President-elect Donald Trump zealously courted American evangelicals during his campaign ― setting up private meetings, putting together an advisory committee composed of top leaders, and repeatedly playing into evangelicals’ fear that Christianity in America is growing weaker.
On election day, it paid off.
Despite his divorces, his shifting positions on abortion, and his disparaging attitude towards women, Muslims, Latinos, refugees, and the disabled, white evangelical Protestants stuck by their man. According to FiveThirtyEight, exit polls showed that white evangelicals chose Trump by a wide margin ― 81 percent to 16 percent. The last time they showed up so strongly for a Republican presidential candidate was 2004, when they chose President George Bush over John Kerry by a margin of 78 percent to 21 percent.
In surveys conducted before the election, no religious group backed the Republican candidate as strongly as white evangelical Protestants ― two-thirds (66 percent) of white evangelical Protestant voters reported they were at least leaning towards supporting Trump.
But a closer look at this group and at those who claim the identity of “evangelical” reveals a divide that could have consequences for the future of Christianity in America.
On one hand, evangelical leaders who were part of Trump’s evangelical advisory committee were hopeful after hearing about his victory.
Dr. Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary, was part of that committee, although he’s criticized Trump in the past. He told The Huffington Post that he believes evangelicals were motivated to vote in unprecedented numbers because of Hillary Clinton’s record on abortion. He also saw Trump’s victory as part of God’s plan for America ― a divine intervention that he hopes will encourage Americans to turn back from their “increasing immorality.” For him, it’s a sign that “accounts of the death of the Christian evangelical right are premature.”
“Mr. Trump has assured evangelical Christians that he will ‘have our back’ when it comes to attempts to curtail freedom of conscience and freedom of speech on religious issues,” Land told HuffPost in an email. “This election will bring about the most change in the federal government in relation to its people since the election of 1932, and it will be in the opposite direction from the New Deal.”
Dr. Ronnie Floyd, senior pastor of Cross Church and the immediate past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, was part of Trump’s evangelical advisory committee, although he didn’t endorse either candidate. In a statement to The Huffington Post, Floyd said that he believes evangelicals were driven in large numbers to the polls by their concerns about the future of the Supreme Court, abortion, religious liberty, same-sex marriage, and a desire for a “nationwide spiritual awakening.”
“Most evangelicals have believed this was the most significant election in our generation,” Floyd told The Huffington Post. “Therefore, evangelicals were driven more this year by the platforms more than by the parties and their politicians.”
In a video message, Dr. Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas and also a member of the committee, asked his followers to join him in praying for the president-elect, whom he called his “friend.”
“For those who didn’t choose to vote for President-elect Trump and may carry a measure of uncertainty about the future, there’s no need to fear and no reason to be discouraged,” Jeffress said. “In Daniel chapter 2, it’s clear that God alone establishes our leaders.”
However, for conservative evangelical leaders in the Never Trump camp, Tuesday’s election was a wake-up call about the historic ties between the Republican party and evangelical Christians.
One of those voices belonged to Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He has been a vocal evangelical critic of Trump for months. In an op-ed published on Wednesday, he lamented the loss of a “multiethnic, constitutionally anchored, forward-looking conservatism” and encouraged a return to a Christianity that is driven more by the gospel than by politics.
“The most important lesson we should learn is that the church must stand against the way politics has become a religion, and religion has become politics,” Moore wrote. “We are not, first, Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or progressives. We are not even, first of all, the United States of America. We are the church of the resurrected and triumphant Lord Jesus Christ.”
The divisions emerging within evangelical Christianity become even more obvious when race is factored in. Christians of color are claiming larger shares of America’s Christian population as a whole and Trump did not manage to capture their support in the same way he rallied white evangelicals. Before the election, non-white evangelical Protestants (including black, Hispanic, Asian-Pacific Islanders) overwhelmingly favored Clinton over Trump (67 percent vs. 24 percent).
Deborah Jian Lee, author of Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women and Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism, has taken a hard look at how evangelicals think about progressive politics. She told HuffPost that Trump’s win underscores a deep racial divide within evangelicalism.
“I’ve been hearing from evangelicals leaders and lay people who are people of color, women and LGBTQ who fiercely opposed Trump and are now stunned to see just how many of their white fellow believers supported a candidate that proudly demeans their humanity,” she wrote in an email. “Trump preached xenophobia, racism, sexism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and more, and the white evangelical base said ‘Amen.’”
Progressive Christians expressed their concern and disappointment with Trump’s victory on social media on Election Night and into the morning.
Lisa Sharon Harper, chief church engagement officer at the progressive Christian organization Sojourners, told HuffPost that the election showed her that racism still exists in American evangelical churches.
“I woke up from a dream this morning and remembered we are living a nightmare,” Harper told HuffPost. “Our nation’s first African American president will be followed by a candidate backed and promoted by the Ku Klux Klan. What’s worse, white people who claim Evangelical faith (women and men) pushed him to victory.”
Soong-Chan Rah, a professor of church growth and evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary, said he felt a “profound disappointment” that a candidate that has rejected Christian values and attempted to marginalize people of color has received the support of the American people.
“I knew that America could never, ever lay claim to being a Christian nation, but any pretense of America holding to Christian values has just gone out the window.”
Any pretense of America holding to Christian values has just gone out the window. Soong-Chan Rah
Brian McLaren, a Christian author and speaker, told HuffPost that he’s disappointed that the majority of his fellow Christians “supported a man who used racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, and other anti-Christian strategies as an election strategy.” He hoped that younger generations will forge a new path.
“I hope that younger generations of Evangelicals will turn away from the leaders their parents followed in voting for Donald Trump and find a new and better way to be Christian - so their politics will be driven less by greed and fear and more by love,” McLaren wrote in an email. “I hope that white Evangelicals will come to terms at long last with the racism and religious prejudice that are deeply embedded in the Evangelical tradition, often at levels Evangelicals aren’t aware of.”