Heading into Monday night’s first presidential debate, an ABC/Washington Post poll found Donald Trump leading Hillary Clinton among white evangelicals, 71%-22%. Much though Trump’s boorish, unprepared performance in the debate embarrassed even political conservatives, I’m not sure that my fellow evangelicals learned anything new that night that shouldn’t already have dissuaded them from backing Trump. As a FiveThirtyEight profile pointed out Tuesday, his support from evangelicals has grown significantly since the primaries.
Like evangelical writer Philip Yancey, “I can understand why maybe you choose these policies that you support” — and, I’ll add (before returning to the Yancey quotation), I can understand why one would rather stay home or pick a third party candidate than vote for Hillary Clinton — “but to choose a person who stands against everything that Christianity believes as the hero, the representative, one that we get behind enthusiastically is not something that I understand at all.”
It has me tempted to go back on what I’ve said multiple times and simply stop using the term “evangelical” to describe myself. For so long as “evangelicalism” is largely synonymous with “Trump’s base,” its ability to bear witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ is fundamentally compromised.
How could this be possible? At some point, my fellow historians will be able to use evidence to consider what led us to this point. But in the meantime, I want to propose a counterfactual question that’s been on my mind the last month or two:
Would evangelicals have supported Trump to the same degree if more of their leaders had been women and people of color?
In the ABC/WaPo poll, white evangelicals (+49 Trump) resemble no group so much as white men (+40 Trump) in preferring a white man who is down 19, 49, and 87 points among women, Hispanics, and African Americans, respectively. And yet white men constitute a relatively small minority of a religious movement that is 55% women and 24% people of color.
What accounts for this? Maybe we should consider the enormous gender/racial gap between evangelical leadership and rank-and-file:
• As best anyone can tell, no more than 10% of evangelical churches have called a woman to the position of senior or sole pastor. About the same percentage seems to hold for the board of directors of the National Association of Evangelicals, which has never had a woman (or person of color) as its president. According to Wheaton College sociologist Amy Reynolds, evangelical organizations are about half as likely as non-profits in general to have women as CEOs or board members; and while the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities now has its first woman president, women hold that position at only about 5% of CCCU members (vs. 26% at all colleges and universities).
• With some notable exceptions, the growing number of non-white evangelicals is not reflected in the movement’s leadership. I’ve been less successful finding studies here, but I’d welcome links or educated guesses in response to two questions: How many evangelical denominations, seminaries, colleges, and non-profits have non-white leaders? (A recent Religion News Service article found that “white male leadership persists at most evangelical parachurch organizations,” with almost all surveyed either refusing to respond to questions or admitting that their leaders remain white men.) How many white evangelicals regularly hear preaching or teaching from an African American, Asian American, or Latino pastor? I doubt either number is all that high.
(For the record… You’ll find women and people of color at many levels of leadership at Salem and Bethel, but as has been true throughout both institutions’ histories, my church‘s senior pastor and my university‘s president are white guys like me.)
But what if the demographics of evangelical leadership looked anything remotely like those of the movement at large? What if more evangelicals experienced more women and people of color preaching, teaching, publishing, casting vision, making and executing strategic plans, supervising staff, mentoring, etc.?
Let me suggest four outcomes:
- Evangelicals would still recognize the inspired authority of the Bible, the reality of sin, the necessity of conversion, and the importance of evangelism and social action. In other words, they would still be recognizably evangelical.
- But they would be more accustomed to seeing someone other than a white man in a position of power and influence — and perhaps work a bit less harder to come up with reasons (some reasonable, others not) to vote against people who break that mold.
- Evangelicals would still be much more socially conservative than other Americans — e.g., opposing expansion of abortion rights.
- But they would be less likely to elevate any such issue above racism, sexism, and other systemic sins. As African American pastor Thabiti Anyabwile wrote for The Gospel Coalition, “the folks who can only talk about abortion and can’t factor anything else into their decisions are guilty of another form of idolatry. Some make a tremendously important moral issue a ‘god’ of sorts. Further, some make their conscience an idol by obeying their conscience instead of the whole counsel of God.”
So I suspect that, in my counterfactual, more evangelicals would have heard Donald Trump’s response to a debate question about racial justice and recognized his repeated call for “law and order” for the political “dog whistle” that it was. They would have been unsatisfied by his response to a question about a 1973 federal housing discrimination case. And they would have heard Clinton talk about “implicit bias” and disparities in the criminal justice system and known not to react dismissively or defensively.
(To their credit, the handful of white evangelical leaders who have been unflinchingly vocal critics of Trump have tended to emphasize the racist overtones of his campaign. “The Bible calls on Christians to bear one another’s burdens,” wrote Russell Moore this past May in the New York Times. “White American Christians who respond to cultural tumult with nostalgia fail to do this. They are blinding themselves to the injustices faced by their black and brown brothers and sisters in the supposedly idyllic Mayberry of white Christian America. That world was murder, sometimes literally, for minority evangelicals.”)
In my counterfactual, evangelical men might have continued to argue that their objection to any particular woman did not preclude their supporting other women seeking high office. But they might have also wondered if male theologians who made tortured arguments for Trump simply couldn’t accept women in positions of leadership — political or religious. They might have better understood that Trump’s questioning the “stamina” of a former senator and secretary of state was just another attempt to use Clinton’s gender against her — and that it comes from a man whose misogynistic language and behavior has repeatedly demeaned fellow human beings made in God’s image.
Even in my scenario, I don’t doubt that a significant share of evangelicals would decide that Trump is the lesser of two evils. (As I’ve argued before, voters can reasonably decide that there are good reasons to support a bad candidate. And I can’t ignore that Trump’s evangelical advisory board, while overwhelmingly composed of white men, includes a few pastors and other leaders who don’t fit that description.) But I bet it would be far lower than 71%, maybe even under 66% — the share of white men planning to vote that way. And that would make it almost impossible for Trump to reach 270 electoral votes.
There are many better reasons why evangelical leadership should look less like me and more like the Body of Christ. But perhaps this election can wake more of us to that fact, and prompt us to do what we can to change the face of evangelical leadership.