Evangelicals are divided going into the presidential primaries, and few candidates are courting them.
If there is a nexus of evangelical politics so far in the 2016 presidential election, it may be the platform at the Liberty University arena in Lynchburg, Virginia. The conservative Baptist school founded by Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell has hosted Democrat Bernie Sanders, Republicans Ben Carson and Ted Cruz (who announced his candidacy there), and most recently Donald Trump.
“Evangelicals love me!” Trump declared. “I’m big with evangelicals.”
With those words Trump reminded Christian and conservative voters of what didn’t seem possible a year ago: Polling shows the New York businessman and former reality TV star is the candidate more evangelicals favor than any other. Perhaps it’s because few candidates are overtly courting “the evangelical vote.” And while Trump and Cruz are leaders among likely evangelical voters, the bloc is split.
Evangelicals’ influence was still a factor in the presidential election four years ago, when pundits wondered whether they’d get behind a Mormon, Mitt Romney, and whether he would miss their support if they didn’t.
With faith seeming to be less at issue in this campaign cycle, some surmise the waning evangelical influence wondered about in 2012 is a reality in 2016. “You cannot, if you’re a Republican [candidate] ignore the evangelical bloc, because it’s such a large percentage of the Republican voting electorate,” Andrew Walker, director of policy studies for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, told the Illinois Baptist.
But, “I think that our issues as a share of the electorate have tragically become less influential,” he added. For example, when President George W. Bush won the Republican nomination and then ree
The Trump factor
FOX News released a poll Jan. 9 that showed Cruz (33%) leading Trump (26%) among voters who call themselves “very” conservative. But among evangelical Christians, the poll showed Trump at 28% over Cruz’s 26%.
Another poll released Jan. 12 by The New York Times and CBS showed evangelicals supporting Trump by 42% over Ted Cruz at 25%.
The New York Times reported Jan. 18 it had interviewed “dozens of evangelical voters in 16 states” about their support for Trump. According to the Times, the voters called him “a decent man who simply wanted to get things done.”
They also believed “that his heart was in the right place, that his intentions for the country were pure, that he alone was capable of delivering to a troubled country salvation in the here and now.”
But Trump’s stump stop in Lynchburg raised more questions than it answered. Trump told the audience Christianity is under attack and as president he would defend it. “You look at the different places, and Christianity, it’s under siege. We’re going to protect Christianity. If you look at what’s going on throughout the world—you look at Syria, where if you’re Christian, they’re chopping off heads.” That drew cheers. But when Trump quoted Liberty’s theme verse, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” from 2 Corinthians 3:17, he said “Two Corinthians” rather than “Second Corinthians” and drew chuckles from the student-audience and guffaws on social media.
Washington Post religion writer Sarah Pulliam Bailey later pointed out “Two Corinthians” is a common British pronunciation and Trump’s mother is of Scottish origin. Trump describes himself as Presbyterian, but not as born again.
CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Trump if he regrets past remarks he made about his faith—that he has never asked God for forgiveness—and whether he believes those remarks hurt his chances with Christian voters.
Trump replied he has no regrets.
“I have a very great relationship with God, and I have a very great relationship with evangelicals, and I think that’s why I’m doing so well with Iowa,” Trump said.
“This would be hilarious if it weren’t so counter to the mission of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” ERLC President Russell Moore tweeted during Trump’s presentation. Moore later talked to CNN’s Erin Burnett about his sharp response to the candidate’s speech.
“I think the problem was this is someone who as recently as yesterday has said that he has nothing to seek forgiveness for,” Moore said, noting Trump’s marital history, involvement in the gambling industry, and use of racially charged language.
Last September, Moore wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times that asked, “Have evangelicals who support Trump lost their values?” Perhaps the question now, a few months later, is exactly which evangelicals are supporting him?
“I would say that Ted Cruz is leading in the ‘Jerry Falwell’ wing, Marco Rubio is leading the ‘Billy Graham’ wing and Trump is leading the ‘Jimmy Swagger’ wing,” Moore told Roll Call for an article which asked, “Can Marco Rubio appeal to evangelicals?”
The article went on to explain the comments:
‘…meaning that Cruz has largely followed the classic Moral Majority model that was the face of the conservative movement—he has received endorsements from figures such as Focus on the Family founder James Dobson—while Trump ‘tends to work most closely with the prosperity wing of Pentecostalism’ which tends to believe that God would financially reward believers.”
“I personally question the so-called fanfare that Trump has among evangelicals. I sense, instead, that Donald Trump’s main appeal is to a segment of the population that is burnt out and feels disenfranchised by an American culture and economy that has seemingly passed them by,” said Moore’s colleague Andrew Walker.
Walker called Trump’s appearance, and his apparent support by Jerry Falwell Jr., who has succeeded his late father, “embarassing.”
“It sets the maturing of Christian politics back and it alienates greatly younger evangelicals who are searching for a political identity as Christians, but know that what we saw at Liberty is not acceptable for them.”
Who will get their vote?
“You see definitely different strategies with candidates right now, and how they are lining up and trying to get the evangelical constituency,” Walker said.
For example, he noted, Cruz, a Southern Baptist, is reaching out to traditionalists who would have a “take back America for God” mentality, whereas Rubio, a Roman Catholic, “speaks the evangelical language as well as anyone, but he’s not doing it in a Christian America template.” His “common good Christianity” sees it less as recovering Christian America, and more as bringing Christian values into the public square, in order to shape the public square for righteousness’ sake, Walker said.
That mentality may fare better with younger evangelicals who are cynical about moral majority politics, he said. While no less political than their elders, “they’re trying to do Christian politics less through the vein of ‘let’s take back America for God,’ and more as ‘let’s bring our Christian values into the public square for the sake of the common good.’”
Democrats, meanwhile, are making no overt approaches to evangelicals in Iowa, where there is a substantial bloc, or in New Hampshire, where there is almost none. Other than his Liberty University appearance, where Sanders, who is Jewish, was received politely if not warmly, Democrats have kept quiet on religion.
Hillary Clinton, a United Methodist, commented when she was First Lady that she had Bible verse cards in her purse. Her most recent comment on faith was visual rather than verbal: On Face the Nation last week, Clinton wore a necklace with a cross that also appeared to have symbols of other religions. The strategy for Democrats, and many Republicans as well, is to keep it ecumenical, or better yet, keep it quiet on religion.
A Christian’s responsibility
“One of the things that is really important for Christians to realize is that we are both citizens of God’s Kingdom and our country,” Mark Quintanilla, history professor at Hannibal-LaGrange University in Hannibal, Missouri, told the Illinois Baptist. “In our political views we need to be searching for what God would have us to do.”
In Southern Baptist life, some leaders have spoken clearly about particular candidates. Others are saying simply, pray about it and do your duty.
The outgoing president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, Tommy Kelly, has endorsed Cruz. The ERLC has critiqued Trump among others, while some of their staff have tweeted favorably about Rubio. Saddleback Community Church pastor Rick Warren has served on Rubio’s advisory committee, but has declined to endorse him.
President of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association Franklin Graham is traveling to the capitals of all 50 states this year. His “Decision America Tour” urges Christians to vote and to elect candidates who “stand for biblical principles and biblical truth,” Graham told NBC.
Frank Page, president of the SBC Executive Committee, outlined the importance of Christian citizenship and participation in the election process in a recent Baptist Press article, citing Romans 13:3-7. “We know that God’s purpose through government is to aid the good and punish the evil…Assuming that the government fulfills its purpose, one reason for obeying our laws would be the fear of punishment. However, for Christians there is a more worthy motive, namely to be good citizens as part of being a positive Christian witness in society.”
Page said he is “aware that we are in the midst of one of the most interesting election cycles in our history. There is deep division in our country as to what needs to happen in the days ahead.” He urged Christians to be involved in the election process. “To relegate that responsibility to nonbelievers is irresponsible at best.”
Quintanilla cautioned Christians, “When we nominate or elect a candidate we must scrutinize which of them lives up to our Christian ideals. As nice as it is to vote our pocketbooks, I’m not sure that this should be our direction.” Analyzing comments from evangelicals in social media, he said, “It is concerning, the views people have and the lack of concern about our higher calling.
“We need to scrutinize the candidates and their views,” Quintanilla said. “As ambassadors of Christ, we are to be mindful that we are a reflection of God’s Kingdom.
– Illinois Baptist team report by Meredith Flynn, Lisa Sergent, and Eric Reed.