White evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. Whatever the wisdom of casting a vote for The Donald, the willingness of serious believers to look beyond their faith in the presidential race is a healthy political development.
American Christians never have spoken politically with a single voice. However, evangelicals traditionally talked a lot about personal character, family values, and Christian beliefs. They often also came across as hopelessly naive, easily swindled by politicians who knew how to talk the talk even if the latter didn’t walk the walk spiritually.
Believers are to be salt and light, which should include the political realm. But even sincere faith is no substitute for wisdom. Indeed, Martin Luther once proclaimed that he preferred to be governed by a smart Turk than a stupid Christian.
Still, evangelicals, perhaps more than members of other religious groupings, in the past seemed determined to back those who claimed to seek and receive God’s guidance. Presidential candidates such as Ted Cruz made a plainly sectarian pitch for votes: the president should begin his day on his knees, insisted the candidate who gave strikingly little to charity. Even Donald Trump claimed to be a man of faith, though no one other than James Dobson appeared convinced.
However, Trump collected plenty of Christian votes in the primaries and 81 percent of the ballots cast by white evangelicals in the general election. Almost everyone who backed Trump recognized that he represented the antithesis of Christian values. His supporters were motivated by a very practical reason: they believed Hillary Clinton would be a worse president.
The spectacle of evangelicals backing Trump triggered more than a little tut-tutting about religious hypocrisy by Clinton supporters. As well as some blood-letting within evangelical ranks.
Russell Moore, head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, criticized candidate Trump. Leftish evangelicals Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne wrote an article worrying about the damage done “the reputation of evangelicalism” by the identification of so many white evangelicals with Trump’s candidacy.
Yet the willingness of evangelicals to embrace a candidate so at variance with Gospel values actually suggests a healthy willingness of evangelicals to treat politics as a matter of prudence, not faith. That is, except in the most unusual case, when a candidate’s theological views dictate morally unacceptable policy outcomes, it really doesn’t matter if a politician shares one’s religion.
Certainly it would be better to have someone of good rather than bad character as president. Nevertheless, if forced to choose, better to have a president who would avoid nuclear war and national bankruptcy than one whose personal life is pristine.
In the case of Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton the winner isn’t clear. Clinton was a known evil, bound to have bad consequences. Predicting what America will look like after four or eight years of Trump is far more difficult, with a much wider range of possible outcomes.
What is important is that evangelicals not allow their policy agreements to blind them to Trump’s moral deficiencies. In fact, having vested the presidency, arguably the world’s most powerful position, in Trump’s hands, his supporters have unique responsibility to be alert for any abuse of their trust.
Moreover, they should apply the same lesson throughout the political system. Evangelicals should run for office and work in government not as Christians, but as citizens who happen to be Christians. They should emphasize their commitment to the common good of all citizens, using their winsome conduct as a witness to their faith.
Perhaps most important, Christians should have modest expectations of government. One enthusiastic South Carolina Trump supporter said after his victory: “I hope we can restore our country to a God-fearing nation again.”
I hope so too, but I also recognize that this is neither Donald Trump’s nor the government’s job. The role of politics is to create a framework within which sinful human beings with very different visions of the good and transcendent can nevertheless work together to meet common needs and confront common dangers. Belief and virtue cannot be compelled.
Both major party candidates fell far short of what America required as president, but a religious believer could vote for either one. Evangelicals who backed Donald Trump should remember this election as a reason to more sharply separate religion and politics in the future. The best candidate is the one most able to do the job he or she is seeking.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.