For the first few months of 2016, Republicans and Democrats have held many of their primaries elections to select their presidential candidates. For the Republicans, it’s now inevitable Donald Trump will run for them, and for the Democrats, Hillary Clinton is in the lead, but hasn’t secured the nomination with Bernie Sanders still in the race.
Let’s get this out the way first: the US political system is weird. Weird because money makes such an impact in these elections as candidates splurge on ad buys, staff and strategists. Extra weird because in Indiana this week the candidate (Ted Cruz) that spent a million dollars more than the front runner (Donald Trump) came away with nothing to show for it but wounds he determined to be fatal.
Even weirder yet, because for the third election in a row the avowedly evangelical candidate failed to gain the nomination from the party thought to be the favourite of the evangelical voting bloc. McCain in 2008, Romney in 2012, and now Donald Trump in 2016. Ted Cruz, the supposed darling of the evangelical right, didn’t get the traction that the myth of their influence would suggest. Despite the attempts at a stop Trump movement, open letters and declarations from every corner of the evangelical Church, Donald Trump has won a race in which most thought he was the equivalent of a marathon runner in a chicken costume.
Among the 60 per cent of Republican voters this week who described themselves as evangelical, Donald Trump won, although by a smaller margin than those who didn’t use this label. When church attendance is factored in, Trump beat Cruz 63 to 26 per cent for those who attend occasionally, while Cruz just overturned this deficit for weekly attenders (47-43).
The evangelical vote is not a monolithic bloc, and this election shows it can’t be herded in the way frequently suggested. Between a quarter and a third will vote Democrat and the split shown between candidates this Spring shows even for Republicans there’s little clear influence of their religious beliefs in why they vote how they do.
Last year before the UK general election I wrote about voting for parties where you fundamentally disagree with something they stand for. So to push this to the limit, does voting for Trump fit into this model of behaviour, is it something you weigh up and decide to be the best of difficult alternatives, or does it cross a threshold where a Christian in good conscience shouldn’t step?
From a little social media crowdsourcing from US friends, I got the unanimous response that they wouldn’t, and felt they couldn’t, vote for Trump. Comments such as:
“His speeches are inflammatory and incite hatred, anger, and fear – the exact opposite of Jesus’ teaching.”
“His rallies seem to evoke and stir up anger. I respect a leader who doesn’t shut out those with differing opinions.”
“I want us to not have a leader who is known for saying: ‘You’re fired!’ and having a really bad comb over.”
“He is clearly not fit for office and would be a national embarrassment at best and a catastrophe at worst.”
One took a wider perspective: “I think the American Christians who vote for Trump can be real, serious Christians who love Jesus, they are just blinded by a worldview that thrives on fear and anger.”
Clearly something is missing. Because plenty of evangelicals are voting for Trump and intend to vote for him in November. I asked Prof Andrea Hatcher, a US expert on evangelical engagement in politics, why they were supporting Trump: “I think their rush to Trump, inasmuch as he speaks to their fears, about secularism and decline in economic and social status, represents a grasping at straws for a segment of the population losing control in American society.
“The evangelicalism isn’t driving the movement; it just correlates with other trends that are salient in American politics now.”
There is another trend I want to suggest. The ‘make America great’ mentality that intersects with a vision of the US as God’s chosen country. When religious belief emphasises the making great of temporal nations and kingdoms, and the syncretism of nationalism and patriotism with worship of a God who called for His kingdom to come, and not ours, it’s asking for a candidate to respond to those pleas.
It almost doesn’t matter what that candidate says and does, because if they speak to our fears, and promise to fulfil our hopes, voters will respond with as much weight as they place on those hopes and fears. A third of Republicans voting in Indiana said it was most important a candidate shared their values, among these Trump only won 18 per cent of votes. Among the other traits considered most important, telling it like it is, and ability to bring change, Trump won by a huge margin.
I firmly believe churches shouldn‘t tell their congregations how to vote, and we’ve seen that even in the bastion of supposed religious influence on politics it doesn’t work. But perhaps we need to give thought to the vision for the world around us churches and Christian leaders paint, because that does have an influence, and an influence it’s hard to back pedal from.