Crisis of Conscience

Conservative Christians find themselves in something of a quandary with respect to this year's presidential election. Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton appeals to them, and that's putting it mildly. Both Trump and Clinton are positively off-putting to most mainstream evangelicals, albeit for somewhat different reasons.

Given that most conservative Christians tend to vote Republican in presidential elections, this situation is much more of a problem for Trump and the GOP than it is for the Clinton and the Democrats. Without strong support from conservative Christians, Trump seems highly unlikely to amass an electoral-college majority. Indeed, the GOP's revival at the presidential level under Reagan and the two Bushes was built upon that base, combined with support from free-market conservatives, some of whom were religious and some of whom were not.

What's wrong with Trump from the point of view of conservative Christians? First and foremost, most of them, like most voters generally, see Trump as the least religious of the major party presidential aspirants this year. His occasional attempts to sound religious tend to be awkward and unconvincing, and mostly draw attention to that problem.

That basic disconnect is made worse by Trump's back story, which is thoroughly unappealing to morally traditional people. He is the New York City native on his third spouse with a sometimes coarse public persona. All of that combines to reinforce a very negative stereotype of New Yorkers like Trump in the minds of conservative Christians.

And then there is his shifting stand on the issue of abortion. Donald Trump has been all over the map on that highly sensitive issue. Today he is anti-Roe v. Wade, but he was not always thus. Pro-life voters are understandably wary about the permanence of Trump's current views on abortion rights, and that sows even more doubts in the minds of conservative Christians.

Hillary Clinton is unappealing to mainstream evangelicals for somewhat different reasons. Even though she grew up in a morally traditional, church-going, Republican household in suburban Chicago, Clinton is viewed by conservative Christians as someone who left that world behind beginning in the late 1960's. Her husband's infidelity and her efforts to excuse that misbehavior, deeply trouble many evangelicals.

Hillary Clinton's outspoken feminism, including strong support for reproductive rights, widens that gap with evangelicals, as does her support for marriage equality for gays and lesbians. She, too, is now a New Yorker, and also reinforces a stereotype in conservative Christian America about New York politicians as essentially libertarian in their social-cultural views.

All of this means that evangelical Christians are in something of a bind with respect to the presidential choice this fall. They may support Trump out of a belief that he will, despite his drawbacks, prove to be a force for good in the sense of advancing the conservative Christian agenda. This appears to be the view of Jerry Falwell, Jr., who has endorsed Trump. Another, more cautious, approach, is to wait a bit to see if Donald Trump can build more of a rapport with evangelicals as he campaigns in the summer and fall. A third response is simply to drop out of the election altogether rather than choose the lesser of two evils.

As of today it is hard to be certain which of these responses will become the dominant one among Christian conservatives. Unless something about Trump's message changes, the most likely result will be a substantial decline in voter turnout among evangelical Christians from what it has been in recent decades. That is the possibility that most worries GOP leaders across the country, because low turnout among conservative Christian voters would imperil other Republicans on the ballot, and GOP control of the U.S. Senate in particular. Even more worrisome to GOP leaders is the possibility that a lower rate of political participation by evangelical Christians in 2016 could be the start of a longer-term trend. If that happens, American politics would likely become somewhat more like it was before the mid-1970's, when the most religious (and the least so) had markedly less influence, and the Democrats tended to be dominant.