There have been a myriad of stories about how Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump is winning over evangelicals. And there have been a lot of pixels given over to talking about how hypocritical evangelicals are. In the 90s, they wanted to burn Bill Clinton at the stake for adultery, but now they ignore Trump’s many affairs and marriages.
So, are evangelicals really flocking towards Trump? Well, the picture is not as clear as some would like to think. Earlier this month, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat noted that not every evangelical was jumping on the Trump train:
First, the good news for despairing anti-Trump believers: Despite those polls showing him doing well with evangelicals and Catholics, Trump is not the first choice of most active churchgoers. Indeed, active religiosity is (relatively speaking) one of the bulwarks against Trumpism, and his coalition is strongest among the most secular Republicans, not the most religious…
…Trump is losing the most active believers, but he’s winning in what I’ve previously termed the “Christian penumbra” — the areas of American society (parts of the South very much included) where active religiosity has weakened, but a Christian-ish residue remains.
The inhabitants of this penumbra still identify with Christianity, but they lack the communities, habits and support structures that make the religious path (somewhat) easier to walk. As a result, this Christian-ish landscape seems to produce more social dysfunction, more professional disappointment and more personal disarray than either a thoroughgoing secularism or a fully practiced faith — which makes it ripe territory for Trump’s populist appeal. And his occasional nods to religious faith — like, say, his promise to make store clerks say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” — are well tailored for voters for whom Christian identity is still a talisman even when an active faith is all but gone.
So, the people who are attracted to Trump who might consider themselves Christians are people who don’t normally attend church, you could call them cultural Christians. As Douthat notes, they have the language of the faith, but they are not connected to the institutions that could offer them help in hard times. Their faith has the words of Christianity, but without the church.
The importance of this is that it reminds all of us Christians- evangelical or not- of the importance of church going. I don’t know how it’s being viewed in evangelicalism, but there is at times a sense within progressive/mainline Christianity that going to church is not the main thing. In fact, we have pushed people out of the churches and into the community, but we’ve done it at the time where people need it the most.
Church is the place where we are formed to be followers of Jesus. It is a lifelong learning process, where we learn of the importance to love God and neighbor. For those on the outer edges of American life, just trying to scrape by, Trump is able to latch on to those last fading embers of Christian faith and inject his own agenda. But for those who go to church on a regular basis, they know that Trumps’ statements on Mexicans, women, Muslims and whoever else Trump doesn’t like is contrary to what the Bible teaches.
Does that mean that there aren’t evangelicals that go to church every Sunday and are voting for Trump? Yes. Is that a problem? Definitely. (Read comments from evangelicals like Russell Moore and Peter Wehner about the that issue.) But it seems that the real decider on Trump is based on how often the person goes to church.
There are many that want to believe that evangelicals are every kind of evil imaginable. (I will add that there are many who think that mainline/progressive Christians are every kind of evil imaginable as well.) But the picture is always more complex than we would like it to be.
But while churchgoing evangelicals are not going for Trump, it is important to note that the percentage of church going Christians has been going down. A recent Vox article shares the numbers:
From 2007 to 2012, there was a 5 percentage point drop in the number of people who said they were Christian, according to a Pew Research study. The number went from 78 percent of Americans to 73 in just five years.
But it’s not just that fewer people are identifying as Christian; it’s that even the people who still identify as such are going to church less frequently — and as we see in the Trump polling, this matters.
Less people going to church means more people falling sway to other gods.
It is having actual communities where people gather and worship God that can be an innoculant against the wiles of Trumpism and any other isms in our world. This is why we need churches; as places where people are formed and also as communities of resistance against the ways of the world.