In a previous column I explored why 80% of white Evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, and why most of those who did so continue to support him.
In particular, I pointed to recent polls that revealed a massive shift since 2011 in the criteria that white Evangelicals use to evaluate political candidates. In 2011, 60% agreed that personal immorality disqualified a candidate from being effective in public office; by 2016, only 28% held that position, and by 2018 the figure had fallen to 18%. In short, huge majorities of white Evangelicals are now willing to support anyone who seems able to turn their policy preferences into law, regardless of the candidate’s personal behavior.
Today I explore the views of those Evangelicals who did not vote for Trump and who continue to rate him negatively in national opinion polls.
While it is common to assume that all American Evangelical Christians are white, this view is mistaken. A 2017 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 35 percent of self-identified Evangelical Protestants are black, Latino, another race or mixed-race. Fully half of Evangelicals under the age of 30 are non-white.
The voting patterns of non-white Evangelicals differ starkly from those of white Evangelicals. While only 20% of white Evangelicals voted for someone other than Trump in 2016 (primarily for Hillary Clinton), 93% of self-identified African-American Evangelicals rejected Trump, as did 69% of Latino Evangelicals and 61% of Asian-American Evangelicals.
HOW IS THIS disparity to be explained? Some pundits have blamed it on Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric regarding immigrants and other non-white peoples, which quite naturally led non-white voters to reject him. In short, it was ethnicity rather than religiosity that determined their votes.
Though it contains a measure of truth, this explanation is too narrow. It cannot account for the 20% of white Evangelicals who voted for someone other than Trump, nor does it explain why many prominent white Evangelical leaders came out strongly against Trump in the months leading up to the election and have continued to speak out against him in the 2. years since he was elected. It also ignores the many polls that show non-white Evangelicals disagreeing with President Trump on a wide range of issues.
In reality, Evangelical Christians have never been a monolithic voting bloc in the United States, nor are they uniformly politically conservative. Non-white Evangelicals have a long history of supporting more liberal candidates, and the same is true for a significant minority of white Evangelicals. The difference cannot be attributed to theological disagreements, as surveys have repeatedly shown broad agreements between white and non-white Evangelicals on matters of faith.
How then do we explain this sharp political divide between Evangelicals who support Trump and those who view his behavior and policies as a betrayal of the Christian Gospel? As with most matters involving Evangelical Christianity, the answer centers on matters of biblical interpretation.
EVANGELICAL Christianity originated in the early 1700s as a “back-to-the-Bible” movement in England and the colonies that emphasized the importance of making a personal commitment of faith and obedience to God. Included in that commitment was an active life of service to others. Evangelical leaders like John Wesley and George Whitefield placed special emphasis on Jesus’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” which they related especially to the poor. They and their followers fed the hungry, clothed the needy, and built orphanages and schools for poor children.
Evangelical Protestantism waned in the late 1700s, but a new wave of Evangelical revival swept through England and America in the early 1800s. This wave shared many of the theological and moral themes of the earlier movement while adding to it a profound concern to reform society so that it better embodied their Bible-based vision of how God wanted nations to behave. God, they said, did not merely want to save people from a future divine judgment; God also wanted to alleviate their present suffering.
Evangelicals during this period banded together to tackle a host of social problems, including filthy and abusive prisons, street prostitution, alcoholism and poverty. They formed Sunday schools to teach poor children to read; built homes for the handicapped and mentally ill; created YMCAs to house low-income urban workers; and set up “soup kitchens” and job skills programs to aid the poor. Evangelicals stood at the forefront of the movement to abolish Southern slavery, and some played leading roles in the effort to gain women the right to vote.
By any standard, these “second-wave” Evangelicals were social radicals.
So what happened to them? Like many such movements, they failed to respond adequately to changing times. The later 1800s were marked by the rise of theological liberalism, which revamped traditional Christian theology to accord with modern science and reduced Christianity almost exclusively to social action. This movement proved more attractive to many Christians than the rigorous theology of personal and social transformation promoted by Evangelicals.
Rather than remaining faithful to their social mission, Evangelicals increasingly withdrew from public life to await the return of Jesus to rescue them from an increasingly threatening world. Theological liberalism became the public face of Christianity until the 1970s, when the Moral Majority arose to call Evangelicals to embrace the conservative political agenda of the Republican Party and their champion, Ronald Reagan.
Non-white Evangelicals largely rejected this path, as did a minority of white Evangelicals. Influenced by the Civil Rights Movement, they continued to read the Bible as their 19th century forebears had done and to uphold their biblically-based vision for social and economic justice. They continued to advocate and care for the poor, the powerless, the marginalized, the stranger — those whom the Bible identifies as the special object of God’s love. These divergent visions of God’s will for human society led to the political split that we see today between Evangelicals who support Donald Trump and Evangelicals who oppose him.
INTERESTINGLY, there is a move afoot across the country, especially in large (mostly white) Evangelical mega-churches, to reclaim the Bible-based social activism of their forebears: to combat poverty, racism, abuse of immigrants and environmental degradation. Could they be the wave of the future? Might the next generation of Evangelicals once again stand at the forefront of social change? Could the political divide between white and non-white Evangelicals be bridged at last?
If this should happen, it will not be because younger Evangelicals have “gone secular” and abandoned the Bible — the supreme fear of conservative white Evangelicals — but because they have reclaimed the vision of “love thy neighbor” and social justice that runs from Genesis to Revelation of the Christian Bible.
(Chris Stanley is a professor in the Department of Theology and Franciscan Studies at St. Bonaventure University and has spent most of his life in Evangelical churches.)