Despite the pleas of conservative Christian leaders, large numbers of self-identified evangelicals continue to vote for Trump. This is baffling for any number of reasons, the most damning of which is Trump’s admission that he never seeks God’s forgiveness. Recent data from the Wall Street Journal provides a helpful clue to this mystery: only 38 percent of Trump supporters attend church or another place of worship weekly or more, compared to 56 percent of social conservative voters (supporters of Ted Cruz or, formerly, of Ben Carson) and 43 percent of Republican establishment voters (supporters of Marco Rubio or, formerly, of Jeb Bush). Trump’s evangelicals self-identify as such, but their faith doesn’t necessarily run deep.
The mainstream press has long used the term “evangelical” as a synonym for “deeply, even freakishly religious,” but not all of those who identify as evangelicals are in fact committed Christians. According to the Pew Research Center, 42 percent of self-identified evangelicals attend church occasionally, seldom, or never. More evangelicals than Catholics or mainline Protestants attend church regularly, but 42 percent is considerable. Of course, no one but God can judge souls, but the evidence suggest that many of Trump’s evangelical supporters are of the lukewarm variety, the kind referred to in Revelation 3:16: “So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.” What Christ spits out, Trump savors.
Since 9/11, we have heard much about the political dangers of religious extremists, but our current political climate should encourage us to consider the dangers of the barely religious. Sociological studies of the relationship between racial prejudice and Christian commitment, most of which were completed decades ago, indicate an interesting pattern. Multiple studies have found that the most religiously involved and the non-religious express the least prejudice and the most support for equality, while those who are only moderately involved with religion express greater levels of prejudice and hostility. H. Wesley Perkins’s work in particular found that strong religious commitment heightens social compassion and concern for equality, while “nominal religiosity with no religious allegiance” is associated with less humanitarian, less egalitarian, and more racist personal viewpoints. Like a little knowledge, a little religion is a dangerous thing.
These studies, most of which were completed in the 1970s and 1980s, were concerned primarily with Christianity and racial prejudice. Time has passed, and our anxieties about religion and politics have changed. It is not at all clear that the same logic applies to all religions or all cultures. (Certainly Islamic terrorists seem to take faith seriously; but then again, why is it that their hangouts are always filled with porn?)
Still, it is likely that, at least with regard to American Christianity, the underlying logic still holds. It certainly makes sense that the nominally religious, who are less rooted in virtues that transcend their own time and place, might be more likely to identify godliness and goodness with the cultural values and identity of their local community. Strong religious commitments and cosmopolitanism can both, albeit for different reasons, engender a welcoming attitude towards the stranger, but lukewarm religion might do the opposite. Trump’s statements regarding Muslims, Mexicans, and David Duke likely sound far more appealing to the lukewarm, especially the marginalized lukewarm, than they do to those whose religion runs hot or cold.
If I’m right that Trump’s evangelical supporters tend to be lukewarm believers, then the conservative Christian leaders who are trying to warn believers of the dangers of a Trump presidency might want to save their breath. The very people who most need convincing, the lukewarm, have a proven tendency to ignore the pleas of religious leaders. And yet Christians who hope for our country’s return to political decency should not despair. By working to set the faith of the lukewarm on fire, they are fighting for the endangered civility of American political culture.
Molly Oshatz writes from Mountain View, California.