I normally don’t join in the great quadrennial teeth gnashing that is the American presidential campaign. But this year I find Donald Trump’s message so odious that as a husband, a father of a son and daughter, a colleague to people of color, and friend to those of diverse ethnicities, religious backgrounds, and sexual orientations, I need to be able to say that I took no part in him.
I am a white evangelical Christian and I am voting for Hillary Clinton.
Clinton’s competence, experience, and demeanor are in sharp relief to Trump’s thin-skinned superficiality so unsuited to the stewardship of American military and economic power. On issues of importance to me (gun policy, the economy, security, health care, foreign affairs, immigration, criminal justice reform, etc.) she reflects more the America I want to help build. She wasn’t my first choice, I will admit, and I am aware of her considerable shortcomings. But any lingering reservations completely evaporated after comparing the message and tone of the two competing party conventions. I’m with her.
Here’s hoping that my fellow evangelicals will be as well. Recent Pew studies suggest that over 70% of white self-identified evangelicals plan to vote for Trump. Christian author and speaker James Dobson recently endorsed him saying “most evangelicals I know have decided for various reasons that they will really have only one choice for president, and that is Donald J. Trump…I believe it’s a good choice. America needs strong and competent leadership.”
I understand and agonize with my brothers and sisters who are genuinely tormented by the “lesser of two evils” predicament and who view their potential Trump ballot with quiet revulsion. But what I do not understand and what I condemn is the hearty public approval of Trump from other evangelical leaders and their full throated endorsement of a budding despot who, by self-admission, has never asked God for forgiveness; and whose biography and philosophy are so antithetical to God’s call for justice, kindness and humility. Their public testimonials will have grievous long term consequences for a religion already perceived by many as having too eagerly traded away its enduring spiritual banquet for the temporary scraps from a political table.
Permission to Dissent
Evangelicals respect orthodoxy in matters of faith, but that respect may cause us to imagine orthodoxy in what is only conformity, especially when opinions from leaders like Dr. Dobson are received “ex cathedra”. The breadth of evangelical support for Trump may be nothing more than an instinctive response to his unrelenting message of fear and threat. But, as George Orwell observed, such instinct doesn’t necessarily result in people doing the right thing…merely the same thing (“like a herd of cattle facing a wolf”). Individual evangelicals must give ourselves permission to dissent politically, to be more than a part of the herd, to think for ourselves with the sound mind God has given each of us. Because now and in future generations there will always be those who yearn for credible witnesses with whom to explore the claims of Christianity. We will not be convincing to those seekers if we are seen as the commandeered church; the expropriated tool of Trumpism.
I am proposing that evangelicals can and should vote for Secretary Clinton. Notwithstanding the bewildering intensity of the 40-year vilification machine directed at her, she is clearly the most capable and credible candidate. I know, however, there are those evangelicals whose ideological disagreements on abortion, the Supreme Court, or other issues, make a Clinton vote simply intolerable. Even for them there are options. Some analysts suggest that not voting for Trump is a vote for Clinton or a wasted vote but that is not entirely true. A presidential election boycott that produces a massive vote differential between the top of the ticket and down ticket candidates would send a powerful message to the Republican party and its future candidates that voters deserve better. More importantly it would do so retaining some sense of integrity for the dissenting evangelical base.
What evangelicalism cannot afford is a broad capitulation to Trumpism. If that happens our children may look back in one, or in ten, or in 70 years and ask, where was the modern American confessing church that should have stood up to hate and demagoguery? If the church is not there today for our children we shouldn’t expect our children to be there tomorrow for the church.
Why Hold Trump to a Different Standard?
But is there no fear that an evangelical vote for Clinton could be seen as just as troubling to those examining Christianity? Why such concern for Mr. Trump’s character and not Secretary Clinton’s? There are three considerations. First, her inconsistencies as a candidate, however real, bear no equivalency in magnitude to Trump’s. Clinton’s policies may threaten conservative ideology, but when Trump careens from utterly offensive to heedlessly divisive he threatens the American ideal itself.
Secondly, we don’t have to measure our support of Clinton in the way we do Trump because there is no contention that she speaks for evangelicals; she has not become our de facto standard-bearer. By contrast, the Republican candidate specifically brags of his evangelical backing. “Every poll says how well I’m doing with them,” he claims. Unless we specifically reject him, we cannot escape being painted by his brush.
Finally Trump himself has made this election a referendum on his character and temperament. He speaks of his opponents using character questioning nicknames, “Lying Ted”, “Crooked Hillary”, “Crazy Bernie” with which to differentiate his own cult of personality (“I alone can fix it”). Because of this Trump has left us no room to support his policies without sanctioning the Trump persona. We cannot vote for him without endorsing his dangerous narcissism.
I am a center-left evangelical so for me the vote poses no great personal dilemma. It is an easy choice. But my wonderful rightward-leaning evangelical friends are left with a tougher decision: what to do if political support of their most important values requires that evangelicals marry their fortunes to a demagogue? I believe we must forfeit that support in return for retaining our credibility as believers in a different King. For after November the horrible high tide of electioneering will once again recede. If Christian values have been broken on the rocks of the Trump expediency, the shoreline will be so spoiled by the flotsam of our political imprudence that it may become permanently unappealing to those looking for an inviting vantage from which to contemplate their spiritual horizons.
We should not let that happen. So I’m with her.