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

Jerry Falwell Jr. aren't keeping it a secret: this year, faith, convictions, and policies be damned.

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.

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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