Donald J. Trump has a Catholic problem. He has a Mormon problem too, an African-American problem, a Hispanic problem, a women problem. The one group that poses no problem, to our shame, is white Evangelicals. Pew Research tells us that a whopping 78% of white Evangelicals say they will vote for Trump over Hillary.
This puzzles me. I am, to paraphrase Paul, an Evangelical of Evangelicals. My credentials are unimpeachable: Born into the Jesus People movement of late 70s California, raised in mega churches where clergy were more likely to wear Birkenstocks than robes, indoctrinated in the value of kissing dating goodbye in the 90s while simultaneously falling in love with the man I would marry.
I get Evangelicals, those hard-working, hard-loving, hard headed salt of the earth types across this country. They are my people and I love them. Yet, Donald J. Trump terrifies me. He is everything I was raised by these good people to stand against: Belittling, lover of self, boastful, unrepentant. He rejoices in exploiting weakness, in cheating the little guy, something the Bible condemns again and again. He lies constantly, lies easily disproven, lies with no purpose other than to puff himself up. He thirsts for power and disregards the checks against the executive written into the Constitution. “I alone will solve,” he claims, as if he were God himself.
In a thousand church basements across this land, Evangelicals tend to the disabled. Trump mocks them. Churches across the land send missionaries to help the desperate refugees of the Middle East. Trump calls them snakes. Churches send their young to serve in the military, pray for the troops, and care for those who were wounded. Trump belittles prisoners of war and threatens to order troops to go against military law to torture the enemy and murder their families.
Beyond that, Trump boils down freedom of religion to a single simple issue: clergy being allowed to endorse candidates and keep tax exempt status. He has shown no concept of the cake-baking cases, the Little Sisters of the Poor freedom of conscience issue. He values the Evangelical community only as far as it exercises worldly power, speaking repeatedly of the “tremendous power” of the church as if its only purpose was to get people to the polls.
Why, then, do they support him? Turns out, Evangelicals don’t support Trump so much as oppose Hillary, her pro-abortion stand being the primary factor. They know Hillary will not support them. They hope Trump will.
They are wrong. Trump turns on everyone when it benefits him. There is no evidence he cares at all about abortion, no certainty he will nominate conservatives to the Supreme Court. We have only his word, which with him is nothing. When is done exploiting Evangelicals, he will turn on them. Hillary is a known, predictable threat that can be survived. Trump is an existential threat against democracy itself.
We would know this if we remembered history, if we were informed by the great thinkers of the past. The essence of the Evangelical movement since the 70s has been to reject tradition, to sit alone with a Bible and figure things out for one’s self. While this can bring fresh insight and passion to the church, it can also be dangerous. When it’s just me and Jesus, it’s awfully tempting to believe Jesus agrees with me on everything.
Mormons remember. They remember what it was like to be hounded from one state to another, to be legally targeted to be murdered. Their theology differs widely from orthodox Christianity, but they know that once religious freedom is discarded for one group, it will be in danger for all.
Catholics remember. Their thinkers are still churning through the fallout from the struggle against, and sometimes capitulation to, Nazism, and with the long resistance to Communism. Their priests serve under dictators, from two-bit rulers of banana republics to crushing states like China. They recognize a demagogue when they see one.
But I think there’s something more to Trump’s success with white evangelicals, something more troubling. I think the answer lies, shamefully, in tribalism and not faith. I was saddened when Trump implicitly attacked Mormons in his address to evangelical pastors in Orlando August 11. Instead of walking out, as they should have done, they applauded. I am ashamed of the racial overtones inherent in the immigration issue, which could be addressed without demonizing Hispanics as rapists and murderers.
I am ashamed at the rhetoric against Muslims that excites white Evangelicals. Instead of seeing Muslim neighbors, Hispanic neighbors, Mormon neighbors as a chance to show Christ’s love and spread the gospel, conservative Evangelicals see these fellow human beings as a threat to be neutralized. Instead of targeting only those Muslims who would hurt us, they are happy to despise and reject 1.6 billion people because of their faith.
Jesus taught us to love our neighbor as ourselves and, beyond that, to love our enemies, but we cower in fear of the stranger among us and turn our backs on those who need our help. A people called to the ends of the earth are not willing to welcome those from other lands to their communities. A people called to preach to every tribe, tongue, and nation bar the gates against those very people they are called to reach.
Trump exploits differences and divisions, implying he is like Evangelicals and not like those scary people beyond the church doors. We have grown comfortable, complacent, and self-reverential. White Evangelicals scarf up the scraps he throws us, cling to an unreliable promise of the Supreme Court, and ignore the glaring warning signs. In the process we ignore our mission.
Make no mistake. This is a moment of crisis for Evangelicalism and its witness in this world. It is a time for choosing.
So far, we have chosen wrong.
Rebecca Cusey is a writer based in Washington DC. She writes about movies, TV, pop culture, politics and faith. Follow her on Twitter @Rebecca_Cusey.
The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.