I posted this on Facebook on Thursday: “It’s not that Christians chose Trump in spite of their faith. They chose Trump because of their faith. That is the real problem. As clear an example as any of the theological and ethical failure of the white American church, both in its conservative and liberal expressions.” I want to explain what I mean by that. Let me start with what will turn into an analogy.
Writing multiple choice tests. As part of my job as a professor, I write and administer multiple choice tests. Multiple choice questions are a weird thing to write (and they’re not my favorite, I only use them for freshman level classes) mostly because you have to come up with three wrong answers (I always stick to four choices). I usually think of it like this: one wrong answer that is close to the right answer, one that is not so close, and one that should be obviously wrong. It’s hard to know sometimes if a question works well or not, so, like most professors, I evaluate my tests afterward by tracking the data of how often each choice was chosen. I’ve been doing this long enough to remember having to calculate all this manually but thankfully these days software does this for me.
I look for what percentage of students got the right answer and the rate of selection of each wrong answer. If few or no one chose the right answer, then something is wrong on my end. Maybe I didn’t cover that point in class well enough (or at all, I can be absent-minded like the stereotypical professor). Maybe the question was worded in a confusing way. Maybe something else, but it definitely marks something I need to address, some further teaching or follow-up I need to do. If the closest wrong choice gets selected at too high a rate, this can also indicate a problem. I may need to clarify a point or maybe it was too close to right. This happens when students think from a perspective I didn’t anticipate. They logic their way to what I meant as a wrong answer and their reasoning is not totally off. Again, I might need to clarify and/or adjust the test question before using it again. (Yes, I hang on to good test questions, they are such a pain to write.) I can tell I’ve written an especially bad question when there’s no clear favorite. When the selection rates are more equal, it means my students are conflicted as a group.
80% of Evangeliclas voted for Trump. As I read the news Wednesday and tried to make sense of the election of Donald Trump to be the next president of the United States, it seemed there was a confluence of factors. Different exit polls and experts were saying various things but one thing stood out to me, not because it alone elected Trump, but because this factor hits closest to home to me as a Christian theologian and pastor. What floored me was that 80% of Evangelical, regular-church-attending Christians had voted for Trump. That’s a high number. A statistically significant number. That is evidence of a group pulling in the same direction. I looked at that number the way I evaluate test question performance. If 80% of my students chose the same wrong answer, then I did something wrong. In the case of this (maybe every) election, there was no right answer, just answers that were wrong in different ways (I will say more about this below). That complexity means we should expect to see conflicted data, where various members of the group reason their way to different wrong answers. For instance, the Catholic vote was split something like 52% to 45% which means Catholics saw wrongness in both the major party candidates and were thus nearly even conflicted (even breaking this down between white and Latino Catholics leaves us well short of 80%). But Evangelicals were not; we were pretty solid in choosing Trump, which means there is something in our teaching and practice that has blinded us to the many deep flaws of Trump and not left us adequately conflicted.
This is what I meant with my Facebook post. I did not mean that voting for Trump made someone not a Christian. I did not mean that voting for Trump made someone a bigot. But the only other group that went for Trump at such a unified rate were those who are bigots. I know that Evangelicals are not hateful, bigoted people and that is exactly my point – an explanation is required for why so many Evangelicals came to the same conclusion as hate groups so different from us. Why did we predominantly choose the same wrong answer? I think this election revealed a serious imbalance in Evangelical teaching and practice. It’s been there for a long time but we can’t ignore it anymore.
When so many choose the same wrong answer, the teacher has failed. As with test writing, the fact that so many Evangelicals made the same wrong choice marks a failure on the part of its teachers, leaders, pastors, and theologians. We have failed you. We have failed to teach you the Gospel. We have failed to disciple you. We have failed to encourage your moral development. We have failed to develop your critical thinking skills. We have failed to create space where you can tell each other the truth and live in real community. We have failed to train you to engage in the world as followers of Jesus who live out the Father’s great love for the world. We have failed you. I have failed you. I mean that. I feel it as deeply as I’ve ever felt anything. It was so bad Wednesday and Thursday that I had this bit of dialogue from Revenge of the Sith stuck in my head, where Obi-Wan says, “I have failed you Anakin. I have failed you.” Shows how bad off I was because that’s the only Star Wars movie I despise.
Examples of bad moral reasoning by evangelicals. And it wasn’t just the numbers. I saw an interview with a man who identified himself as Evangelical. He explained that he voted for Trump because, “a woman is not to lead a man, so he was my only choice.” He was sincere in holding to what he learned in church. He was also utterly wrong. That was not a valid reason for voting as he did.
I read a comment by another Evangelical who argued that he voted for Trump for economic reasons, that he didn’t like how Trump acted or what he said, and he didn’t want anyone mistreated or anything, but his own economic interest was more important than any of that and he felt Trump would improve his prospects. This is also not a valid reason for casting a vote. At least not a reason a Christian can give. We don’t get to choose our own comfort and security at the expense of the suffering of others. You can’t reconcile that to what Jesus taught us, what he modeled for us, how he calls us to live in this world. A Christian who reasons this way has not been trained well by their church.
Others have stated that Washington needed shaking up, that they voted for Trump so he could “drain the swamp” of the lies and corruption that plague it. Lies and corruption are moral evils to be sure, and unfortunately are ones Trump knows all too well. The man runs casinos, and once a sham university, and lies without shame or remorse. He openly states the opposite of things he previously stated, denies doing things he said he did and/or did on camera, and doesn’t even care when caught in his lies.
Some evangelicals voted for Trump based on hope that he was lying. One of the things I’ve heard and read most often as a rationale for voting for Trump is a reliance on his prolific lying. Many Evangelicals brushed off his talk about building a wall, registering Muslims, cracking down violently on African-American neighborhoods, and the like, as just campaign talk, not stuff they actually expect or want Trump to do. I’ve heard various versions of, “Oh no, that’s bad, he won’t actually do that, he was just saying that.” So either lying is a moral evil or it’s the least bad thing, less bad by far than if he actually keeps some of these promises? Here’s where I would expect a lot more internal conflict than 80% represents. Many evangelicals acknowledge that much of what Trump said and promised were morally bad but that influenced so few of their votes, and this reflects directly on the lack of moral teaching among evangelicals.
Abortion. The only legitimate reason anyone has given me for voting for Trump was the hope that he will end abortion. Abortion is a moral evil. I would point out that it is an evil Trump was fine with until very recently. If anything he said should be taken as lying/campaigning that will not actually lead to doing anything, this is probably a likely candidate (pun accident) for that. I am suspicious that anyone could reasonably conclude that Trump won’t actually do all the horrible things he promised but will do this one thing he half-promised. Still, even if you come to that conclusion, for this to be a valid moral choice, what you would have to be saying is that you recognize and understand all the suffering a Trump presidency will visit upon people and that in your estimation all of that suffering is outweighed by the chance he could stop abortions. I will concede that a Christian could come to this conclusion. I would want to have a long talk with you and make sure you really understand the amount of suffering you’re signing us up for. But at the end of the day, some would make this choice. But not 80%. And no one I’ve seen or heard explaining why they voted as they did. I’m reluctant to even include this paragraph because now I’ve given you the language to go back and apply retroactively to the choice you made. Only you know the actual reasons why you voted as you did, if you’re even aware of them yourself.
Moral reasoning in community. And remember, that’s my point, not that Christians must have voted a certain way, but that if we had been trained in our faith as we ought to be, we wouldn’t be at 80%. I’ve heard and read solid moral arguments for voting for or against Clinton, Johnson, or Stein. A compelling moral argument can be made for having abstained, especially for those who voted in local elections and left the presidential part blank. We can certainly take different paths in our reasoning and come to different conclusions. But 80% means that’s not what we did. Which means our teachers, leaders, pastors, and scholars have failed us.
These choices were not equally bad. And here I have to say that even though the choices for president in this election were all bad, they weren’t even close to equally bad. Only one candidate openly mocked POWs and people with disabilities. Only one candidate committed multiple sexual assaults, went out of his way to see young girls naked, and bragged about both. Our churches would fire on the spot any pastor who did either of those. Only one candidate bragged that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and his supporters wouldn’t care. Only one candidate incited hate and fear of others, not once or accidentally, but regularly and for personal political gain. Only one candidate reveled in violence, anger, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and nativism. His speeches were filled with poison and vitriol. I’ve heard Christians say, “He says the things I’m thinking.” To which the church has to reply, “Brother, you are thinking wrong, ‘don’t conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’”
His plans are morally bad too. And it’s not just what he did in his past or said on the campaign trail, the things he plans to do are also bad. He plans to leave millions of people with no health insurance. He plans to give free reign to those who pollute and harm the environment. He plans to take away rights from gay and transgender people. He plans to tear millions of immigrant families apart. He plans to place all Muslims on a registry, the like of which hasn’t been seen since Nazi Germany (literally, that’s not just a Nazi-fallacy argument). He has other plans which are probably dangerous (his approach to NATO for example), but the ones above represent things Trump has promised to do that involve suffering and moral evil.
In his past actions, present speeches, and future plans, Donald Trump demonstrates a near polar opposite to what the Bible teaches about morality, justice, and love of neighbor. 80% of Evangelicals voted for a man who represents the antithesis of their faith and many did so thinking their faith required them to do so or at least posed no insurmountable opposition to such a choice.
If we had better moral reasoning and more open dialogue, we would have been more conflicted in our vote. This means a couple of things. First, it means far less than 80% of Evangelicals should have voted for this man given all his past, present, and proposed moral failings. We should have been more conflicted over this choice. Our collective blindness or indifference points to a lack of training and moral development in our churches. An important part of good moral development is the ability to tell each other what we really think and feel. Our churches haven’t taught us well, haven’t formed us well, and haven’t created space for, and trained us in, honest dialogue. Most of us spent the past months agonizing over this vote but some of our churches told us how to vote with no discussion (and the ones that did likely insisted we vote for Trump) while the rest stayed silent or very quiet about it. We should have hashed this out before the election and the fact that we didn’t – that we couldn’t – demonstrates my point that we haven’t been properly formed into a community of disciples who can tell each other the truth. It’s important that we teach, disciple, discuss, and do community better and more robustly going forward.
We have work to do. Second, and this is also important going forward, we have helped create a situation that will probably lead to a lot of suffering. I hope Trump didn’t mean most of what he said. To the extent that he does, it will be our responsibility to give care to those who suffer and do all the justice we can. Are we ready to run another Underground Railroad? Are we ready to love and advocate for our LGBT communities? Are we ready to protect the religious freedom of Muslims – even if this means letting them use our buildings? Are we ready to protect the world God created and entrusted to our care? Are we ready to set up church run and funded insurance exchanges or in some other way ensure the poor and needy receive adequate medical care? These would be our responsibilities even if we hadn’t help cause this mess. These are the things the followers of Jesus are to be about. Above all, are we ready to suffer in solidarity with all those we’ve helped consign to suffering. We can’t swoop in as their great white saviors. But we can learn to live with and love those this new regime promises to target.
I’m afraid we won’t do it. Many people in the U.S. are afraid right now. They’re afraid of how a Trump presidency may harm them. I’m more afraid that the American church isn’t ready to do any of that I just named. I’m afraid evil days are upon us and we’re not ready, that we’re like the sleeping bridesmaids who didn’t keep their lamps burning. I’m afraid most Evangelicals don’t actually know why they voted for Trump because that’s the sort of thing you can’t know on your own but only in honest dialogue in real community. And I’m afraid we don’t, and won’t, have those hard conversations because we’re afraid of what we’ll find.