Nominal evangelicals for Trump

February 29, 2016

It’s Super Tuesday, and the many conservatives who are just as appalled by Donald Trump as liberals are have fear in their hearts. Can anything stop him?

Almost half of today’s Republican voters self-identify as evangelical Christians. But as we’ve seen in South Carolina and in polling around the country, this is hardly a guarantee that they won’t vote for a…well, I won’t detail the reasons Trump makes an unlikely evangelical champion. You can find such snarky little serial lists in any of the dozens of articles contemplating what on earth could be going on here. Evangelical leaders are mostly opposing Trump in no uncertain terms. How can this guy be winning votes from their constituents?

Over the last several months, people have offered quite a few reasons:

Indeed, this is the question all these explanations leave us with. When Trump supporters self-identify as evangelical, what exactly are they self-identifying?

It’s not necessarily that they’re all that religious, says Jack Jenkins. He’s right. The Barna Group has long taken the category most people might just call “evangelicals” and divided it into three—based not on church attendance or self-identification but on the extent to which people’s beliefs line up with evangelical teaching. In a recent survey, Barna found that of these three groups, only the two “less evangelical” ones have a higher view of Trump than do voters generally, and those in the middle category don’t by much.

As for the most strictly defined evangelical group, they don’t like Trump that much. A good bit less than voters generally, in fact.

Now, liking isn’t the same as voting for. Still, this is an important point: it’s not evangelicals who find Trump appealing so much as it is nominal evangelicals. It’s a question of the relative thickness of religious identity—of how much people’s faith actually shapes their lives, how much the gospel empowers them to resist rival narratives of a bully’s protection or “white Christian culture” or making America great again.

We mainline Protestants are quite familiar with nominal religious identity. But we aren’t the only ones. On Trump, it isn’t just that evangelicals aren’t listening to their leaders. It’s that some of them lack the moral formation to resist Trump’s appeals to their baser instincts. David Gushee puts it well, emphasizing that this is the fault of Christian institutions, not just individuals:

In the Christian moral formation of these supposed Christians they have not been offered an adequate inoculation against this kind of politics. What they needed was instruction in a version of Christianity with ironclad commitments to civility, solidarity, justice, mercy, compassion, rule of law, and human rights, commitments so strong and so well-engrained in believers that to support someone like Trump would be unthinkable. But they have not received that inoculation. So it is not there now, when it is needed, when the body politic faces a mesmerizing candidate of this exact type.

Nominal evangelicals are all over white America, especially in the cultural evangelicalism of the South. Their own church leaders don’t like it any more than does the GOP establishment that’s still trying to shore up their value votes. The Donald, however, is convinced it’s going to be huge.