How could evangelicals support Donald Trump, a twice-divorced, thrice married, narcissistic, foul-mouthed filthy lucre loving billionaire?
It's a question that has been widely debated inside and outside of evangelical circles since the election. At least a portion of the answer lies in understanding the history of evangelical political involvement.
One of the many books riding the wave of the 500-year celebration of the beginning of the Reformation is Protestants by Alec Ryrie, a historical look at both the sins and the successes of Protestantism from Luther to the present day. The book is painfully balanced, including discussions of the role protestant churches played — for better and for worse — in slavery in the United States, the rise of Hitler in Germany and other troubling historical eras.
The book discusses the cooperation of evangelicals with the rise of dictators in Germany, South Africa, Korea, Chile and elsewhere, charging that the "neutral" stance taken by the church in many of these cases facilitated the dictatorship. A late chapter on Pentecostals — a major slice of the evangelical pie — highlights Pentecostal support for Augusto Pinochet, who led a coup in Chile in 1973 to overthrow a Marxist government. Writes Ryrie: "As the rhetoric of the declaration for Pinochet in 1974 suggests, many Pentecostals have a deep-seated suspicion of Marxism, one that is strongly reciprocated. In other words, while they will not be lured into politics by utopian hopes, they certainly can be mobilized to oppose specific evils, a category in which they would put Marxism's totalizing claims."
Despite what many believe, evangelicals aren't looking to usher in heaven on earth at the ballot box. They aren't interested in mobilizing in hopes of voting in theological utopia. They aren't voting — in the case of the presidential election — for a spiritual leader. Rather, faced with gathering black clouds that threaten principles of religious freedom and free speech held dear by evangelicals, they mobilized to vote for someone who would stand against these evils.
No question evangelicals are aghast and feel threatened by recent cultural events. From court-ordered acceptance of gay marriage to bakers being forced to participate in events that violate their conscience to speech codes that require the mislabeling of genders, evangelicals believe the ability to practice their religion based on their reading of God's Word is threatened. Hillary Clinton provided the best example when she told the Women in the World Summit last year that "deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed" for the sake of abortion rights.
While the election is over, the threat continues. Witness Senator Bernie Sanders' recent claim that a Trump political appointee is unfit to serve in government because he had blogged about Jesus being the only way to salvation.
While the history lesson helps explain the evangelical vote for Trump, it also shows the danger of blind and unquestioned support. Evangelicals must speak against and oppose the President's excesses, especially when those violate Biblical principles. But as long as the threat of diminished religious freedom continues, evangelicals will support candidates who stand against the threat.