong: who wanted to admit to a room full of the faithful that one can’t remember last opening a Bible? Even when the uplifting stories were true — after all, Christ came to save the sinful — they seemed more appropriate for a revival meeting than political rally.
Moreover, personal faith isn’t very relevant to the secular duties of civil office. For good reason the offices of president and pope, legislator and pastor, bureaucrat and deacon are different. How to stop North Korea from building a nuclear weapon or improve education for the poor? Being doctrinally sound isn’t likely to help much in figuring out the answers to these and other policy questions.
Nevertheless, as campaigns proceeded highly personal stories of salvation and redemption competed for attention with arguments on behalf of invading Iraq or cutting taxes. The very act of using one’s faith for political gain appeared to violate Christ’s admonitions to pray and give without fanfare. After all, he explained, the Pharisees and those like them received their reward in this life. So too, presumably, the politicians. But the show always went on.
In 1980 evangelicals abandoned Jimmy Carter, the last Democratic presidential candidate to be one of them, for Ronald Reagan, whose personal faith seemed less certain. Subsequently Republican voters rarely chose the most ostentatiously Christian candidate, but the winner usually made a profession of faith.
In 1988 Broadcaster Pat Robertson couldn’t even get the requisite number of his listeners to sign a petition backing his candidacy, the “fleece” he set out before God (and which he ignored in deciding to run anyway). Gary Bauer did no better a dozen years later. However, the winners of both nomination and presidency, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, respectively, professed to be believers.
Mitt Romney’s Mormonism left some Republicans with an uncomfortable choice, but at least he appeared to be someone of moral rectitude. He shared the values if not the specific faith of Christian activists within the GOP. For instance, Nebraska pastor Gary Fuller, who backed Cruz this cycle, cited Romney as a man of character worthy of support.
The campaign this year turned out far differently, however. Ben Carson’s appeal reached little beyond the religious. The morally upright surgeon appeared to gain a prophetic role after a well‐publicized confrontation with the president at the National Prayer Breakfast a few years ago. But Carson’s qualifications to be president were vanishingly few. And his campaign dispelled none of the doubts. Even without the improbable rise of Donald Trump, Carson would have had little chance to expand his support outside of the narrowest of religious circles.
Sen. Ted Cruz made an even more direct pitch to the faithful. “Awaken the body of Christ that we might pull back from the abyss,” he proclaimed. Never mind judging whether he was believer or poseur — giving less than one percent of one’s income to charity for years would embarrass most evangelicals, but apparently not Cruz.
He nevertheless relied heavily on the religion card, which yielded victory in the Iowa caucus. At least Cruz had a normal political pedigree, unlike Carson, but religion was never far from the former’s campaign. Yet he flopped. Only the most religious and conservative voters showed much interest. He never expanded his support and as the field dwindled religious voters backed other candidates over Cruz.
Most striking is the fact that the opponent who triumphed at the end — against Cruz and John Kasich, a devout Catholic — was Donald Trump. Admittedly, the latter did best among those whose church attendance was less frequent, but by the end he was carrying most everyone’s votes. And he picked up some significant evangelical support, including from Jerry Falwell, Jr. Trump also won nice words from Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham. More than a few ministers, such as Robert Jeffress, senior pastor at Dallas’s First Baptist Church, back Trump even though the candidate is not a believer. Past presidents also have fallen short morally, Jeffress explained: “We need a strong leader.”
The Donald tried to act like an evangelical, but his efforts were risible. Only God can judge a man’s heart. We, however, can know people by their fruit: Trump’s is distinctly non‐Christian. My favorite moment was when he read from the Bible and intoned “two” rather than “second” Corinthians. That’s a blatant giveaway that he hasn’t heard someone read Scripture in church in a few decades.
The reason many Christians back him apparently is to gain a tough champion against an increasingly hostile culture and politics. “We’re going to take care of you,” Trump recently promised evangelical listeners. They worry about religious liberty as the state attempts to squeeze out spiritual concerns while expanding inexorably. They also fear a PC and redistributionist culture. The usual Republican Party suspects have done little to arrest the advance of darkness. So evangelical voters decided to hire someone from the dark side for protection.
One can argue that’s not a wise decision. In my view, Donald Trump is an awful choice for president: by all appearances narcissistic, egotistical, impulsive, immature, authoritarian, ignorant, cynical, divisive, and unprincipled. Admittedly, however, that doesn’t necessarily preclude effective performance as president, though I have my doubts.
Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson complained that evangelicals “will bear, if not the mark of Cain, at least the mark of Trump.” But is that really worse than the mark of Bush, who started an unnecessary war which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, destroyed that country’s historic Christian community, and unleashed murderous Islamist forces which culminated in the Islamic State? Voting for religiously pure but practically ill‐prepared candidates such as Pat Robertson and Ben Carson could have resulted in disastrous consequences as well if they had won. Unfortunately, competence, wisdom, and vision do not always coexist with character.
In any case, evangelical support for Trump suggests that believers at least are asking the correct question: who would make the best president, not parson or moral model. The role of Christians in civil government should be the same as of their neighbors. Serve one’s community, respect the Constitution, defend the nation, promote a better world. Not deliver the Kingdom of God on earth.
Participating on the same terms as other people might even help dampen the perennial conflict over the role of faith in politics. If Christians are seen as simply desiring to build a better future for everyone, rather than hoping to stage a religious takeover of the state to advance their faith, even the unchurched might have less anxiety.
The presidential race has important implications for the future of American Christians in politics. The debate over Trump, wrote Mark Galli, editor of Christianity Today, “may be shaping the very nature of evangelicalism.” If Trump’s candidacy helps normalize the political role of religious believers, then at least something positive might result from what otherwise looks to be a horrid election season. God can bring good out of even the worst circumstances. Truly this is His moment to act.