As Trump’s ascendancy forces the GOP establishment to confront how it lost touch with so many conservative voters, top evangelicals are facing their own dark night, wondering what has drawn so many Christians to a twice-divorced, profane casino magnate with a muddled record on abortion and gay marriage.
John Stemberger, a Trump critic and head of the Florida Family Policy Council, an affiliate of Focus on the Family, said many evangelicals have changed. Litmus tests that for so long defined the boundaries for morally acceptable candidates seem to have been abandoned by many Christians this year, he said, no matter how much evangelical leaders try to uphold those standards.
“Evangelicals are looking at those issues less and less. They’ve just become too worldly, letting anger and frustration control them, as opposed to trusting in God,” Stemberger said.
Trump has won the support of one-third of self-identified born-again Christians across the dozen or so states that have held GOP contests and where exit polls were conducted. In eight of the presidential primaries, he won more evangelicals than Ted Cruz, a Southern Baptist who has made appeals to conservative Christians the core of his campaign, according to polling.
“We’re leading with evangelicals all over the country,” Trump said Saturday at a rally in Wichita, Kansas. “Leading big, because they don’t want to vote for a liar. You have lying Ted Cruz. … He holds up the Bible and then he tells you exactly what I didn’t say.”
Trump is a Presbyterian who has said he has never sought God’s forgiveness for his sins, botches Bible references and, on a recent campaign visit to church, mistook a communion plate for a donation plate.
Critics insist exit polls have overstated Trump’s share of evangelical support, arguing many voters identifying themselves as “born again” in primaries are only nominally Christian.
“There’s a form of cultural Christianity that causes people to respond with ‘evangelical’ and ‘born-again’ as long as they’re not Catholic, even though they haven’t been in a church since Vacation Bible School as a kid,” said the Rev. Russell Moore, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. Moore was an early and vocal opponent of Trump.
Trump’s biggest evangelical endorsement of the race — from Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, who said the billionaire businessman “lives a life of loving and helping others.” — reflected the rift among Christians and even within the university itself. Trump only got 90 of nearly 1,200 votes cast in the university’s precinct in the Virginia GOP primary last Tuesday.
In remarkably public criticism, Mark DeMoss, a Liberty board member and longtime adviser to the school’s founder, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., called the endorsement a mistake.
“My concern, thinking about evangelicalism and Liberty University, is more about a style and a behavior and a demeanor and a vocabulary that you can’t find any support for in Scripture,” said DeMoss, who had advised Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns. “I think the potential damage — and time will tell if there was real damage — was an erosion of trust in the school.”
David Green, founder of the arts-and-crafts chain Hobby Lobby, said last week he found Trump and his “indecency” frightening. Green, a Pentecostal, is a hero to conservatives for persuading the U.S. Supreme Court that businesses like his, with religious objections to birth control, should be exempt from providing coverage for contraception as required by the Affordable Care Act.
“I cannot … understand why the faith world would come alongside someone that completely is different than what we would like our children to be,” Green told Fox News Channel.
Similar sentiments have been expressed across the upper tiers of influential evangelicals, from veteran religious right activists such as Stemberger; younger evangelicals including Matthew Lee Anderson of MereOrthodoxy.com; and Christians who rarely talk politics, including Max Lucado, the Texas pastor and best-selling author.
“If a public personality calls on Christ one day and calls someone a ‘bimbo’ the next, is something not awry? And to do so, not once, but repeatedly? Unrepentantly?” Lucado wrote recently in Christianity Today, a prominent evangelical magazine. “We stand against bullying in schools. Shouldn’t we do the same in presidential politics?”
Yet it’s not clear whether conservative Christian voters are paying attention. Trump’s candidacy has revealed a distance between evangelical leaders and rank-and-file Christians similar to the one coming to light in the GOP. “The laity has its own attitudes and impulses,” Anderson wrote.
While Moore and others are urging Christians to evaluate candidates using the Bible, many evangelicals are using other criteria, such as seeking a candidate who can protect them from the Islamic State group, liberalism, growing secularism among Americans and economic insecurity for the country and their families. The Public Religion Research Institute found that white, working-class evangelicals are more than twice as likely to support Trump than are evangelicals with a college degree.
“I tell them, if you are not thoroughly satisfied with what you might interpret the depth of his faith might be, then the next thing we must look at is the candidate who will best preserve your First Amendment rights and allow you to express your Christian faith,” Gallups said. “We’re not electing a priest, a pope or a pastor. We’re electing a president, a CEO, a commander in chief. I’m not perfectly happy with Donald Trump either, but I’m a realist.”
Harold F. Hunter, chancellor of Trinity Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Indiana, which offers online Bible courses, said he originally leaned toward former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. But after praying, Hunter decided to support Trump because of his business experience, even if the candidate hasn’t led the most exemplary personal life.
“Some evangelicals say, ‘He’s owned casinos. He’s been this. He’s been that,'” Hunter said. But one thing they agree is that “he is a capitalist. And capitalism is the strength of our country. He has exhibited, by amassing a fortune, that he understands capitalism,” Hunter said.
Trump’s claim that he “tells it like it is” is especially appealing for evangelicals who feel they’ve been silenced by liberals.
Keith Driver, 43, a musician and entertainment company owner from Emporia, Virginia, who attends a nondenominational church about once a month, said of Trump: “The things that he was saying were things that a lot of people want to say but are scared to say because of this crazy political correctness.”
Driver said he wasn’t aware of the denunciations of Trump by religious leaders and wouldn’t pay attention if he had heard of them.
Evangelicals have never been as monolithic or easily led as they have been perceived. And 2016 is far from the first election season when a disconnect has been evident between groups of evangelical leaders and conservative Christians. In 2012, more than 150 mostly old guard religious right leaders emerged from a private meeting on a Texas ranch to endorse former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum for the GOP nomination. Romney went on to become the nominee.
But the chasm has been much more keenly felt this year, with a significant chunk of the conservative religious vote going to a candidate who dismisses critics as losers and boasts on the debate stage about his sexual prowess.
“I think it’s more a commentary on growing cynicism in American life, including among religious Americans,” Moore said. “There is a certain segment of evangelicalism that has given up virtue in public life or character in public officials.”
AP News Survey Specialist Emily Swanson in Washington, and Associated Press writers Travis Loller in Nashville, Tennessee, Meg Kinnard in Columbia, South Carolina, and Tamara Lush in Tampa, Florida, contributed to this report.
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