The support of white evangelicals for Donald Trump continues to exasperate and perplex. About 80 percent of them voted for him in 2016—the most recorded for a Republican candidate since 2000—and his approval rating among them remains high. In June, some 1,000 evangelical pastors plan to meet the president, both to “celebrate” his accomplishments (as one leading pastor put it) and to rally Christians for the midterm elections. Neither Trump’s relations with Stormy Daniels, nor his endorsement of alleged sexual abuser Roy Moore, nor his reference to “shithole” countries, nor his toxic tweets, recurrent racism, or general crudity, have proved a deterrent to most conservative Christians—to the dismay of many commentators.
“I’m stunned at the evangelical support for this president,” Mika Brzezinski remarked recently on the MSNBC show Morning Joe. “I don’t understand it. It’s almost like they’re excited to be in the White House and get access to him.” Those in the evangelical community who are writing books about the president, she added, “are overlooking the most humongous moral failings.”
Peter Wehner, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, took to the op-ed pages of The New York Times in December to explain “Why I Can No Longer Call Myself an Evangelical Republican.” Throughout his life, Wehner wrote, he had identified with evangelicalism and the Republican Party, but Trump and Moore were causing him to reconsider his affiliations: “Not because my attachment to conservatism and Christianity has weakened, but rather the opposite. I consider Mr. Trump’s Republican Party to be a threat to conservatism, and I have concluded that the term evangelical—despite its rich history of proclaiming the ‘good news’ of Christ to a broken world—has been so distorted that it is now undermining the Christian witness.”
The death of the Rev. Billy Graham in February set off a new round of chiding. In Politico, Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, wrote that “to chart the troubled recent course of American evangelicalism—its powerful rise after World War II and its surprisingly quick demise in recent years”—one need look no further than the differences between Graham and his eldest son, Franklin, who took over his empire. Where the father “was a powerful evangelist who turned evangelicalism into the dominant spiritual impulse in modern America,” Prothero wrote, his son is “a political hack” who “is rapidly rebranding evangelicalism as a belief system marked not by faith, hope, and love but by fear of Muslims and homophobia.”
The alarm over the evangelical embrace of Trump reached a crescendo with Michael Gerson’s cover story in the April issue of The Atlantic, “How Evangelicals Lost Their Way (and Got Hooked by Donald Trump).” Gerson—perhaps the most prominent evangelical writing in the mainstream media—stated that “Trump’s background and beliefs could hardly be more incompatible with traditional Christian models of life and leadership.” The president’s “unapologetic materialism” is “a negation of Christian teaching”; his tribalism and hatred for “the other” “stand in direct opposition to Jesus’s radical ethic of neighbor love”; his worship of strength and contempt for “losers” “smack more of Nietzsche than of Christ.” Christianity, Gerson declared, “is love of neighbor, or it has lost its way. And this sets an urgent task for evangelicals: to rescue their faith from its worst leaders.”