It has been a bitterly contested election, with the US deeply divided. Finally, though, Biden appears to be edging towards achieving the necessary Electoral College votes to become the next President of the USA, but it is a result that is, predictably, being challenged by Trump. Litigation will complicate things further in the highly polarized nation, but at least there appears to be an answer emerging – for now anyway.
One thing is clear: that Trump kept the support of US evangelicals to an extraordinary degree. In the early summer, as both Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis and racial turmoil convulsed the US, this support wavered a little. However, despite this, white evangelicals returned to their default position of support for Trump. In 2016, some 81% of them voted for Trump. In the presidential election of November 2020, preliminary estimates from exit polls conducted by Edison Research for the National Election Pool indicate that 76% of white evangelicals voted for Trump. According to the VoteCast poll by the Associated Press, this may have stood a little higher, at 78%.
However, Trump is simply the latest manifestation of a structural pattern which intertwines US evangelicals and right wing politics. Expect more of the same in the future, in the highly polarized situation that still exists in the US. But what has driven this deeply committed support?This support had been building since the summer. In early October, polling by both Pew Research and Washington Post/ABC News put white evangelical support for Trump at about 78%. By the weekend before the presidential election, polling commissioned by the Family Research Council (FRC) found 96% support for Trump among those classified as ‘Spiritually Active Governance-Engaged Conservative Christians’ (their support for him had stood at 91% in 2016). This group represents the core of the evangelical community. While constituting only a tenth of the electorate, this particular group’s high turnout means they punch well above their weight.
Conservative Supreme Court nominations (with the potential for repeal of current abortion legislation), support for gun rights, the downplaying of science, support for a particular form of Israeli politics, strident US nationalism, the promise of economic recovery rather than lockdown, and Trump’s explicit appeals to the evangelical community have outweighed his personal behaviour, Covid-19 mortality, racial injustice, the climate change crisis, disregard for international obligations – and even his mocking of evangelicals in private. At best, the latter issues were ignored in order to achieve success in other areas; at worst, they were of little concern to many US evangelicals.
Many US evangelicals have a tendency to read political developments as signs of divine endorsement of events. It is an outlook not confined to the US. From this perspective, Trump’s previous success was considered to be proof of God’s approval. However, for some other evangelicals, more inclined to stress the fallen nature of the world, the Trump phenomenon holds up a mirror to a broken society and a section of the church that has mixed its Christian principles with divisive right wing politics.
The debate over how to interpret the Trump phenomenon will continue. The deep polarization in the US, which both led to Trump and has been exacerbated by him, will not go away any time soon. That will remain a significant and troubling legacy of the Trump presidency. Alongside it will remain the equally troubling question of how far US evangelicals are prepared to go in order to achieve certain key objectives. And what they are prepared to sacrifice in order to achieve these goals. That too is a troubling legacy of Trump’s rule.
Martyn Whittock is a Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England and an evangelical. As a historian, he has a particular interest in the interaction between faith and politics. His book, Trump and the Puritans: How the Evangelical Religious Right Put Donald Trump in the White House (co-author James Roberts), was published by Biteback in January 2020 in the UK, and in June in the USA.
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