The Ascent of Trump and the Impact on Evangelical Ethics

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump visit the Sistine Chapel in this official White House photo by Andrea Hanks

Yesterday, I saw something in my Twitter feed that made me cringe: a story in The New York Times titled “Trump Says Jump. His Supporters Ask, How High?” What I objected to had nothing to do with the fact that Trump was elected, although I have previously shared my concerns on that score. It was not even anything particularly new. What caused me to cringe was the article’s mention of a poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution last October, the month before Trump was elected. I seem to recall seeing it when it initially appeared, but being exposed to it again seemed to double the effect.

The issue considered in this poll was whether “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life”. I understand that this is a complex issue. Even in scripture, we see examples of people who did something terrible at one point or another (e.g. Moses or David) and yet were described as godly leaders (though somewhat compromised by their sins). Therefore, I would be willing to accept a certain variety of responses to this question, but what I am not willing to accept is the result of this poll.

In 2011, 44% of Americans stated that an immoral act in a politician’s personal life did not prevent them from behaving ethically in their public duties. That means that 56% disapproved of such actions to the extent that they felt them to be ethically disqualifying. When the same question was asked five years later, 61% believed that the same “politician X” could still behave ethically in their public duties, a shift of 17%. That is a pretty big change in a relatively short amount of time. What accounts for it?

It turns out that voters who identified as religiously unaffiliated felt virtually the same in both versions of the poll: 63% vs. 60%. The sea change came among those who described themselves as more religious. Only 42% of Catholic voters had previously said that a politician who is immoral in their personal life can be moral in their public and professional life. That number jumped to 58%. Among white mainline Protestant voters, the number increased from 38% to 60%. However, the biggest shift of all was among white evangelical Protestants, where the number more than doubled from 30% to 72%.

What caused such a massive change, and why did evangelicals change most of all? Five years ago, a full 70% of white evangelical Protestants were willing to state that an elected who commits an immoral act in their personal life cannot behave ethically in their public life. Now only 28% are willing to make the same claim. Has the Bible changed since 2011? Has there been a major evolution in the substance of our preaching? Are we adapting to the secular culture that quickly? I would submit that the answers are no, no, and no.

This change in responses seems to have been due to the changing political situation. In June 2011, President Barack Obama had been in office for a couple of years and was starting to gear up for the 2012 election. In October 2016, when the second poll was conducted, all of the news was about the 2016 presidential election. You will perhaps recall that near the beginning of that month, some old footage of Donald Trump taping an Access Hollywood segment was released in which he bragged about kissing and groping women against their will. (Warning: That transcript includes all of his obscene language.) Trump claimed that there was no truth in what he said and that it was merely “locker-room banter”. Even so, there is no question that throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump’s personal morality was often called into question.

I believe that in 2011, white evangelicals were thinking of the Democrats then in power when they answered that poll question. In 2016, they were likely thinking of Donald Trump. I furthermore believe that this accounts for the massive shift in their responses. You may be asking, “How can you prove that?” At the same time, a part of you surely knows that what I am saying is true.

I have been unsurprised but nevertheless deeply disappointed over the course of these past two years to see many Christians – and here I refer both to people I know personally and public figures – who spent most of the 1990s complaining about the ethical lapses of President Bill Clinton going to great lengths to either excuse or at least minimize the moral failings of Donald Trump. Here I must note that while I strongly disapprove of many of President Trump’s words, actions, and political positions, I do not by any means condemn all the people who voted for him. The 2016 presidential election presented us with an awful choice: a kind of “pick your poison” moment. I am not looking to rehash the past. What does concern me is the apparent cognitive dissonance that is occurring among evangelicals in the United States of America. They were previously the most likely poll participants to say that an elected official’s immoral personal behavior was essentially disqualifying. Now they are the least likely to say that same thing out of all the major Christian groups that were identified.

What this suggests to me is that the positions of these survey participants were never truly based on strongly held scriptural principles, or at least not anything that they were not willing to abandon when the political situation changed. Evangelicals, it seems, are very changeable on this issue. There is no clear biblical reason why Trump’s failings should be considered any less severe than Bill Clinton’s. The evidence that Trump has engaged in sexual indiscretions (quite possibly on a criminal level) seems to be just as strong. The only real difference between the two men is their political ideology – and in the case of Donald Trump, I’m not sure he has one.

One of my political science professors used to explain this sort of phenomenon with the phrase, “He may be an S.O.B., but he’s our S.O.B.” That is to say, voters are often willing to forgive a politician’s flaws if they feel that the politician in question is “one of us”. I do not believe by any stretch of the imagination that Donald Trump is an evangelical Christian. In fact, many of his statements lead me to believe that he is not a Christian at all. Even so, many evangelicals whom I spoke with prior to the 2016 election seemed to believe that Trump would at least stem the tide of moral decline to a certain degree, perhaps by appointing a conservative nominee to the Supreme Court or perhaps by undoing some of the policies of the Obama administration. This seems to have ensured their loyalty.

Once again, I am not attempting to make an argument about whether or not evangelicals should have voted for Trump. My concern is that our opinion on ethical issues appears to change depending on how the political wind is blowing at any particular moment. This suggests to me that we are not making our decisions based on doctrine, deeply held principles, or even common sense. We are willing to show grace to those who agree with us, but not to those who we feel are our enemies.

I am very hesitant to state that the Bible supports this or that political position. However, I cannot see how the situation I have just described is in line with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Either something is a sin or it isn’t. Either we should be gracious or we shouldn’t. Slight differences in situations will certainly affect our response, but not to this degree. Remember, the rate of approval more than doubled over the course of five years! This is hypocrisy, plain and simple, and I hardly think that Christ approved of hypocrisy.

At a time when evangelicals are presenting themselves as taking principled ethical stands in the face of growing cultural persecution, polls like this one make us appear to be two-faced moralizers and nothing more. Truly standing up for what is right means speaking the truth to your friends (or at least the people you think are your friends) in addition to your enemies. It may not always be appropriate to obsess about what the wider world thinks of us, but in this case I think that we definitely need to do some soul searching. Why should the world care what we have to say regarding biblical truth when we are apparently so hypocritical?

I do believe that the evangelical Christian witness in America has been hurt over the course of the past couple years, not simply because so many white evangelicals voted for Trump, but because certain prominent figures have been willing to give him a free pass on moral issues: people who previously tore into Democrats for the same kinds of failings. By no means do I believe that all evangelicals have been discredited by this situation, for there have been some leaders who have been willing to speak up and maintain biblical consistency. However, it is an unfortunate fact that non-evangelicals are likely to paint us all with the same brush, and the errors of even a small group can have a widespread impact. Just look at how those poll numbers changed, and look at how the media now perceives us. The problem has affected us at the grassroots level, and the world has taken notice.

There is no easy fix for this. We need our leaders to speak in a truly prophetic manner, and not just to the people with whom they disagree. We need to repent of our hypocrisy and return to the principles of scripture. We need to ask ourselves quite honestly how we got to this point, and whether shallow doctrine and easy believism are to blame. We need to start acting like Christians who worry less about the kingdom of this world and more about the kingdom of God. It is my great hope and my prayer that our revival will begin at home, and that we will become the ambassadors that Christ truly desires.

 

11 thoughts on “The Ascent of Trump and the Impact on Evangelical Ethics

  1. The terms “morality” and “politician” have been proven to be mutually exclusive terms. If I don’t vote because neither candidate is moral then I still end up with an immoral public official. I choose to vote for the candidate who is the lesser of two evils. As they say, if you’re not at the table then you’re on the menu.

  2. This is the best article I’ve read on this topic, and one of the best articles I’ve read period. It’s so refreshing to see someone saying publicly all the things many of us have been saying about the election all along, except with more clarity and more poignancy. The most important part:

    “I do believe that the evangelical Christian witness in America has been hurt over the course of the past couple years, not simply because so many white evangelicals voted for Trump, but because certain prominent figures have been willing to give him a free pass on moral issues: people who previously tore into Democrats for the same kinds of failings…We need our leaders to speak in a truly prophetic manner, and not just to the people with whom they disagree. We need to repent of our hypocrisy and return to the principles of scripture. We need to ask ourselves quite honestly how we got to this point, and whether shallow doctrine and easy believism are to blame. We need to start acting like Christians who worry less about the kingdom of this world and more about the kingdom of God.”

    So much to say by way of comments, but not enough space, so let’s just go ahead and close down the Internet now with a loud, resounding, “Amy for the win!”

    Reader, read and heed!

  3. This author, in my view, is greatly misleading the ‘similarity’ of ethical actions between the Clintons and others as a ‘truth basis’ to form an equation.

    Please, Ms. Author, research the Clintons. Take the time to read the many books and other records available about who they really are before you conclude that they are just as bad as others.

    The world, until our Lord returns, is broken and ruled presently by the evil one. Don’t try to guess who is Christian. Don’t be hurt by what the World may think about us. Sin does have levels or degrees.

    On many levels this article screams of using Christian language to cover worldly thought.

    I still love you.

    don

  4. Amy: It would be instructive for you to tell us who you voted for in 2016 and why. Those of us who are Christian have been beat up for voting for Trump. Why not let us evaluate your choice?

  5. Trump was running for President, not Pastor.
    He nailed it because of immigration.
    Christian hypocrisy shines in the prevailing twisting of Scripture to support helping Muslim “refugees” and the “Dreamers”, particularly the parable of the Good Samaritan.
    Note that the Samaritan did not take the injured man, nor his children, into his own home.
    As for the Dreamers, if I rob a bank, do my children get to keep the loot? Does the Bible condone such behavior in the name of compassion?

    • “Trump was running for President, not Pastor.”

      I think you missed the point Amy was making. Your line of thought seems to go like this:

      Since Trump was running for President, not pastor, then his moral bankruptcy isn’t an issue.

      The point Amy was making is that why was Clinton’s moral bankruptcy an issue in the mid-90s but now Trump’s moral bankruptcy not an issue.

      What made Clinton a valid target for the moral outrage directed at him, and what makes Trump an invalid target where moral outrage towards his (audio-taped comments) a misdirected issue?

      Amy’s point: such a situation is the height of hypocrisy. The exact same Christians who spoke out so loudly against Clinton’s immorality are turning a blind eye to Trump’s same immorality.

      That doesn’t bring Christ honor. It’s a sin, and it needs to be repented of.

    • I understood Amy’s point. My intention was to draw attention to the broader political issue—particulary illegal aliens—which American voters regarded as important enough to vote another great sinner to the highest political office of the nation.
      We have to choose our battles. The moral bankruptcy of the established church has festered long enough to produce the America of today—mostly nominally Christian, Christians who farm out their children’s souls to State schools for State-approved indoctrination. Is it any wonder that America’s moral assets have fallen to this abysmal level?
      Americans who voted for Trump are not blind. When he supported Strange in Alabama, Judge Moore (of the Ten Commandments fame) was instead chosen by many who had voted for Trump.
      It was a sin to vote for Trump, but it is a far greater sin not to vote at all, and leave the bitter legacy of an irrecoverable nation to our posterity. And now that Donald Trump is our President, even if we criticize him, we have to remember to accord him and the office the respect that God expects us to, and that our duty and mission to take back our nation will be compromised if we ignite internal quarrels that chip away at our unity.
      We ought to pray for the conversion of our President, confess that we and our parents have grievously sinned (yes, the generation that opened the floodgates to uncontrolled immigration, central banking, and military imperialism), and ask for God’s strength and wisdom to take the legal means to fight for our nation and our posterity.

  6. So what were Christians to do? Not vote? Write in somebody which is the same as not voting? Since the Lord sets up kings and removes kings, are you all saying that the Lord is guilty of iniquity by setting up Trump as our leader? You can’t know His reasons unless you are also deity. So don’t tell me I sinned by voting for Trump. You aren’t smart enough or wise enough to make that judgment. Now when it comes to making excuses for his actions which are sinful,
    that is different. Sin is sin. But my vote cannot be cast as sin.

  7. Truthful and sad commentary on the state of American evangelicalism (whatever that is). Well said, my friend.

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