Oops, they did it again! Those evangelicals ushered in yet another Republican president! Britney Spears’s insight that some things just can’t be helped seems to apply to evangelicals and the way they vote. ABC News exit polls show that white evangelical Christians comprised 27% of all voters, and 81% of them voted for Donald Trump, accounting for 46% of his total support. Hillary Clinton stands accused of ignoring evangelical voters; that only 9% of them supported her appears to confirm that charge.
But the devil’s home is in the details – and it is worth paying a visit now and then. Rather than blaming evangelicals for enabling a Trump presidency, we should recognize that evangelicals are not a monolithic bloc. The political transformation that many hope for will not occur unless we engage evangelicals in all their complexity. Before the election, the prospect of a Trump presidency for many evangelicals decisively shredded any remaining illusions that unity and common cause was possible in the evangelical fold. On October 6, Change.org published “A Declaration by American Evangelicals Concerning Donald Trump” by Evangelical Leaders, which rightly argued that a “significant mistake in American politics is the media’s continued identification of ‘evangelical’ with mostly white, politically conservative, older men. We are not those evangelicals. …We are Americans of African and European descent, Latino/a, Asian American, and Native American. We are women and men, as well as younger and older evangelical Christians. We come from a wide range of denominations, churches, and political orientations.” The declaration also emphasized a fundamental evangelical tenet that “our hope and allegiance rests in the person of Jesus Christ, Savior of the world, and Lord of our lives. That is why no politician, party, movement, or nation can ever command our ultimate loyalty.” In short, evangelicals can be captivated by politics but should not be captured by politics or politicians. The declaration from Evangelical Leaders demonstrates that American evangelicals are diverse and have differences in political perspective and emphasis. A monolithic view of evangelicals also ignores evangelicals of color, who, according to Kate Shellnutt of Christianity Today, are not differentiated in most national polls but represent 2 in 5 evangelicals overall.
The key theological issue for evangelicals is that if Christ was also truly human, as orthodox Christianity affirms, then evangelical Christians cannot abandon concern for humans and the planet without also abandoning their faith altogether. “We believe that the centrality of Christ, the importance of both conversion and discipleship, the authority of the Scriptures, and the ‘good news’ of the gospel, especially for the poor and vulnerable, should prevail over ideological politics, and that we must respond when evangelicalism becomes dangerously identified with one particular candidate whose statements, practice, personal morality, and ideology risk damaging our witness to the gospel before the watching world.” This election has forced a divided evangelical camp to reckon with the perennial question of how God works in the world. In this post-election context, how can Trump be an agent of God’s providential care for the world?
The trouble is this – conventional reporting about evangelicals always points to what evangelicals will do without asking what an evangelical is. Theology matters here. If evangelicals are not only defined by the church they belong to or by simple self-identification (as exit polls would have us accept), then the range for who can be an evangelical is considerably widened. And the potential for practicing multiple forms of political engagement increases. If African-Americans , Latino/as, Asian-Americans and Native Americans are eliminated from polling about evangelicals and presidential politics, you see what you are looking for – evangelicals, lemming-like, have followed Trump to the end of politics as we know it. Left out of the discussion, despite their relevance to the most pressing questions about race and class, evangelicals of color retain a formidable and potentially formative presence in the new politics that must emerge to avoid simply repeating the past.
In the coming weeks and months, amid various attempts to mitigate the effects of the Trump victory, fingers will point at evangelicals and strategies will emerge to counter their influence. But there should be close scrutiny of any attempt to shift blame to evangelicals for a Trump presidency. Evangelicals will not be silenced and they cannot be wished away. To rephrase Jesus slightly – the evangelicals you will always have with you. What we do not know is how and what kind of evangelicals will be among us. The joint study from the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and LifeWay Research concludes evangelicals are to be defined by what they believe. This is very significant. Consider the four major beliefs: the Bible as highest authority, the importance of personally encouraging non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as savior, the death of Christ on the cross to remove sin’s penalty, and finally, trust in Christ as the way to receive God’s gift of salvation. However one views these foundation stones of evangelical orthodoxy, like it or not, there is no iron chain that binds these doctrines to a particular political party, platform or program for action. The same Bible being accorded the same highest authority has been used to support or to abolish slavery, to criticize or uphold capital accumulation, to slash through or properly steward the environment. Evangelical belief in Jesus Christ as Savior has also been the basis for a gospel call for a regeneration and renewal of the social order. For evangelicals, the penalty of sin is not only about wayward individuals but also bound up in the very fabric of society. Advocacy of structural change to meet the challenge of sin at the societal level is not a strange idea for many evangelicals. Salvation is not only about eternity in a sweet by and by but also based in a redemptive process that Christians may faithfully engage in to transform the present order. Liberal Protestants usually get the credit for developing and spreading the social gospel, but the major social gospel proponents in years past saw themselves as evangelicals.
The startling events of the past week require the perspective that a wide sweep of history offers. As for any list of deplorables, one item would have to be any wholesale dismissal that evangelicals have been and will continue to be agents of societal transformation. Evangelicals have a universal calling based on a deep consciousness of and humility in being created in God’s image, diverse in class, race, gender and, increasingly, sexual orientation. This includes caring for and tending the planet as they share redemptive work on a planet beset with the effects of sin, including climate change. Of course, it is hard to reconcile these possibilities with exit polls that suggest American evangelicalism is the religious underpinning for Trumpism. The question is not whether exit poll evangelicals will wake up but whether they are truly evangelical, trading faithfulness to God for blind allegiance to a political party and a candidate.
As a construction worker in first century Palestine, Jesus was a member of the working class. His declaration that workers deserve their wages (Luke 10:7) and his overall emphasis on the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40) made clear whose side he was on. His point that the last will be first and first will be last is a politics of revolutionary inclusion. The Roman imperium in the first century and the American imperium in the twenty first century have never been allies of the working class. If Jesus were to return and take up his tools a second time, many evangelicals would readily organize with him in a struggle for universal workers’ justice – or could be persuaded to on the basis of the best traditions in evangelicalism. The idea of a new heaven and a new earth has always sat just behind the notion of a new world arising from the ashes of the old.
Ken Estey is an associate professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College and the author of A New Protestant Labor Ethic at Work. His research centers on the intersection of politics and religion with a particular focus on labor and Christianity.