Hillary Clinton is a legitimate threat to traditional Christians, but evangelicals aren’t just voting against her. They’re also changing their standards for political candidates — a dangerous trend with potentially long-term consequences.
Supporting Trump need not entail actually selling out for him, but these three charts suggest that white evangelical Protestants are doing exactly that. The differences in political attitudes between 2011 and 2016 prove particularly revealing: more evangelicals are willing to excuse moral indiscretions and to minimize the importance of a candidate’s religious beliefs. This is not your father’s Moral Majority.
Here are the charts:
1. Excusing moral indiscretions.
— PRRI (@PRRIpoll) October 19, 2016
The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) compared surveys asking members of different religious groups 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.” The chart largely speaks for itself, but the numbers are indeed surprising.
In June 2011, only 30 percent of white evangelical Protestants said an official who commits an immoral act can still fulfill their duties in public life. In 2016, that number had more than doubled, shooting up to 72 percent! Indeed, more white evangelical Protestants agreed with the statement than religiously unaffiliated people, who are supposed to care less about morality.
While Americans overall, white mainline Protestants, and Catholics also altered their views on the public importance of a candidate’s personal morality, white evangelical Protestants had the largest shift. The very religious group which forms the centerpiece of the Religious Right most accommodated their views to a morally questionable candidate. That’s pretty revealing, if not damning.
Next Page: How important are the religious beliefs of a political candidate?
2. Minimizing politicians’ religious beliefs.
— PRRI (@PRRIpoll) October 19, 2016
When it comes to voting for president, white evangelicals have altered their standards in the past five years. On a question which would be fundamental to the Religious Right — “how important is it for a candidate to have strong religious beliefs?” — evangelicals have become less stringent.
In 2011, nearly two thirds (64 percent) of white evangelicals said it is “very important” for a presidential candidate to have strong religious beliefs. In 2016, less than half (49 percent) said so. Five years ago, only 28 percent said a presidential candidate’s strong religious beliefs are only “somewhat important.” This year, that number is up to 39 percent.
In the last five years, a full 3 percent more white evangelicals said it is “not at all important” for a presidential candidate to have strong religious beliefs. This specific difference might be within the margin of error, but the overall shift is clear — white evangelical Protestants are loosening the religious standards to which they hold political candidates.
Next Page: The third graph explains why.
3. The reason behind these shifts.
— Charlie Mahtesian (@PoliticoCharlie) October 27, 2016
White evangelical Protestants didn’t just wake up last month thinking, “I guess a candidate’s religion and moral history don’t matter as much as they used to.” There is a specific candidate for whom they are reshaping their political consciences.
Another PRRI poll showed a whopping 66 percent of white evangelical Protestants chose Trump, while only 17 percent preferred Clinton, and 17 percent chose neither. These Protestants were the most pro-Trump, with only 49 percent of white mainline Protestants backing the Republican, and 48 percent of white Catholics doing so.
Hispanic Catholics and black Protestants overwhelmingly preferred Clinton, as did the religiously unaffiliated and those of non-Christian religion.
This huge racial and religious divide suggests a clear answer as to why white evangelical Protestants are willing to weaken their political standards: they have a political champion who might require such a change in attitudes.
Many have been asking why evangelical Protestants — and even noted leaders of the Religious Right such as Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. — have become so vocal in their support for a man who cheated on two wives, tried to use eminent domain to take a widow’s home, and said he has never asked God for forgiveness, despite calling himself a Christian.
Even before the Access Hollywood tape made Trump’s sexist “locker room talk” comments a huge controversy among evangelical Christians, evidence of Trump’s real personality was plentiful for those with eyes to see. During the primaries, self-described evangelicals went for Trump, but Christians in areas with higher church-attendance rates favored other candidates.
Now, Trump is widely seen as the only option besides Hillary Clinton, and conservative Christians are rightly terrified of the Democrat candidate. Christians should trust in God more than any political candidate, but it seems likely that fear of Clinton is propelling the old “Moral Majority” to favor an arguably immoral candidate.
When conservative leaders attacked the character of Bill Clinton as unfit for a president in the 1990s, they had no idea the next generation would support a similarly flawed candidate in 2016. On this theme, Christianity Today‘s Ed Stetzer argued that evangelicals are selling their souls “for a bowl of Trump,” referencing Esau’s foolish trade of his birthright for a bowl of stew.
Stetzer cited Proverbs 28:6, “Better is a poor man who walks in his integrity than a rich man who is crooked in his ways,” and Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” These are chilling verses for today’s Religious Right, and necessary reading in this time of turmoil.
As Stetzer points out, it is possible to vote for Trump (and even for Clinton) and not sell your soul, but when you alter your moral and religious standards to accommodate the kind of candidate your leaders staked their reputations on condemning twenty years ago, there’s something wrong. (The Christian leaders who support Clinton deserve equal condemnation, as she represents an insidious threat to traditional Christianity.)
Granted, not all evangelicals consider Trump to be immoral, and they need not violate their consciences to support him. The key point here is that the moral principles and religious standards so elevated by the Religious Right have been significantly watered down, and America has one man to thank for that. His name is Donald Trump. (Oh, and don’t forget Jerry Falwell, Jr.)