Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands with co-headliner Jerry Falwell Jr., leader of the nation’s largest Christian university, during a campaign event at the Orpheum Theatre in Sioux City, Iowa, on Jan. 31, 2016.

Why do some evangelical leaders back Trump? Because it's not about faith

In previous elections, the evangelical activists campaigned for candidates that promoted their faith and their principles. America, they argued, needed candidates with the right (pun intended) faith, character, and values. If they couldn't get one of their own elected, they at least wanted a candidate committed to their social agenda.

Then came Donald J. Trump.

His personal history, lack of conservative credentials, controversial policy positions, and offensive rhetoric have given evangelical leaders pause. For the first time since the Reagan revolution, their faith and politics do not line up neatly.

Ohio State sociologist Korie Edwards studied how pastors reconcile conflicts between their politics and the faith. She interviewed black pastors who supported Barack Obama but also objected to same-sex marriage. In a forthcoming article in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Edwards reports that these pastors reconciled this conflict in one of three ways.

Some minimized the issue. Same-sex marriage was important, but it was far from the only issue they cared about. A few denied that Obama really took his position.

Most, however, let politicians off the hook. The pastors didn't sever faith and politics completely. Instead, they invited candidates into their churches, mobilized resources for campaigns, and led get-out-the-vote efforts. The candidates gladly accept the support, but they aren't expected to be a defender of the faith.

Even when pastors don't expect a presidential candidate to be theologian-in-chief, they aren't going to support a candidate who has no history of supporting their agenda.

But for some reason, that's the deal that some pastors have accepted this year. They are willing to give Donald Trump their endorsement and mobilize voters for his campaign even though he offers nothing religious in return. They will preach his politics despite him being someone who does not share their faith or their social agenda. It is “religious sequestration” in the extreme.

Most prominent evangelical leaders are not willing to take this deal. A few, like James Dobson, have taken the route of denial, convincing themselves that Trump is somehow a recent convert. But others are pushing Trump despite his background and positions.

Why? They are not naïve. They do not expect him to change or to listen to them. Instead, my hunch is that they see politics as only that---politics. They will lend their name and proclaim Trump's name in exchange for political power.

The most prominent of these leaders is Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University. Falwell's father was the founder of Liberty University and of the Moral Majority. He was an early backer of Trump who was invited to speak on the most important night of the Republican National Convention (RNC).

Trump's past---his multiple marriages, his ties to gambling---was irrelevant to Falwell. Endorsing Trump, in Falwell's view, is no different than backing Ronald Reagan (a rare church attender and twice-married Hollywood actor) against Jimmy Carter (a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher with a prudish reputation).

“I do not believe, however, that when Jesus said 'render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s' that he meant we should elect only someone who would make a good Sunday School teacher or pastor,” Falwell told the Washington Post in January. “When we step into our role as citizens, we need to elect the most experienced and capable leaders.”

Today, National Public Radio's Steve Inskeep interviewed Falwell. Inskeep asked if Trump's personal life was relevant.

“Well, I think Jesus said we're all sinners,” Falwell answered. “When they ask that question, I always talk about the story of the woman at the well who had had five husbands and she was living with somebody she wasn't married to, and they wanted to stone her. And Jesus said he's - he who is without sin cast the first stone. I just see how Donald Trump treats other people, and I'm impressed by that.”

Falwell does use this example often. In late 2007, evangelical activists were looking for a candidate to unite around, one that would defeat Romney. Newt Gingrich was one possibility, but his affairs and multiple marriages were too much for leaders like Richard Land, who at the time led the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. In an open letter, they demanded that Gingrich publicly state his regret and repentance.

Falwell, however, wanted no part of this. In an email chain, Falwell wrote, “The woman at the well was fortunate she encountered Jesus that day instead of some of our evangelical brethren.” It's a claim he's made since, this time around for Trump.

This isn't a case of Falwell choosing someone who isn't religious or a member of a different religion. Falwell holds out no hope that Trump will push for the social issues Christian conservatives have advanced since Falwell's father founded the Moral Majority four decades ago.

He told the Washington Post on Wednesday that backing Trump isn't about faith.

“Evangelicals and Christians, they’re voting as Americans this time,” he said. “And maybe in the future when things aren’t so chaotic, maybe they will vote more on the social issues again. But it’s a different day. We’ve got to save the country first, and we’ll fight about all those other things later.”

Richard Lee, a Cumming, Georgia pastor, joined Falwell on this defense of Gingrich. Lee wrote that Gingrich was “the only forceful Christian candidate who can at this point be elected and cleanse the White House next November.”

This time around Lee, a pastor and the editor of the American Patriot’s Bible, is pro-Trump. Praying at a Trump rally in Atlanta last month, Lee referred to Trump as “the man who you have divinely ordered to lead this nation.”

Another supporter of Trump is RobertJeffressJeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas. Jeffress literally wrote a book on how Christians engage in politics. In it, he made it clear that while competency is most important, evangelicals should seek out and support evangelical candidates.

In both the 2008 and 2012 campaigns, Jeffress made headlines by calling on believers to not support Mitt Romney because of his Mormon faith (he famously called Mormonism a cult). While Jeffress eventually endorsed Romney in the general election, he opposed him in the primaries because evangelicals could still had “the opportunity to select both a competent leader and a committed Christian.”

Jeffress initial choice was fellow Texan Rick Perry. According to Jeffress, conservative evangelicals wanted a candidate with three characteristics: “electability, commitment to biblical values, and competency to govern.”

Four years later, Jeffress didn't support Perry. Instead, he was an early backer of Donald Trump. Jeffress defended this choice, not by claiming that Trump had “electability” or “commitment to biblical values.” Instead, it was time to be a “realist.” Jeffress said,

In a perfect world, Evangelicals would love a truly born-again candidate who possesses both a maturity of faith and all the requisite leadership skills necessary to solve the nation’s ills. But as they survey the landscape of seventeen possibilities, a majority of evangelicals cannot find one candidate whom they believe possesses both attributes.

Even as the campaign became nasty and Trump's rhetoric caused prominent evangelical leaders pause, Jeffress continued his support.

“I couldn’t care less about that president’s tone or his language,” he said. “I want the meanest, toughest, son-of-a-you-know-what I can find in that role, and I think that’s where many evangelicals are. The [other evangelical] leaders just don’t get it.”

Falwell, Lee, and Jeffress represent a minority of evangelical leaders and pastors. Most have looked at Trump and concluded that even if they eventually vote for Trump as the lesser of two evils, he should not have their endorsement.

They may not be willing to take Trump's deal, but Falwell and a few others jumped at it. By their own words, they are not basing their decision on Trump's faith, his electability, or his values. They expect nothing more than for him to take power and use it. It's all politics.

But this raises the question: why would anyone listen to these religious leaders? They admit that they don't need a candidate who is of their faith or who values their convictions. What does the average person in the pews get for supporting Trump because Falwell and his ilk give the thumbs up?

I don't think it is naivety. It's not blind following. Those that follow along want something, too. If their pastor is standing on stage with the presidential candidate, then they are too. If they send their child to a university led by someone who gets a prime speaking spot at the RNC, then they have a voice, too. It's power by proxy.

While some see this grab for power a reaction to demographic shifts, it goes back decades. For at least four decades, there have been organized efforts to elect evangelicals and/or social conservatives. Pastors and other evangelical leaders were willing to endorse a candidate because it would advance the cause.

Trump gives a new offer. It's a power negotiation. Pastors bring the voters; Trump shares the power. You invite Trump to speak at your university; Trump's daughter sends your family clothes and fashion. It's the art of the deal. Faith, convictions, and policies be damned.

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  1. It was never about faith, but about dominion.

    And power and money, but the topic at present is religion.

  2. “America, they argued, needed candidates with the right (pun intended) faith, character, and values.”

    There is no pun here. Both in the original, and in quotes, the word “right” unambiguously means “correct,” and has no reference to the political spectrum.

    The fact that the article as a whole is about the right wing has no bearing on this fact. There’s still no pun there.

    Both “pun unintentional” and its opposite, “(pun intended),” are usually moronic. This example confirms the general rule.


  3. I had thought that Falwell Jr., consumed by the cognitive dissonance generated by having to support Trump, simply confused the story of the Samaritan woman at the well and the woman the Pharisees accused of adultery in Jerusalem. He is, after all, not a minister, and although he is the president of Liberty University, only has a bachelor’s degree in the religious field. Then I found out he’s been using the same analogy for a decade. Someone in the evangelical community want to help him out please?

  4. “religious sequestration” That’s funny. Religion has always been a useful tool for manipulation and Junior learned that we’ll from senior.

    I am certain there are some right wing pastors who are not cynical about faith in politics. Clerics Dobson, Jeffress, Falwell, etc., are not among them.

  5. Evangelicals who sell their soul to Trump would rather be close to power than be close to Jesus.

  6. I don’t get this.

    I mean, sure, I don’t like the candidate they endorsed, but really?? Isn’t the evangelical voting block gathering around to support a, frankly, not-that-religious candidate who goes against their moral beliefs in his personal life a GOOD thing?? Isn’t this the kind of more tolerant evangelicals one who values freedom from religious discrimination a step in the right direction??

  7. It would be helpful to Mr Falwell if he read the bible more carefully. He is conflating the woman of Samaria and the woman taken in adultery. Two different stories. Both of these stories do demonstrate Jesus concern for the rejected and the marginalized, and the outsider
    People that Mr trump and I expect Mr Falwell reject.

  8. It is a good thing in that it shows that their concerns are not about issues of faith, but about power, money, and dominion. But we knew that the minute Billy Graham scrubbed all references to Mormons not being Christians when he endorsed rMoney.

  9. Now we no why the church in the South supported slavery….power and money. If Falwell Jr. been there he would have owned slaves.

  10. Why would falwell want to read the bible?

  11. It’s about money and power

  12. Read this…then tell me anything Donal Trump has done for anyone but Donald Trump.In case you might have missed Bill Clinton’s speech on the exceptional background of Hillary…a summary.




    1.When she got to college, her support for civil rights, her opposition to the Vietnam War compelled her to change party, to become a Democrat.

    2.More to the point, by the time I met her she had already been involved in the law school’s legal services project and she had been influenced by Marian Wright Edelman.

    3.She took a summer internship interviewing workers in migrant camps for Senator Walter Mondale’s subcommittee.

    4.She had also begun working in the Yale New Haven Hospital to develop procedures to handle suspected child abuse cases. She got so involved in children’s issues that she actually took an extra year in law school working at the child studies center to learn what more could be done to improve the lives and the futures of poor children.

    5.In the summer of 1972, she went to Dothan, Alabama to visit one of those segregated academies that then enrolled over half-a-million white kids in the South. The only way the economics worked is if they claimed federal tax exemptions to which they were not legally entitled. She got sent to prove they weren’t.

    So she sauntered into one of these academies all by herself, pretending to be a housewife that had just moved to town and needed to find a school for her son. And they exchanged pleasantries and finally she said, look, let’s just get to the bottom line here, if I enroll my son in this school will he be in a segregated school, yes or know? And the guy said absolutely. She had him! And she went back and her encounter was part of a report that gave Marian Marian Wright Edelman the ammunition she needed to keep working to force the Nixon administration to take those tax exemptions away and give our kids access to an equal education.

    6.Then she went down to south Texas where she met one of the nicest fellows I ever met, the wonderful union leader Franklin Garcia, and he helped her register Mexican- American voters.

    7. Then in our last year in law school, Hillary kept up this work. She went to South Carolina to see why so many young African- American boys, I mean, young teenagers, were being jailed for years with adults in men’s prisons. And she filed a report on that, which led to some changes, too. Always making things better.

    8.Hillary moved to Massachusetts to keep working on children’s issues. This time trying to figure out why so many kids counted in the Census weren’t enrolled in school. She found one of them sitting alone on her porch in a wheelchair. Once more, she filed a report about these kids, and that helped influence ultimately the Congress to adopt the proposition that children with disabilities, physical or otherwise, should have equal access to public education.

    9. She never made fun of people with disabilities; she tried to empower them based on their abilities.

    10.She became a teacher in an Arkansas law school

    11. She also started the first legal aid clinic in northwest Arkansas, providing legal aid services to poor people who couldn’t pay for them.

    12. A little over a year later we moved to Little Rock when I became attorney general and she joined the oldest law firm west of the Mississippi. Soon after, she started a group called the Arkansas Advocates for Families and Children.

    13.I asked Hillary to chair a rural health committee to help expand health care to isolated farm and mountain areas. They recommended to do that partly by deploying trained nurse practitioners in places with no doctors to provide primary care they were trained to provide. It was a big deal then, highly controversial and very important.

    And I got the feeling that what she did for the rest of her life she was doing there. She just went out and figured out what needed to be done and what made the most sense and what would help the most people. And then if it was controversial she’d just try to persuade people it was the right thing to do.

    14. In 1983, Hillary chaired a committee to recommend new education standards for us as a part of and in response to a court order to equalize school funding and a report by a national expert that said our woefully underfunded schools were the worst in America. Typical Hillary, she held listening tours in all 75 counties with our committee. She came up with really ambitious recommendations. For example, that we be the first state in America to require elementary counselors in every school because so many kids were having trouble at home and they needed it.

    So I called the legislature into session hoping to pass the standards, pass a pay raise for teachers and raise the sales tax to pay for it all. I knew it would be hard to pass, but it got easier after Hillary testified before the education committee and the chairman, a plainspoken farmer, said looks to me like we elected the wrong Clinton.

    15.Hillary told me about a preschool program developed in Israel called HIPPY, Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters. The idea was to teach low-income parents, even those that couldn’t read, to be their children’s first teachers.

    She said she thought it would work in Arkansas. I said that’s great, what are we going to do about it? She said, oh, I already did it. I called the woman who started the program in Israel, she’ll be here in about 10 days and help us get started.

    Next thing you know I’m being dragged around to all these little preschool graduations. Now, keep in mind, this was before any state even had universal kindergarten and I’m being dragged to preschool graduations watching these poor parents with tears in their eyes because they never thought they’d be able to help their kids learn.

    16. Now, 20 years of research has shown how well this program works to improve readiness for school and academic achievement. There are a lot of young adults in America who have no idea Hillary had anything to do with it who are enjoying better lives because they were in that program.

  13. One gets so tired of listeneing to fundamentalist Christian support for a candidate like Donald Trump. It must not go unchallenged. There are many thinking Christians who do NOT support his values. This is written about those who DO.
    Christian fundamentalists who support the values of the extreme right violate the very teachings of Christ whom they claim to follow.
    Conservative politicians in any country promote three basic policies which:
    Concentrate money and power in the hands of the rich and powerful.
    No matter what the name of their legislative bills, there are always loopholes to accomplish this. The argument that is often presented is that prosperity at the top will “trickle down” to the lower and middle classes.
    Legislate against the environment because green policies cost their base too much.
    Legislate to take power away from the educated middle class.
    The educated and motivated middle class will always challenge and erode entrenched power to spread it more fairly to the common citizens.
    Christ was not political. He taught that the individual must change from within which must be revealed in a new external life lived among fellow citizens of Earth. This implied that his followers would have to figure out for themselves what this meant in terms of their obligation to society.
    The Christian Right believes that “doctrinal correctness” (having “correct” theology) causes the Creator to “bless America (and Canada)” as if physical reward is given to those of theological purity. Nonsense; Christ promised no prosperity, nor did He promote riches. Rather he eschewed material comforts and warned that the pursuit of same would compromise one’s dedication to God. This attraction to material wealth as a reward allows some fundamentalists to legitimize the seeking of wealth and to support Conservative politicians who promise the same.
    These fundamentalists fear change because they equate it with religious liberalism and “backsliding”. This fear causes them to ally with Conservatives who resist change for entirely different reasons; that is, to keep them rich and in power. Christ reveled in change. He challenged all the religious fundamentalists of his day, the Scribes and Pharisees, and told them that their interpretation of Hebrew law was damning to their souls. He showed them in many ways that the way to demonstrate love for God and obedience to religious teachings was to serve others in every way.
    Christ never mentioned environmental concerns in any records we have, but He did promote personal responsibility and thankfulness for what we have. Interpreting those values on an overpopulated Planet with modern environmental challenges, leads us to view proper care of the Planet as an expression of true religion.
    Christ did not directly criticize Roman rule, which was certainly elitist to the extreme, but modern notions of abolition of slavery, personal freedom and democratic rights for all are all summarized in and come from His teaching of how one should treat fellow citizens.
    All this is not to say that a Christian cannot have Conservative affiliation or believe in some aspects, say economic, of Conservatism. Neither is it to say that Jesus would have today a political membership in a specific Party.
    BUT almost EVERYTHING that Donald J Trump says, does, supports, and promotes, is in VIOLENT OPPOSITION to the teachings of Christ. NO Christian should support him in ANY way, even if they find some policy of his they agree with.

  14. What president has been more Christian then Trump?

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