Recently, Ross Douthat raised some important questions about the future of evangelicalism in and after the Trump era. Douthat, who is Catholic, cites evangelicals Jared Wilson and Alan Jacobs in order to argue that Trump has forced a “crisis” in evangelicalism. His analysis is thoughtful and intriguing. But Douthat, Wilson, and Jacobs all seem to assume that evangelical support for Trump is a sign of heresy and hypocrisy. This assumption presumes a great deal about evangelical voting behavior in an increasingly fractured political culture. Elite observers should allow for the possibility that evangelical voters are capable of making a range of prudential judgments—which may not qualify as hypocrisy, even if they are out of step with elite opinion.
Douthat is right that Trump’s candidacy exposed major fault lines among white evangelicals. These divisions reveal three groups, each distinguished by prudential political judgments. The groups are: Jacksonian Evangelicals, Tocquevillian Evangelicals, and elite Evangelicals.
Jacksonian Evangelicals are often nominal Christians who self-identify as “evangelical.” They are likely to reside in blue-collar or rural communities and to lead more isolated and less community-oriented lives. Formerly the backbone of the Democratic Party but now neglected by both parties, marginalized in the economy and culture, and chastised for clinging to religion and guns, Jacksonian Evangelicals delivered to Trump 36 percent of the evangelical vote in early primaries. Walter Russell Mead describes the Jacksonian impulse in American politics:
Virtually everything about progressive politics today is about liquidating the Jacksonian influence in American life. President Obama and his coalition aim to crush what Jacksonians love, empower what they fear, and exalt what they hate.
Mead notes that the political system rarely hears Jacksonian voices because they lack the requisite organization and leadership. Trump sought to change that. Jacksonian Evangelicals are Trump loyalists. In the near term, these evangelical voters will not abandon Trump unless he abandons them first.
Tocquevillian Evangelicals possess more social capital than Jacksonians. They attend church regularly, “have strong family ties and wide circles of friends, are active in churches and voluntary organizations and work steadily.” These evangelicals rely heavily on their church communities and networks for sifting information and forming opinions. These voters constitute part of the conservative “rank and file” in the GOP and 60-to-70 percent of white evangelical voters.
In the 2016 primaries, Michael Barone noticed a correlation between socially connected religious communities and rejection of Trump. For example, Trump performed poorly in the upper Midwest among dense social networks of Dutch-American counties, and in southwest Missouri (site of the headquarters of the Assemblies of God and its thick church networks). Trump performed better in southeast Missouri, which has indicators of low social-connectedness, such as high rates of disability insurance.
Because of their connectedness, Tocquevillians faced high social costs to openly supporting Trump during the election. Given the pervasiveness of “Trump-shaming,” Tocquevillian Evangelicals feared being ostracized by friends, family, the PTA, Bible studies, or Rotary Clubs. Tocquevillian Evangelicals moved in Trump’s direction only once they felt they had no choice, and their support for Trump is highly contingent upon his attending to their interests.
Elite Evangelicals are the institutional and intellectual leaders of the evangelical world. They live and move in very select social circles, in ways that separate them from the other two groups. Elite Evangelicals had much more to risk in supporting Trump. Beyond their personal reputations, they had to consider the reputation of their respective organizations and of evangelical Christianity more broadly. Given such responsibilities, elites were far more reluctant to embrace Trump’s candidacy and, with notable exceptions, many were, and still are, among Trump’s most vocal critics.
Grace and Deliberation
Evangelicals are not the only religious group divided by politics or the Trump phenomenon. Yet there is silence over the 60 percent of white Catholics (a GOP high since 2000), the 61 percent of Mormons, and the 58 percent of mainline Protestants who supported Trump. It isn’t entirely clear why evangelicals are singled out for hypocrisy and heresy, when almost all citizens in a religiously diverse electorate must settle for a candidate who does not share their core theological beliefs or attendant morality.
Mainline Protestant dominance in American culture used to provide a generally friendly social environment for evangelicals. Yet as mainline denominations, and their cultural influence, have declined, evangelicals now face a national moral culture that is increasingly diverse and secular. Thus, presidential elections that used to be cultural “home games” for evangelicals now are largely “away games,” and evangelicals must adjust to political participation in a new environment. For instance, in 2012 white Republican evangelicals faced the question of whether to support the Mormon Mitt Romney, with whom evangelicals had major theological disagreements. In 2016 they were asked to support a candidate, Trump, who did not fit within their theological framework—which is why he was opposed by Tocquevillian and elite evangelicals in the primaries.
Trump’s candidacy and presidency have bitterly divided not just Jacksonian, Tocquevillian, and elite evangelicals, but evangelicals of all stripes, all of whom continue to address each other in harsh tones and with dismissive rhetoric. It is curious to see communities formed by grace show so little of it toward fellow believers. Given their theological kinship and belief in a transcendent and knowable moral order, evangelicals have deep resources for modelling sound deliberation about the common good. Yet deliberation can take place only if evangelicals grant each other room to exercise the core political virtue of prudence. Prudence will not lead all believers down the same political path, but it is best demonstrated in deliberation rather than in incrimination and excommunication.
Darren Patrick Guerra is associate professor and chair of political science at Biola University specializing in constitutional law and American politics.