Becoming The Enemy: Evangelicals No Longer Hold Moral High Ground

evangelical moral high ground lost over support for Donald Trump

A recent article in The Atlantic considered a question that many people have asked in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election:

One of the most perplexing features of the 2016 election was the high level of support Donald Trump received from white evangelical Protestants. How did a group that once proudly identified itself as “values voters” come to support a candidate who had been married three times, cursed from the campaign stump, owned casinos, appeared on the cover of Playboy Magazine, and most remarkably, was caught on tape bragging in the most graphic terms about habitually grabbing women’s genitals without their permission?

The author of the article, Robert P. Jones, heads up the Public Religion Research Institute, and the demographic data he shares is important (and to those of us who do not share the preoccupations of white evangelical Christians, comforting). But the article is not simply an analysis of increasing turnout amid declining absolute numbers; it also offers an explanation of white evangelical Christian support for a man who would seem to be an anathema to everything those Christians claim to hold dear.

And that support was critical:

Trump ultimately secured the GOP nomination, not over white evangelical voters’ objections, but because of their support. And on Election Day, white evangelicals set a new high water mark in their support for a Republican presidential candidate, backing Trump at a slightly higher level than even President George W. Bush in 2004 (81 percent vs. 78 percent)….

In a head-spinning reversal, white evangelicals went from being the least likely to the most likelygroup to agree that a candidate’s personal immorality has no bearing on his performance in public office.

Fears about the present and a desire for a lost past, bound together with partisan attachments, ultimately overwhelmed values voters’ convictions. Rather than standing on principle and letting the chips fall where they may, white evangelicals fully embraced a consequentialist ethics that works backward from predetermined political ends, bending or even discarding core principles as needed to achieve a predetermined outcome. When it came to the 2016 election, the ends were deemed so necessary they justified the means.

The bottom line: members of a dwindling demographic were so desperate to stem what they saw as the demise of their previous dominance that they embraced a candidate who epitomized everything they claimed to oppose. They gambled that, if he won, they would retain political clout.

There are analogies to be drawn. After 9-11, many Americans wanted to respond to terrorism by foregoing constitutional restraints– allowing law enforcement to ignore “niceties” like due process, and engaging in “enhanced interrogation” (aka torture). To the extent that terrorists were attacking our way of life, abandoning of  that way of life and dispensing with democratic norms gave them exactly what they wanted.

White Christian evangelicals claim they want government to protect “godly moral principles,” at least as they define those principles. By endorsing Trump, they abandoned that pretense.

Assuming America does emerge relatively unscathed from Trumpism, those evangelical Christians who were willing to shelve their beliefs in return for a promise of political power will find themselves further marginalized.

In addition to shrinking numbers (see Jones demographic data and projections), they have traded away whatever moral authority they retained.

[Originally published at on July 19, 2017]

Sheila Kennedy is a former high school English teacher, former lawyer, former Republican, former Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, former columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and former young person. She is currently an (increasingly cranky) old person, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, and Director of IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy. She writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal, PA Times, and the Indiana Word, and blogs at For those who are interested in more detail, links to an abbreviated CV and academic publications can be found on her blog, along with links to her books..


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