Article by: Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra
Most Americans can at least agree on this: The 2016 presidential election cycle has been a long one, and it will be a relief when it’s over.
Perhaps November 9 will be especially welcomed by American evangelicals. From the early days of the primaries, the polarizing Donald Trump has split a group that’s voted together for several decades.
While 78 percent of white evangelicals voted for the Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, less than half of those with evangelical beliefs plan to vote for Trump in 2016 (45 percent). But that doesn’t mean they’re voting for Clinton (31 percent). In fact, almost a quarter of evangelical believers, as of one month ago, hadn’t decided whom to vote for (23 percent), according to a LifeWay Research poll.
Looking for post-election unity, then, may not be easy.
“Evangelicals are not as unified as some have thought,” LifeWay Research executive director Scott McConnell said, explaining the major polls that show evangelicals voting for Trump are limited in two important ways. First, respondents are asked to identify themselves rather than agree they adhere to certain beliefs. Second, these evangelical numbers are limited to Caucasians.
But nearly two-thirds of evangelicals aren’t white, and more than three out of five non-white evangelicals plan to vote for Clinton, McConnell said.
Religious voters also appear to be split along a generational gap. Younger evangelicals in particular are looking askance at the older generation’s support of Trump, despite his decidedly unchristian rhetoric and behavior.
“What’s at stake here is far more than an election,” wrote Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “The damage done to gospel witness this year will take longer to recover from than those 1980s televangelist scandals.”
The splintering evangelical voting bloc stems from failing to find a candidate who fits all the requirements Christians want—one who seeks justice, loves mercy, opposes abortion, and cares about the poor and the environment, McConnell said.
“Since you can’t find those beliefs in one space, there’s definitely room to be talking about making both parties better.”
For many, Trump offers a chance at safeguarding the religious liberties of Christians.
The religious liberty threats from Trump may be less direct than the threats under a Clinton administration, said University of St. Thomas law professor Tom Berg. “He says he’ll protect religious liberty, but what makes anyone think he’ll do what he says?”
If elected, President Trump would also face a charged religious atmosphere, one exacerbated by his proposal to ban Muslims immigrants from entering the country as well as his public clash with the parents of a Muslim-American soldier killed in Iraq.
“That hurts religious liberty, and not just for Muslims,” Berg said.
Many supporters tout Trump’s promises to repeal the Johnson Amendment—the IRS restriction on churches endorsing candidates for office—and to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices. But these promises are also difficult to trust, Berg said.
If elected, President Clinton would provoke familiar fears for evangelicals who remember her husband and fought President Obama the last eight years.
“With Clinton, you have some likely direct threats to religious liberty for many evangelical organizations on familiar issues of conscience like abortion, same-sex marriage, and transgender claims,” Berg said. “If the Democrats control Congress and the White House, you could have a change in legislation.”
For example, Clinton’s made clear her desire to challenge the Hyde Amendment, which bars the federal government from financing abortion. This desire wholly depends on how many seats in Congress the Democrats win.
“It’s fairly clear that there are culture wars, and that Democrats will take steps that will affect the religious liberty of conservative organizations,” Berg said. “That will happen, but that doesn’t mean all of them are going to happen.”
Clinton’s Supreme Court nominees would likely be less sympathetic to religious conservatives, though “sometimes liberal justices have protected [conservatives'] religious freedom,” Berg said.
During Obama’s time in the White House, the Court unanimously approved ministerial exceptions to employment discrimination in 2012. Later decisions in the Hobby Lobby case (exempting religious organizations from providing birth control) and the Obergefell case (legalizing same-sex marriage) were both 5–4 votes.
Hanging on to Religious Liberty
No matter the next occupant of the White House, evangelicals face difficult political questions.
“Whoever the next president is will be stepping into a culture that has shifted on a number of moral issues, and those shifts have put pressure on religious liberty,” LifeWay Research’s McConnell said.
The way these issues have been addressed so far, it’s a zero-sum game, he explained. When one group asks for freedom, another feels the squeeze.
“Bottom line: I don’t feel good about the prospect for religious liberty under either candidate,” Berg said.
One way to slow down a Democratic executive branch bent on restricting religious liberty would be to elect a Republican House and Senate. But McConnell’s best advice is to “search for principled resolutions that protect both sides.” In Utah, for example, legislators worked with LGBT advocates and the Mormon church to ban discrimination against homosexuals, bisexuals, and transgender people, while at the same time protecting rights of those who object to same-sex marriage on religious grounds.
Staying Credible and Engaged
After a particularly contentious election season, evangelicals need a better way to make their case in the public square.
“Part of the answer has to be that evangelicals act in a way that maintains the kind of moral credibility that allows you to witness for religious freedom,” Berg said. “It’s going to be very interesting to see how the next generation proceeds and how they renew the witness. It certainly needs to be renewed, given how many evangelical leaders have seemed willing to minimize Trump's character problems just because he claims he'll protect religious liberty.”
Moore agrees that evangelical credibility may have been seriously damaged by some leaders who have “brushed aside major issues or been cheerleaders for Donald Trump throughout the campaign,” he told TGC. The lasting fissures among evangelicals won’t happen “among Christian brothers and sisters who disagreed about the lesser of two evils, but among religious leaders who compromised.”
McConnell noted the importance of civility, resisting any temptations to shame Christians who vote differently. Because it’s impossible to find a candidate who embodies all biblical values, every vote requires placing priority on certain values to the exclusion of others.
On this, most evangelical pastors agree. Two-thirds said Christians voting their consciences could come to different conclusions.
“The sooner we can acknowledge that, and say, ‘I appreciate the things you’re doing,’” the healthier we’ll be, McConnell said.
In an era when disillusionment with politics is causing some to disengage, McConnell said evangelicals need to stay connected.
“Even in the Old Testament, the Israelites in exile were called to seek the welfare of the nation they lived in,” he said. “As this election reminds evangelicals that we are in the minority, it’s a time to remember that we still need to be looking out for the welfare of the nation.”
Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra is senior writer for The Gospel Coalition. She has been a freelance reporter and contributing editor at Christianity Today. She earned her master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.
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