In the 2016 presidential election, 81% of white Evangelical Christian voters chose Donald Trump, a man whose personal history and treatment of others had shown him to be anything but a faithful Christian.
His support among white Evangelicals has dipped somewhat since then, but it remains at 69%, according to a recent Pew Research poll.
Media pundits have decried Evangelical support for Trump as rank hypocrisy. How, they ask, can people who claim to draw their beliefs and practices from the Bible support a president who has been unfaithful to multiple wives, is narcissistically self-centered, demonizes those who disagrees with him, lies without evident qualms, and refuses to admit that he has ever made a mistake or needs forgiveness?
How can people who see themselves as defending America’s “traditional Christian values” have such high regard for a man who attends church services only when courting political support and shows only the vaguest understanding of the Bible or Christian teachings?
RECENT STUDIES have revealed the answer: a seismic shift has occurred since 2011 in the way Evangelicals evaluate political candidates.
In 1998, as Bill Clinton’s sexual escapades in the Oval Office were coming to light, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution affirming that “moral character matters” in public officials and urging its members to vote for candidates who show “consistent honesty, moral purity, and the highest character.” Similar attitudes were revealed in a 2011 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Religion News Service, with 60% of white Evangelicals agreeing that a public official who “commits an immoral act in their personal life” cannot still “behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.”
Five years later, most Evangelicals had jettisoned these beliefs. In a 2016 poll conducted soon after Trump’s lewd comments on an Access Hollywood tape became public, fully 72% of Evangelicals embraced the view that personal immorality did not disqualify a public official from properly fulfilling his or her duties of office. Only 30% chose that option in the 2011 poll. By 2018, two years into Trump’s presidency, that figure had increased to 83%.
The wording of the question was the same in all three polls, so the results clearly point to a massive shift in Evangelical thinking.
HOW ARE WE to explain such a shift on the part of a group that claims to ground its beliefs and practices on “the unchanging word of God”? Has some modern-day prophet arisen to announce that God has changed his mind about what matters in choosing public officials?
As ludicrous as such a suggestion might sound, it contains a significant element of truth. As early as the 2016 primaries, some Evangelicals were comparing Trump to the Persian king Cyrus, who in 539 BC led the armies of the Medes and Persians to victory over the Babylonians who had exiled the people of Judah from their land 50 years earlier. The biblical prophet Isaiah (chapter 45) credited this victory to the God of Israel, who had chosen Cyrus to restore God’s people to their land even though Cyrus, a worshiper of pagan deities, was unaware that he was serving God’s purposes.
Following this analogy, Trump did not have to be a man of godly character or even a Christian to serve as God’s instrument to rescue his people from oppression and restore them to their rightful place in the land that God gave to their ancestors. This view of Trump as a latter-day Cyrus was popularized in a 2018 film called “The Trump Prophecy,” which showed in over 1,000 theaters across America in the weeks prior to the midterm elections and influenced the thinking of countless Evangelical viewers. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew a similar analogy in the same year when praising Trump for moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
THIS IMAGE of Trump the divinely commissioned deliverer of God’s people has resonated deeply with many Evangelicals, even those who might not have heard the comparisons that their leaders were making between Trump and king Cyrus.
Since the 1960s, Evangelical leaders have proclaimed that “Christian America” is under assault by the forces of Satan, which they encapsulate under the amorphous term “secular humanism.” As they see it, America has endured a persistent moral decline ever since the Supreme Court’s 1962 decision to remove prayer and Bible reading from the public schools. In the absence of these godly influences, Americans have increasingly abandoned the ways of God and devoted themselves to the pursuit of their own sinful desires, reshaping American society in the process.
The sexual revolution, the legalization of abortion, the women’s liberation movement, the declining respect for authority, the exclusion of creationism from public school curricula in favor of evolution, the coarsening of public entertainment, the legalization of gay marriage and similar moves toward a more “liberal” society are all taken as signs of this decline.
Rather than accepting these developments as the price of living in a secular democracy, Evangelicals cry out to God for a revival of America’s devotion to Christianity and a renewed appreciation of the nation’s God-given mission to the world. In Trump they find the answer to their prayers.
They welcome his determination to “Make America Great Again” and his promise to defend traditional Christians from attacks on their beliefs and practices. They applaud his intention to appoint judges who will reverse rulings of prior courts on such topics as abortion and gay rights. They praise his commitment to defend the state of Israel, another Evangelical priority, and to lead America into battle against the forces of evil around the world, especially militant Islam. They truly believe Trump is God’s man for the hour.
Viewed from this vantage point, Trump’s personal morality is irrelevant. As Jerry Falwell Jr. told his followers in 2016, “We’re not choosing a pastor-in-chief; we’re choosing a president of the United States.”
IN SHORT, as long as Trump supports the right policies — policies that will bring American society into line with Evangelical views of the will of God — he can do whatever he likes in his personal life. By contrast, anyone who hinders his achievement of these goals is an agent of the devil.
This viewpoint is not limited to Evangelical Christians — most conservatives share the view that America is in a state of social and moral decline, and many believe that only a man like Trump can reverse this trend. To those outside the conservative fold, by contrast, such a view of America sounds like a self-serving attempt to hold back the tide of progress.
Not all Evangelicals agree with this “Trump as savior” narrative. In my next column I will talk about the 20% of Evangelicals who did not vote for Trump and examine their views on his behavior and policies since the 2016 elections.
(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.)