On the Non-Trump Evangelicals
By Craig Keener
I have been saving for the right time my likely one good shot at the subject of non-Trump evangelicals, and it looks like now is a good moment. The publication of Stephen Mansfield’s Choosing Donald Trump, an attempt to explain why religious conservatives flocked to Donald Trump, seems like the right time. Like Mansfield, I am a non-Trump evangelical.
I thus get a little sensitive when people complain that “evangelicals,” as if a monolithic group, stand behind Trump. I seek to respect the office of president and love my neighbor, including presidents with whom I disagree. But I did not vote for Trump, yet theologically I am plainly evangelical.
Within evangelicalism I undoubtedly live too sheltered a life. Polls show that of self-declared evangelicals who voted, 80 percent voted for Donald Trump, and it appears that most of them still support him.
I am a non-Trump evangelical.
That these were not the evangelical circles with which I have the most contact skews my personal sample size. As the only white and non-immigrant member of my immediate family, I was too concerned about Trump’s immigration policy, militarism and apparent instability to vote for him. The evangelicals I knew personally who told me how they voted (a still more skewed sample size) also did not vote for him. One of my evangelical PhD students even proclaimed emphatically, “I would rather die than vote for Trump!”
Though my own sample size is not representative, of the sample size of all white evangelicals who voted, 20 percent did not vote for Trump. I do not know what percent of evangelicals voted, but if evangelicals are, by some definitions, a quarter of the U.S. population, 20 percent of that number would be about 16 million people. It is at least fair to infer that millions of evangelicals did not vote for Donald Trump.
Commitment to core evangelical beliefs does not entail unanimity on other details. I am among many theologically evangelical academicians who, for example:
- Do not accept young-earth creationism
- Emphatically support refugees (after all, my wife used to be one)
- Dismiss the idea that Christians will be “raptured” before a future “tribulation”
- Support women’s ordination
I could go on with other examples, but my point is that on many issues, there is some diversity within evangelicalism.
Even the 80 percent figure applies only if one defines “evangelical” as a subculture rather than as a historic theological configuration. When evangelical is defined theologically, by beliefs about Scripture, salvation and the like, it might remain true that 80 percent of white evangelical voters voted for Donald Trump. But the vast majority of theologically evangelical black and Latino/a Christians did not vote for Donald Trump.
Less than one month before the election, roughly the same percentage of African and Latino/a-American evangelicals planned to vote for Clinton as white evangelicals planned to vote for Trump. At that time, nearly one-third of Americans with theologically evangelical beliefs had decided to vote for the Democratic candidate.
As the Huffington Post’s Carol Kuruvilla rightly pointed out: “Before the election, non-white evangelical Protestants (including black, Hispanic, Asian-Pacific Islanders) overwhelmingly favored Clinton over Trump (67 percent vs. 24 percent).” This helps me feel less like a sore thumb (and perhaps helps explain my own predilections, as I was ordained in an African-American church).
Since the 80 percent figure refers only to white evangelicals, the division in votes reflects a difference of political subculture, not a necessary outcome of theological beliefs. Certainly the vast majority of evangelicals globally, of whom white U.S. evangelicals are a minuscule and diminishing proportion, did not endorse Trump’s “America First” policy. Politics often makes strange bedfellows, and so, it seems, does religion.
Most evangelicals who did vote for Trump did not do so from respect for his virtue or because they opposed immigrants or endorsed racism, oblivious as many are to the plight of immigrants and minority cultures. Further, those white evangelicals who display anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican attitudes tend to predominate more among non-churchgoing, more nominal evangelicals.
A minority of evangelicals voted for Trump because they believed that by defending the unborn they were defending justice. Whether or not they balance this question with other justice concerns, and whether or not one agrees with them, their concern seems morally consistent if they genuinely believe that abortion has killed tens of millions of live human beings.
Surveys suggest, however, that this was not the primary issue for voters with evangelical beliefs. Many evangelicals voted for Trump for the reason that people often support a particular candidate—they expect a particular candidate to support rather than be hostile to their interests. For some white evangelicals, these were their perceived interests as evangelicals. For 48 percent in the above-mentioned poll, however, the key interests were their economic or security concerns, concerns reflective of the U.S. population as a whole.
Given the problems with his candidacy and the misinformation fueling some of the concerns, I did not believe that any of these reasons justified me voting for Trump. As I complained at the time, “It’s not pro-life to vote for someone whose mouth might get us into a nuclear war.”
It’s not pro-life to vote for someone whose mouth might get us into a nuclear war.
I have been proven wrong on some things. I was certainly wrong in assuring friends internationally that there was no chance that Trump would win the election. I also have been wrong in my (private) fear that an (impossible) Trump presidency would cause the immediate collapse of the U.S. government and quickly initiate a war. When one has exaggeratedly low expectations, it is not difficult to be pleasantly surprised.
Unfortunately, other hopes were too high. How can evangelicals on the U.S. mainland ignore the anxiety of South Koreans, of whom an estimated eight million are fellow evangelicals; or the current suffering of Puerto Ricans, of whom possibly a quarter are fellow evangelicals? How can U.S. white evangelicals ignore the voices of U.S. Latino/a evangelicals?
Pundits who speak of Trump’s substantial evangelical support base are right.
But though evangelicals who voted for someone other than Trump are a minority of evangelicals who voted, there are millions of us.
So next time you hear that “evangelicals” voted en masse for Trump, please, remember those of us who didn’t.
Dr. Craig Keener is a professor of the New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is the author of over 20 books, including the IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. This article first appeared on the Huffington Post.