One of the most difficult academic presentations I’ve been asked to give this year was before a group of Moroccan Muslim scholars who were visiting Washington, DC this summer to learn about American religion. I was invited to present from my research on American Evangelicalism, and when we got to the topic of Donald Trump I found myself befuddled to explain what it is that Evangelicals have found appealing about that noxious, philandering, bigoted blowhard. The sad reality, as I’ve written about before, is that the Religious Right, the self-styled Moral Majority, has lined up behind Trump this year with inexplicably little trouble.
Growing up in the Evangelical movement, I was constantly warned by pastors and leaders against the danger of becoming a “cultural Christian,” a person who bore the outward trappings of Christian faith but who did not possess a sincere, personal piety. Evangelicals cast themselves as real Christians who were willing to risk being counter-cultural. What Trump has exposed is that there is such a thing as “cultural Evangelicals,” a host of people who know the shibboleths of Evangelicalism but can still stomach voting for a man who is the antithesis of Evangelical Christian theology and values. Trump is unrepentantly wicked, a constant liar, a serial adulterer, a self-confessed sexual abuser whose rampant aggression against women has been confirmed this past week by a chorus of female victims who have been unlucky enough to encounter the shameless, treacherous man in the past few decades.
Evangelical support for Trump ostensibly peaked in July at 78% and has declined some since, but nearly two thirds of white Evangelicals say they are still supporting Trump. And this is after the video recently surfaced of Trump bragging about using his celebrity status to molest female strangers. Evangelicals have designated themselves as Values Voters, a name entirely belied by that one statistic. Moreover, Governor Mike Pence, Trump’s acclaimed Evangelical running mate has bent over backwards to make Trump digestible to his fellow Bible believers, saying they should forgive Trump’s abusive tendencies despite Trump’s continued patterns of hateful and misogynistic speech.
It’s easy to forget that just four years ago, the Evangelical voter bloc struggled to coalesce around Republican candidate Mitt Romney, a man whose personal integrity, ability to keep his marriage vows, and earnest faith were never in question. You see, Romney is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, he’s a Mormon, and Evangelicals have long viewed Mormons as faux Christians and theological heretics who follow Joseph Smith rather than Jesus Christ. On closer examination, much of the bad blood between Evangelicals and Mormons might stem from how similar they are: both Mormonism and Evangelicalism are culturally conservative, politically active, proselytizing movements whose ethos was shaped in the wave of 19th-century American revivalism that historians call the Second Great Awakening.
This year Mitt Romney has been one of the clarion voices in the conservative movement who has consistently pointed out the danger of Trump. He has called out Trump’s foreign policy idiocy, his lies, his moral vacancy, and his existential threat to the American republic. Romney has demonstrated a level of courage and principle that so many Republican elected officials and partisans have lacked.
But while Romney’s principled stance has been lonely within the cowardly elite circles of the Republican Party, he has not been alone. His fellow Mormons have expressed in polls and in statements their revulsion for Trumpism. In a survey this past week among Utah Mormons only 38% said they were supporting Trump, with a higher percentage of them saying they have an unfavorable view of Trump than of the perennially unpopular Hillary Clinton. In our hyper-partisan times, a Republican candidate getting only 38% of the Utah Mormon vote is a veritable castigation. And if my Mormon friends are any sort of representative sample, the community’s distaste for Trump is deep-seated and rooted in righteousness.
Mormons, like Evangelicals, have a strong commitment to international missions, leading them to rebuff Trump’s “America first” nationalism that would alienate the rest of the globe. Mormons have also repudiated Trump’s scapegoating of Latino immigrants and refugees. As a religious minority who has faced more than their share of persecution in America, they are acutely aware of the peril of Trump’s anti-Muslim stances. In short, Mormons have chosen to look beyond the immediate political interests and historical alignments of their own community in this election and see Trump for the evil that he and his campaign are.
Mormons have gone so far as to put up as a presidential candidate one of their own, a heretofore unknown named Evan McMullin, as a faithful alternative to Trump. Just this past week, McMullin pulled into striking range of both Trump and Clinton in Utah polls, and while his potential for winning the White House is virtually nil, he has given Mormons someone for whom they can conscientiously vote without holding their noses. In just about every way imaginable the Mormon community has resisted Trump, Trumpism, and the odious sorts of political bargain-with-the-devil dealmaking to which a solid majority of white Evangelicals have succumbed.
Of course, a number of Evangelical leaders and voices have spoken out against Trump. Russell Moore, Christianity Today, and a growing ensemble of non-white Evangelicals have told the truth about what Trump is and what he represents. But they are shouting into the wind of Evangelical support for Trump, including from many of the guiding lights of the Moral Majority like Jerry Falwell Jr., James Dobson, and Ralph Reed. A pretty good rule of thumb: when you find yourself marching in lock step with the likes of David Duke, the Alt Right, and other out and out racists, you have forsaken the right to tout your morality.
If the test of the moral courage of a religious movement is how they stand for their values when there is an opportunity to abandon them for political expediency, then Mormons have passed the test thus far in 2016. They have been the Moral Minority. They are the Daniels, the Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednegos, the Esthers of this election season, who have refused the idolatry and apostasy that Trump embodies in his gilded insanity. While Evangelicals may still quibble with Mormons about theology and scripture and history, they should take a lesson from Mormons’ righteous backbone while there is still time.