It’s a complicated situation for religious conservatives. But these are complicated times.
In January 2021, someone will take the presidential oath of office, and religious conservatives will undoubtedly play a crucial role in whom it will be. Their influence will be the focus of an untold number of postmortems, of the type they’ve been accustomed to hearing since 2016, when the notorious “81 percent” of evangelicals voted for the unlikeliest of candidates: Donald Trump. There are two competing interpretations of Trump’s enthusiastic support from religious conservatives: that it is a lesser-of-two-evils transaction based on self-interest, or that it shows a voting bloc compromised by every form of democratic vice, whether racism, nativism, or nationalism.
If trends hold, there will be a similar turnout in 2020. Rather than wait for the postmortem, I can tell you what will happen now: Millions of religious conservatives will approach their votes with a political realism that requires balancing undesirable tensions and conflicting realities. They will vote not so much for Donald Trump — with his uncouth speech and incessantly immature tweets — as they will vote against the worldview of the Democratic platform. Those who make this calculation are not sell-outs, nor have they forfeited the credibility of their values carte blanche. For blind allegiance does not explain the voting relationship. That religious conservatives are not progressives does. Between Never Trump and Always Trump is a third category: Reluctant Trump. Voters in this category don’t get the fair hearing they deserve, since they defy the simple binary portrayal of religious conservatives as either offended by Trump or sold out to him.
Whatever scorn religious conservatives receive from secular and religious elites — whether fairly or unfairly — for abandoning their principles, exhibiting moral hypocrisy, or being complicit in an administration that Americans hear almost daily is an ‘existential threat’ to America, the reality is that religious conservatives of this third-way variety approach politics with far more complexity and internal tension than journalists claim. I should know, for I am a religious conservative. I’ve been schooled in their institutions. I am not writing the all-too-typical renunciation and self-hating hit piece to distance myself from my fellow religious conservatives. I embrace them as my people. But I’m not making this argument for myself. I’m making it on behalf of those I live with, talk to, and know to be nobler than the representation they get in the media. While I did not vote for Trump in 2016, I’ve backed off my former insistence that a Trump vote means automatically surrendering one’s principles.
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As a religious conservative who has lived, worked, and operated among religious conservatives at the levels of public policy, congregational life, grassroots, and academia, I find that the constant volley of attacks directed at them misses the layers and rationales that undergird their voting profiles, mature political reflections, and political psyches.
Critics, whether secular or religious, are right to note the odd relationship between religious conservatives and Donald Trump. The refrain is familiar: To anyone with a conscience, Trump is both lewd and prurient, a man whose life has involved adultery, misogyny, racial insensitivity, vainglory, profanity, deceit, sexual aggression, divorce, fornication, casinos, and porn. Religious conservatives should not accept these vices, but rather denounce them. With Trump, it’s easier to find what offends the religious-conservative conscience than to find what does not.
Here was a man whose career and persona typify all that religious conservatives have protested in American culture. Or, lest we overlook recent history, a persona that religious conservatives spent the late 1990s imputing to President Bill Clinton. Critics of religious conservatives correctly point out what seems a glaring contradiction: Some religious-conservative leaders ignore or downplay moral indiscretions when it is their political party in power. Though religious conservatives don’t believe morality is relative, the moral outrage directed at Clinton is notably absent with Trump.
But an event on October 10, 2019 explains the odd-couple relationship of religious conservatives and Donald Trump. That evening, during a CNN townhall on LGBTQ issues, the now-former Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke proclaimed that churches failing to toe the line on gay and transgender rights would lose their tax-exempt status in his administration. O’Rourke’s comments represented a high-water mark of a culture that has jettisoned anything resembling a Christian moral ecology. Never mind that O’Rourke’s candidacy is over. It was an Overton Window–shifting moment.
O’Rourke’s comments reminded religious conservatives why so many of them voted for Trump in 2016, even if doing so felt hypocritical and seemed like a betrayal of their principles — and why they will likely do so again in 2020, despite their realism about his character. O’Rourke’s promise to remove tax exemptions only reinforced the embattled mentality of most religious conservatives, which mobilizes them as voters. The problem was not only with O’Rourke’s tax policy, however. It’s also that the rhetoric of progressives around sexual orientation and gender identity logically leads to the conclusion that O’Rourke simply dared to state honestly: It is illogical to say that Christianity is “harmful” to gay and transgender persons and then not to want it somehow punished. For years, religious conservatives predicted that the sexual revolution would eventually affect government policy and directly threaten churches. They can now point to O’Rourke and other examples as evidence of a massive cultural shift that has realized their predictions. Even the most convinced progressive should sympathize with religious conservatives who are concerned about federal law possibly turning against them.
While Christians must cast off both unwarranted fear and moral panic, rejecting both does not remove the real concerns that persist among religious conservatives. Most criticisms of how religious conservatives understand the world miss the mark. They fail to capture fully the moral landscape and moral contrasts that are formed by believing in a world richly enchanted with divine order. Christians who refract cultural disputes through sexuality and gender do so not because they are obsessed with either, but because the two reflect larger debates about morality, human nature, authority, the role of government, and the nature of justice. Our moral debates are not ephemeral; they are, rather, metaphysical and cosmological. Thus, when religious conservatives of the Reluctant Trump variety vote, they are not thinking merely about one man, even if he has reconfigured the relationship between character and electability and defined both the presidency and elections as character tests downward. They are thinking about the larger moral worldview to which the party is committed.
In my experience, huge numbers of religious conservatives are not proud about voting for Trump. They don’t need any more hot takes denouncing them as irredeemable hypocrites. Their consciences bear a discomfort governed by their love for America and the reputation of their faith. But if these religious conservatives have to choose between the dueling dumpster fires of either Trump or a possible Bernie Sanders presidency, they will vote overwhelmingly for Trump. And anyone who misunderstands this will continue projecting onto religious conservatives the usual tired bromides that refuse to reckon with a complicated situation.
Some religious conservatives may see the world in moral terms — right and wrong; black and white. But there’s a long moral tradition, as far back as Augustine, that sees our world in shades of gray. The City of God lives as earthly inhabitants of the City of Man; thus, our world is imperfect. We are to be “in the world, but not of it.” History does not progress only toward human perfection. In this calculus, religious conservatives might see moral contrasts in black and white, but see voting for a morally compromised figure whose administration pushes back against progressivism as an uncomfortable shade of gray. They understand that, in a fallen world, they will not always be able to vote for candidates of good character and policy. Sometimes, all the candidates are deeply flawed, and a judgment is required of how to steward faithfully one’s democratic privileges.
O’Rourke’s remarks were consistent with a larger profile of issues in which religious conservatives see a moral obligation to engage, even if that means using a blunt instrument like President Trump. These voters are willing to strike a straight lick with a crooked stick, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t see that the stick is crooked. Consider the Democrats’ garish and unapologetic devotion to abortion in the latest stages of pregnancy. Anyone who wonders why religious conservatives cannot bring themselves to vote for Democrats simply does not understand the religiously formed conscience that shudders at America’s abortion regime. This sentiment was intensified during last week’s State of the Union address, when Democrats sat stone-faced at President Trump’s call for banning late-term abortion. A moment of such moral contrast demonstrates why religious conservatives do not care about the endless think pieces criticizing them as soulless hypocrites. They will endure that criticism if it means the chance to end abortion through Supreme Court appointments.
To the average religious conservative (like me), there is no moral ambiguity about abortion. It must be stopped. It’s a morally transcendent issue. The figures bear out the astonishing loss of life sanctioned by American law. That does not make other issues totally irrelevant to religious conservatism. It does evidence a moral urgency that forces religious conservatives to triage their votes. Immigration policy matters. Police brutality cannot fall on deaf ears. Opioid addiction is ravaging America. Religious conservatives care about these issues and work to find solutions. But to religious conservatives, these concerns do not rise to the level of what seems to be a targeted, lavishly funded assault on human life itself, one proceeding from a worldview that rejects the metaphysical claims of Christianity. Progressives may not like how religious conservatives rank what are morally transcendent issues. But progressives have their own morally transcendent issues as well.
Call it self-preservation, or call it transactional politics, but religious conservatives continue to find themselves forced into alliance with a party whose nominal leader once declared that he has no need to ask for God’s forgiveness. If this does not strike enthusiastic, religious-conservative Trump voters as odd, it might be that their faith is being more influenced by their politics than vice versa. It might be convenient to blame all of this apparent hypocrisy on religious conservatives’ being cheap dates. But it is also a political reality that the Democratic Party bears responsibility for creating. Its uncompromising alliance with basic violations of the Ten Commandments, the First Amendment, and natural law means its platform flows from a moral ecology that has put believers on the defensive. This rationale echoes the sentiment of Princeton professor Robert George, who acknowledged that support for Trump “is based on a prudential judgment that the overall situation for the common good would be made much worse if he were to lose to one of the Democrats. And they fear — with justification — that the consequences for themselves and their religious institutions would be dire if such a thing were to happen.” O’Rourke’s admission only furthers that mindset. Religious conservatives are faced with the undesired situation of choosing between two alternatives: a compromised, unqualified figurehead, or a disastrous policy platform that bears the marks of intrinsic evil, such as abortion.
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That’s the settlement that most religious conservatives live with when it comes to Trump. They’ll settle for a morally compromised, ill-tempered man restrained by the Constitution if it means incremental wins. No religious conservative I know does not wince, grimace, or eyeroll at many of President Trump’s actions, even those who voted for him with more enthusiasm than I am comfortable with. They see him as a compromised contrast to their faith. These religious conservatives are stuck between the tensions of embarrassment when the president’s petulant rage is on full 280-character display, and relief when they see a policy action or personnel decision that they prefer.
In this regard, religious conservatives show the best and worst about American politics. In the best sense, they demonstrate the tensions of believing in something morally transcendent, yet being restrained by compromised political realities that require painful, incremental compromise. The best of religious conservatism understands that this moment is one of great tension and unease, and that for religious conservatism to be coherent, its message must be credible. And President Trump’s persona is an affront to a morally serious religious conservatism. But honest religious conservatism knows that in a fallen political order, some degree of compromise will be necessary, even if uncomfortable.
In the worst sense, they can be intoxicated by close proximity to power, in turn doing the bidding of their superiors for a seat at the table. If I’m right that the vast majority of religious conservatives only reluctantly support Trump, it still does not exonerate religious leaders who rush to Trump’s defense whenever his latest indiscretion surfaces. I understand the rationale that leads a Christian to vote for Donald Trump; I don’t understand expending energy to make him something he’s not, or to dismiss his indiscretions as common misbehavior. The worst of religious conservatism is on cable news imputing to Trump an almost-Constantinian prestige, uniting nationalist fervor with religious revivalism. We cannot countenance a subversion of our faith that reduces piety down to power.
Cable-news catechumens need rebuke. A little less deserving of rebuke are those who chastise Trump voters that make pained voting decisions. Those who hope to sway voters away from Trump through endless berating think pieces will fail. Nor will religious conservatives heed lectures on the problems of moral compromise in voting for Trump from other co-religionists who easily justified their votes for Obama on faith grounds. Only one who neither fully endorses everything that the Trump administration supports, nor mockingly condescends to voters whose legitimate cultural angst leads them to reluctantly pull the lever for Trump, can be persuasive.
I don’t know anyone who fails to express serious misgivings about Donald Trump. I say that as the Midwestern son of a factory worker who grew up amid corn fields. That does not mean that unfailingly loyal Trump supporters do not exist. They do, and they need a gut-examination on what is most important: power or integrity. Yet the popular media narrative has frustratingly often overlooked or ignored this reality altogether. Instead, a more convenient, if not intellectually dishonest, portrait emerges that vents rage at “white evangelicalism.” By placing outsized focus on religious conservatives’ slavish devotion to Trump, this tactic discredits the foundations of religious conservatism by putting more blame at their feet than is fair or accurate to reality.
I write as neither a Trump critic nor Trump apologist, nor am I defending a vote for Trump in 2020. I am also not attempting a statistical breakdown. Statistics do not, and cannot, capture the complexity of religious conservatives. Monocausal explanations such as fear, nostalgia, and power are silly. My experience with actual religious conservatives — not the zoo-like Neanderthal depiction that fits the desired stereotype — suggests a lot more is going on behind the craven Trump-devotion caricature. I write to explain what is going on. Progressives will likely not be persuaded that religious conservatives are correct for voting how they do; but perhaps they could better understand the rationale. If progressives cannot, it only confirms the suspicions of many religious conservatives that America suffers from moral balkanization, wherein its citizens are occupying incompatible moral universes.
To understand this complexity, take my real-life friend. Let’s call him Steve. Steve is a white evangelical in his forties, a middle-school teacher, the father of two daughters, and a deacon at his Southern Baptist church. These are identities that media narratives depict as culprits for Trump’s ascension: White, male, Christian, middle-class, husband, father. He’s the token “white evangelical” that the media depicts as red-state reprobates.
But there is more to Steve. Steve serves the homeless, sees diversity as a pillar of God’s creation, and helped an Iraqi refugee family resettle in his own hometown. I daresay he cares more about justice in real life than those who preen about it on Twitter.
Steve voted for Trump, and will again. Why? For one, he thinks abortion is America’s Holocaust, and will not support any party that supports abortion on demand. Whatever Trump’s eccentricities are, Steve won’t vote for a progressive, even if the media tells him that to do so would save America and its institutions. For Steve, saving abstractions like “America” and its “institutions” can make America a lot less worthy of survival if abortion on demand continues apace. To the average religious conservative, in fact, saving America means saving it from the scourge of abortion.
Those are the stakes that many religious conservatives live with. My advice to progressives is that, if they want religious conservatives to let go of their devotion to the Republican Party’s platform, progressives should weaken their commitment to unfettered abortion access. The same goes for their support for gender fluidity, and opposition to any person or institution that does not affirm such things as gay marriage. Until that happens, complaining about “white evangelicalism” and ascribing to it every imaginable authoritarian impulse will be like shouting into a void; no one will listen.
Also, in Steve’s thinking, the mainstream media is so blinded by its anti-Trump rage that it has seriously impaired its credibility. This is not #FakeNews conspiracy-peddling, but a real belief that the media’s trustworthiness has collapsed under its derangement. Trump criticism becomes ignorable once every action of Trump is subject to criticism.
Steve does not think President Trump is a Christian. He’s embarrassed by Trump’s moral failings and thinks he’s a terrible model for his daughters. But is this the stereotypical “white evangelical” responsible for America’s downfall, who wants to revive racism and drive immigrants out of this country? No.
Steve’s approach embodies the complexity of voting. Some vote for the person on the ballot. Others vote for the platform, not the person. Others are voting for the personnel of an administration. In this paradigm, the office of the presidency is bigger than just one man. It is not so much a matter of who occupies the office as much as it a serious consideration of whom the president will choose for all levels of government. Another rationale would be a policy preference. Perhaps a person votes for the overall economic model that a president’s administration would implement. The last paradigm would be one of political necessity: Somebody is going to be president, and whatever trade-offs will have to be made, candidate A is on the whole preferable to candidate B. I cannot bind someone’s conscience for making strained, calculated trade-offs, but many in the media do.
Whatever relationship there is between religious conservatives and Trump is not one of principle. It is a pragmatic concession yielding to the realities of living in a fallen, fractured world where perfect candidates are unavailable. Whatever results, the history and tensions of religious conservative support for Donald Trump will be a memory of discomfort and awkwardness.
What’s the downside to this argument? The bargain religious conservatives struck with Trump on good things like judges and legislation will make it appear as though this group has to continue defending his presidency when there is little will to do so. It’s likely the anguished religious conservatives will be drowned out by a chorus of far more loyal supporters, and in turn be difficult to identify as a niche constituency that is not wholly in Trump’s corner.
The best step forward for Reluctant Trump religious conservatives is to keep their conscience and integrity unstained. This means calling balls and strikes on a man whose administration is advancing good things, but who is discolored by vices and impulses that make total fealty impossible.
Most people who vote are not obsessed with politics. It’s not where their identities are found. These are people whose primary identity is that of a mother, father, or employee. Not everything about them can be explained by, or reduced to, their politics. They support a flawed candidate, and aren’t ashamed to say so. They are genuine in their faith convictions. If they vote this way, I’m not going to judge them or impute to them the worst offenses imaginable. Neither should you.
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When I hear the oft-mentioned 81 percent figure, and how this number demonstrates a total capitulation of religious conservatism to power-hungry self-interestedness, I wonder: Should religious conservatives repudiate their moral and policy convictions just because Donald Trump is in the White House? Should they then vote for the Democratic candidate, or not vote at all? The constant criticism of religious conservatives’ voting en masse for Donald Trump never comes with a suggestion of better alternatives.
What are religious conservatives like my friend Steve to do? Of course, voting for one of the major parties is not a moral obligation. Maybe the progressive request is to simply sit 2020 out? Vote third party? While these are conscionable solutions, I have never heard a satisfying answer that takes into consideration that someone will be president. And a simple vote does not reflect the underlying tension at play in people like Steve.
Donald Trump is not the savior of American Christianity. At best, he’s a bed of nails on the road, temporarily halting secularism’s advance.
Yet the choice for so many religious conservatives is between someone who is crude and profane but who will defend their values and an eloquent politician who will undermine their faith and advance an agenda they see as barbaric and unjust.
Here’s my plea from one religious conservative to other religious conservatives in 2020. If the majority of us vote for Trump, let’s do so not because he’s a Protector of the Faith or a champion for “taking America back.” He’s neither. Instead, view him as a flawed, complex political figure whose admixture of vanity and pragmatism is resulting in a political agenda that is less hostile to Christianity than its alternatives.
There must be an Augustinian account that takes stock of politics in a fallen age. Moral and political realism has been on short order, and now is the time for its rebirth. The witness of religious conservatism in 2020 can be neither silence, capitulation, devotion, nor derangement. Political realism is inescapably driving people to make some type of decision. If religious conservatives are going to pursue political realism, do so as resident aliens and alien residents, people who know this world is not all there is, and lay claim to the promise of a world to come.