Evangelicals, deeply divided over Donald Trump, are wrestling with what the tumultuous 2016 election will mean for their future.
His candidacy has put a harsh spotlight on the fractures among Christian conservatives, most prominently the rift between old guard religious right leaders who backed the GOP nominee as an ally on abortion, and a comparatively younger generation who considered his personal conduct and rhetoric morally abhorrent.
“This has been a kind of smack in the face, forcing us to ask ourselves, ‘What have we become?'” said Carolyn Custis James, an evangelical activist and author who writes about gender roles in the church.
The outcome of this self-examination is as important for evangelicals as it is for the Republican Party. Christian conservatives have been among the most reliable members of the GOP coalition. Recent PRRI polls found nearly seven in 10 evangelicals backed Trump. Yet, those numbers are lower than the 79 percent who voted for 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, a Mormon who had struggled to win over conservative Protestants for theological and other reasons.
Any election post-mortem will, of course, be shaped by who wins the White House.
A Hillary Clinton victory could draw energy away from any re-evaluation of the religious right, given her support for abortion rights and gay rights, and the opportunity she will have to shape the U.S. Supreme Court. While many younger evangelicals have a broad range of concerns, including fighting climate change and poverty, they are staunchly opposed to abortion, often more so than their parents.
John Fea, a historian at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, said there could be a Christian right resurgence to fight Clinton’s policies.
“Many evangelicals, whether ‘Never Trump’ or willing to support Trump, are ultimately shaped by a core set of convictions. They are still going to be — for good or for bad — one-, two- or three-issue voters primarily. I think that persists,” he said.
And if Trump wins? Evangelicals who advocated for him, such as Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and author and broadcaster James Dobson, would feel vindicated before their critics if Trump fulfills his promise to appoint conservative high court justices. “Very early on he was concerned about the marginalization of Christianity,” said the Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of the megachurch First Baptist Dallas, who advocated for Trump.
Yet, even if Trump proves loyal to Christian conservatives, debate would persist over whether his supporters traded their integrity for influence. The thrice-married Trump has been accused of sexual misconduct by several women, bragged about grabbing women’s genitals, mocked a disabled reporter, maligned Mexican immigrants and insulted the parents of a fallen American Muslim soldier.
“If they can support even Donald Trump, and even after we learn more and more about him, then this has actually been a charade all along designed to raise money or to grasp for power or to build institutions or personal platforms,” said Collin Hansen, a longtime Republican and editorial director of the Gospel Coalition, an interdenominational evangelical ministry. He said he hoped leaders who opposed Trump had retained enough credibility to provide conservative Christians “something to build on.”
Those leaders include Russell Moore, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention; Peter Wehner, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who served three Republican presidents; editors for the influential evangelical magazines Christianity Today and WORLD; and Deborah Fikes, a former representative to the U.N. for the World Evangelical Alliance, who endorsed Hillary Clinton.
Christian conservatives had split over politics long before this presidential race. Many younger Christians had rejected the strategies of the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition as harmful to the church.
At the same time, conservative churches have become home to growing numbers of Latinos and immigrants from elsewhere who have different voting patterns. In a recent PRRI poll, nearly two-thirds of non-white evangelicals supported Clinton.
Evangelicalism is not the same community as the 1980s and ’90s and is “no longer exclusively led by white males who are 60, 70 years old,” said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, an evangelical group that counts 40,000 churches as members.
Still, that shift to more diverse churches with younger leadership is only just beginning. Many of the older religious right figures who backed Trump continue to have an impact through their organizations and Christian radio, even though their influence has dwindled.
“There will be a segment of white evangelicals after Trump who say never again, but there will still be a significant and unfortunate vocal portion of white evangelicalism that doesn’t change much,” said Jemar Tisby, director of the African American Leadership Initiative at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, and co-founder of the Reformed African American Network.
Moore, of the Southern Baptist Convention, separates evangelical Trump supporters into two camps: those who consider Trump a morally good choice and others upset by his moral flaws but who worry more about Clinton’s potential impact on religious objectors to gay marriage, abortion and other laws.
“I understand those who are lining up with Trump with great reservations. I’m not persuaded by it. But that’s different than the people who have been telling us that we need this kind of strongman to save Christianity,” Moore said.
That distinction may be lost on younger evangelicals disillusioned by this election. Moore said discussion is already under way about religion and political conservatism, and building new institutions to prevent younger Christians from disengaging from political life.
But Molly Worthen, a professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill who studies conservative Christianity, cautioned against expecting major change from one election.
“The inclination of many conservative activists will be dwelling on Trump’s idiosyncrasies as a candidate,” Worthen said. “His message of taking this country back and saving it for Christians or for white people will still resonate with a huge number of people.”