While the presidential primary season has a little ways left to go, the candidates at this point are set with Republican Donald Trump facing Democrat Hilary Clinton in November’s general election. In any other year I’d be confident that most evangelical Christians would automatically support the Republican candidate because of the party’s stance on moral issues important to us—abortion and same sex marriage in particular. But this year isn’t like any other, and for many the choice isn’t as clear cut. Here’s why.
Clinton’s positions on every moral issue are at odds with evangelical beliefs. She supports abortion on demand, same sex marriage, special rights for transgendered people and the priority of children’s rights over their parents. Her positions on social justice and economic issues also are opposed to those held by most evangelicals, with racial quotas and union rights receiving particular attention in her campaign.
But in other ways her positions aren’t as far from many evangelicals as you’d think. In national defense, for example, she’s demonstrated a willingness to engage American military forces far more quickly than many in her own party. Her support of Wall Street financial institutions is also closer to the traditional Republican position than that of modern, progressive Democrats.
Clinton’s personal life has been so well documented that most Americans know more about her family than we know about some parts of our own. Her husband’s immoral activities and her own complicity in covering them up are common knowledge. But at the end of the day—as her supporters attest—her family life looks a lot like a traditional family. She’s been married to one man for a long time and has a daughter, a son-in-law and a beautiful granddaughter just like many evangelicals.
Donald Trump’s character, positions and appeal aren’t as easy to grasp. A political novice, he came out of nowhere over the last nine months to capture the Republican nomination going away. Only now that he’s the nominee are many evangelicals trying to sort out what just happened. Trump isn’t the kind of candidate you’d expect to run for President. He’s certainly not the kind of candidate you’d expect evangelicals to support for President.
His personal life is a shambles. Not only has he been married three times, he boasts of his multiple affairs, some with married women. He’s made a fortune based in part on legalized gambling. His business practices are often described as shady and include bankruptcies, manipulation of eminent domain laws in order to build casinos and charges of corruption.
Regarding moral issues, well, I’m not really sure at this point what he believes in or doesn’t. His position on abortion is so convoluted that it’s hard to tell what basic convictions he has—he was for abortion on demand before he was against it and his latest iteration includes the idea that women who have abortions should suffer some sort of legal punishment. He says he’s against same sex marriage—maybe he is.
Trump’s two signature issues are more concrete and explain much of his success. Illegal immigration is the most prominent, and his promise to build a wall between our nation and Mexico has quickly become a rallying cry for tens of millions of people. The second is his criticism of American trade policy during the last few years that shipped blue collar jobs to other nations. Both issues struck a chord with the American working class and they turned out in such numbers and with such passion that the normal nomination process was overturned and Trump won almost by acclamation.
This is where it gets complicated. Trump’s appeal to the neglected white working class—a demographic that historically includes a high level of conservative Christians in name if not in fact—made the unthinkable happen. Despite his checkered personal experience Trump became the darling of many evangelicals.
But not everyone is on the bandwagon, and there’s a loud and growing chorus of dissent, to the point where some are even calling for evangelicals to support Clinton over Trump. Even Nate Silver didn’t see this coming.
Beyond his moral failures and ethical lapses, the criticisms leveled at Trump have to do with more basic issues like character and suitability for the office of President. His temperament is so mercurial; his track record so minimal; and his core convictions so unclear that if he’s elected it’s easy to imagine him doing almost anything. He’s the great unknown.
Clinton, on the other hand, for all her faults and positions opposing biblical truth, is a known commodity. I’m not endorsing that perspective! But I’m starting to wonder if this election isn’t shaping up to be one of those outliers in American politics where the usual rules don’t apply and people put their moral convictions on the back burner for the sake of what they perceive as more stable political leadership. Many evangelicals are balanced on Occam’s Razor and finding it difficult to simplify the situation enough to choose.
In my wildest imagination I never would have thought evangelicals in large numbers would have considered supporting Hilary Clinton for President. And I may be wrong—when it comes to Election Day most may revert to form and cast their ballot in the familiar way. But if they do, their vote will be more against Clinton than in favor of Trump.
But there’s something more here. The evangelical crisis of conscience this election is provoking was predictable. Since Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority of the 1970s we evangelicals have pinned much of our identity and hope on having a prominent position in national politics. Our strategy was to elect the right candidate in order to preserve our place in national life. It never worked, of course, and what we ended up with was a compromised church embedded inside a cynical political system.
For all the angst and fear this Presidential election is bringing out within the evangelical community, maybe it provides us with the opportunity to re-examine our place in the culture and begin to move in a more productive and biblical direction. Maybe it gives us the chance to realize that whoever is elected President of the United States our place is assured and our destiny is promised. We serve a King above every King, and every ruler of the earth—even our own President—will one day bow before Him.