In the beginning, when there was a massive GOP field of candidates for the White House, about 30 percent of America's white evangelical Protestants backed Citizen Donald Trump. There was evidence -- primarily the ongoing World magazine coverage of evangelical leaders and thinkers -- that Trump's supporters were "cultural" evangelicals, as opposed to folks at the heart of evangelical institutions and churches.
The headlines proclaimed: Evangelicals flocking to Trump.
As Trump rode waves of free press coverage, other candidates dropped out of the race. Slowly, the percentage of Trump evangelicals rose, backed in part by the endorsement of several old-guard evangelical leaders with strong, but old, Religious Right credentials. Trump support among white evangelicals passed 50 percent. See this April release from the Pew Forum team.
The headlines proclaimed: Evangelicals flocking to Trump.
Now, Trump stands alone and the world of mainstream conservatism, especially cultural conservatism, has not produced a ballot-box alternative. The Pew Forum has produced poll research that shows a solid majority of white evangelicals are now planning to vote for Trump.
The headline at Christianity Today, one of the voices of mainstream evangelicalism, states the trend like this:
Pew: Most Evangelicals Will Vote Trump, But Not For Trump
With half of voters dissatisfied with both presidential candidates, white evangelicals primarily plan to oppose Clinton.
Meanwhile, headlines in the mainstream press continue to proclaim: Evangelicals flocking to Trump. Here is what that looks like at Religion News Service. What is crucial, of course, is the framing language at the top of the report:
(RNS) Donald Trump has been married three times, spoken lewdly about his daughter’s body and doesn’t seem to know his Bible.
Yet evangelical voters are flocking to him.
Nearly four-fifths of white evangelical voters plan to cast their ballots for Donald J. Trump despite his multiple marriages, lack of piety and inconsistency on the issues they care about most, a new poll has found.
Support for Mr. Trump among white evangelicals is even stronger than it was four years ago for Mitt Romney, the previous Republican nominee for president, according to the poll of religious voters, released ... by the Pew Research Center.
White evangelicals make up about one-fifth of all registered voters and are a coveted bloc who, when energized, can turn out the vote through their churches and social networks. It has been unclear to what extent Mr. Trump will be able to capture this core Republican constituency, because some leading evangelicals have spoken of being disturbed by his penchant for boasting about himself and belittling others, his pledges to deport Mexican immigrants and bar Muslims from entering the country, and his past support for abortion rights and gay rights.
Some influential evangelical leaders have joined the “Never Trump” camp, while others have pledged support for Mr. Trump.
The Times piece also stressed that Catholics, led by Latino voters, clearly favor Hillary Rodham Clinton. No surprise there.
The one thing in the Pew data that surprised me was that, on the theologically progressive side of things, "white mainline Protestants favored Mr. Trump over Mrs. Clinton, 50 to 39 percent." I would imagine that the vast majority of those oldline Protestant voters have gray hair.
If you are interested in the status of active, church-attending evangelicals, I would suggest following the links in this key paragraph from the Christianity Today report on the new Pew Forum numbers:
While those who regularly attend church were more likely to support someone other than Trump in the primaries, that distinction has disappeared, Pew found. Three-quarters of those who attend church weekly or more (and also of those who attend less often) would vote for Trump.
Here are some key points at the end of the Times report, stressing that the latest Pew numbers:
... showed that voters in general, including evangelicals, were dissatisfied with their options this year. Forty-two percent of white evangelical voters said it would be difficult to choose between Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton because “neither one” would make a good president.
In fact, the survey found that the desire to defeat Mrs. Clinton was the prime reason evangelicals supported Mr. Trump. Of the 78 percent of white evangelicals who said they would vote for Mr. Trump, 45 percent said their decision was “mainly a vote against Clinton,” while only 30 percent said it was “mainly a vote for Trump.”
So where does the story go from here?
Let me confess my biases here, once again. I am, as I have stated a number of times on Twitter, a #NeverTrumpNeverHillary voter. As always, it is hard for a pro-life (and these days, a radically pro-First Amendment) Democrat to have an easy choice in a voting booth in national elections.
I also live in East Tennessee, historically one of America's most intensely GOP regions. Thus, I find it interesting that, during a drive this past weekend through much of the top half of the region on back roads, I saw about, oh, five Trump signs. Maybe I just picked the wrong roads. There were, of course, few, if any, Hillary signs.
Now, I have no doubt that Trump will carry this region. That's not my point. I'm just not meeting people who are "flocking" to Trump. I'm meeting people who are trying to decide if they can vote at all, since there is no way -- as moral and cultural conservatives -- they can vote for Clinton.
I received an email the other day from a journalist who has been crucial in my life and work for decades. This veteran reporter said:
I know you stay away from politics (which is good), but here's something I don't understand. Stories of late say that as many as four in every five evangelicals support Trump.
Why, how? I do not understand this.
I think that the Trump phenomenon is essentially about celebrity and anger (#realityTVrules). That is the heart of his appeal. Many evangelicals are lured by that to the same degree as other Americans who have been ignored by GOP and Democrat elites.
But, more than anything else, I think we have to say that SUPPORTING Trump is different than reluctantly choosing to vote for him. ... Offered only HRC and Trump, I think many evangelicals are biting their lips and reluctantly saying they will vote for Trump, since there is no other option that is not suicide for traditional religious believers. It's like Christians in Damascus having to back Bashar al-Assad. The only other options wants them dead, right now.
Even with all of that, I think the evangelical leadership class -- especially Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish and Southern Baptist -- is still holding out hope of a third option.
At this point, I belief that -- for journalists looking ahead -- the key religion/political issues are:
(a) What percentage of top evangelical and Catholic leaders will, essentially, retreat into silence?
(b) Will many mainstream evangelical leaders attempt to articulate positive reasons for voting for Trump?
(c) Will a negative critique of Clinton -- alone -- be enough to drive waves of people to the polls? That could be crucial in major swing states (think about the Orlando area in Florida).
In other words, does the word "flocking" truly apply to Trump and the evangelical vote, at this point? Why have did so many mainstream reporters lock onto that story early on, back when it wasn't really there in the polling numbers?
I would urge mainstream reporters to follow the Christianity Today and World coverage. Keep watching the major Christian colleges, seminaries, denominations and parachurch groups. Keep watching the U.S. Catholic bishops. Focus on issues linked to the First Amendment and the free exercise of religious beliefs, rooted in ancient doctrines.
I am convinced that there is a story in there, one linked to the ongoing "lesser of two evils" debate about this election year. As I stated in an earlier post:
Yes, for some people, this may be a matter of politics, alone. But for millions of cultural and moral religious conservatives this election is evolving into a truly moral or theological problem.
You could even say that, for some, that familiar term "theodicy" is coming into play.
In other words, some are asking: Would a truly good and merciful God allow voters to end up choosing between Donald Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton? Look at it this way, this choice is not as extreme as the one facing Christians in Syria in the past generation or so, where their options are a thug dictator (who doesn't want to kill them at this point in time) or various forms of radical Islam – with ISIS at the bleeding edge – whose approach to minority religions is much more deadly.
So here is how I framed this discussion in a column for the Universal syndicate:
The nightmare scenario focuses on a stark, painful moral choice.
It’s Election Day. A Catholic voter who embraces her church’s catechism, or perhaps an evangelical committed to ancient doctrines on a spectrum of right-to-life issues, steps into a voting booth. This voter is concerned about the social impact of gambling, attempts at immigration reform, a culture fractured by divorce, battles over religious liberty and the future of the Supreme Court.
In this booth, the choice is between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Period.
“That’s the scenario people I know are talking about and arguing about,” said Stephen P. White of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., author of the book “Red, White, Blue and Catholic.”
Many religious conservatives believe they “face a choice between two morally repugnant candidates,” he added. “The reality of that choice is starting to drive some people into despair. ... I understand that, but I think it would be wrong for people to think that they need to abandon politics simply because they are disgusted with this election.”
One more time: Listen to the silence.