Some religious conservatives may see the world in moral terms — right and wrong; black and white. But there’s a long moral tradition, as far back as Augustine, that sees our world in shades of gray. The City of God lives as earthly inhabitants of the City of Man; thus, our world is imperfect. We are to be “in the world, but not of it.” History does not progress only toward human perfection. In this calculus, religious conservatives might see moral contrasts in black and white, but see voting for a morally compromised figure whose administration pushes back against progressivism as an uncomfortable shade of gray.
It’s a complicated situation for religious conservatives. But these are complicated times.
In January 2021, someone will take the presidential oath of office, and religious conservatives will undoubtedly play a crucial role in whom it will be. Their influence will be the focus of an untold number of postmortems, of the type they’ve been accustomed to hearing since 2016, when the notorious “81 percent” of evangelicals voted for the unlikeliest of candidates: Donald Trump. There are two competing interpretations of Trump’s enthusiastic support from religious conservatives: that it is a lesser-of-two-evils transaction based on self-interest, or that it shows a voting bloc compromised by every form of democratic vice, whether racism, nativism, or nationalism.
If trends hold, there will be a similar turnout in 2020. Rather than wait for the postmortem, I can tell you what will happen now: Millions of religious conservatives will approach their votes with a political realism that requires balancing undesirable tensions and conflicting realities. They will vote not so much for Donald Trump — with his uncouth speech and incessantly immature tweets — as they will vote against the worldview of the Democratic platform. Those who make this calculation are not sell-outs, nor have they forfeited the credibility of their values carte blanche. For blind allegiance does not explain the voting relationship. That religious conservatives are not progressives does. Between Never Trump and Always Trump is a third category: Reluctant Trump. Voters in this category don’t get the fair hearing they deserve, since they defy the simple binary portrayal of religious conservatives as either offended by Trump or sold out to him.
Whatever scorn religious conservatives receive from secular and religious elites — whether fairly or unfairly — for abandoning their principles, exhibiting moral hypocrisy, or being complicit in an administration that Americans hear almost daily is an ‘existential threat’ to America, the reality is that religious conservatives of this third-way variety approach politics with far more complexity and internal tension than journalists claim. I should know, for I am a religious conservative. I’ve been schooled in their institutions. I am not writing the all-too-typical renunciation and self-hating hit piece to distance myself from my fellow religious conservatives. I embrace them as my people. But I’m not making this argument for myself. I’m making it on behalf of those I live with, talk to, and know to be nobler than the representation they get in the media. While I did not vote for Trump in 2016, I’ve backed off my former insistence that a Trump vote means automatically surrendering one’s principles.
As a religious conservative who has lived, worked, and operated among religious conservatives at the levels of public policy, congregational life, grassroots, and academia, I find that the constant volley of attacks directed at them misses the layers and rationales that undergird their voting profiles, mature political reflections, and political psyches.
Critics, whether secular or religious, are right to note the odd relationship between religious conservatives and Donald Trump. The refrain is familiar: To anyone with a conscience, Trump is both lewd and prurient, a man whose life has involved adultery, misogyny, racial insensitivity, vainglory, profanity, deceit, sexual aggression, divorce, fornication, casinos, and porn. Religious conservatives should not accept these vices, but rather denounce them. With Trump, it’s easier to find what offends the religious-conservative conscience than to find what does not.
Here was a man whose career and persona typify all that religious conservatives have protested in American culture. Or, lest we overlook recent history, a persona that religious conservatives spent the late 1990s imputing to President Bill Clinton. Critics of religious conservatives correctly point out what seems a glaring contradiction: Some religious-conservative leaders ignore or downplay moral indiscretions when it is their political party in power. Though religious conservatives don’t believe morality is relative, the moral outrage directed at Clinton is notably absent with Trump.
But an event on October 10, 2019 explains the odd-couple relationship of religious conservatives and Donald Trump. That evening, during a CNN townhall on LGBTQ issues, the now-former Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke proclaimed that churches failing to toe the line on gay and transgender rights would lose their tax-exempt status in his administration. O’Rourke’s comments represented a high-water mark of a culture that has jettisoned anything resembling a Christian moral ecology. Never mind that O’Rourke’s candidacy is over. It was an Overton Window–shifting moment.
O’Rourke’s comments reminded religious conservatives why so many of them voted for Trump in 2016, even if doing so felt hypocritical and seemed like a betrayal of their principles — and why they will likely do so again in 2020, despite their realism about his character. O’Rourke’s promise to remove tax exemptions only reinforced the embattled mentality of most religious conservatives, which mobilizes them as voters. The problem was not only with O’Rourke’s tax policy, however. It’s also that the rhetoric of progressives around sexual orientation and gender identity logically leads to the conclusion that O’Rourke simply dared to state honestly: It is illogical to say that Christianity is “harmful” to gay and transgender persons and then not to want it somehow punished. For years, religious conservatives predicted that the sexual revolution would eventually affect government policy and directly threaten churches. They can now point to O’Rourke and other examples as evidence of a massive cultural shift that has realized their predictions. Even the most convinced progressive should sympathize with religious conservatives who are concerned about federal law possibly turning against them.
While Christians must cast off both unwarranted fear and moral panic, rejecting both does not remove the real concerns that persist among religious conservatives. Most criticisms of how religious conservatives understand the world miss the mark. They fail to capture fully the moral landscape and moral contrasts that are formed by believing in a world richly enchanted with divine order. Christians who refract cultural disputes through sexuality and gender do so not because they are obsessed with either, but because the two reflect larger debates about morality, human nature, authority, the role of government, and the nature of justice. Our moral debates are not ephemeral; they are, rather, metaphysical and cosmological. Thus, when religious conservatives of the Reluctant Trump variety vote, they are not thinking merely about one man, even if he has reconfigured the relationship between character and electability and defined both the presidency and elections as character tests downward. They are thinking about the larger moral worldview to which the party is committed.
In my experience, huge numbers of religious conservatives are not proud about voting for Trump. They don’t need any more hot takes denouncing them as irredeemable hypocrites. Their consciences bear a discomfort governed by their love for America and the reputation of their faith. But if these religious conservatives have to choose between the dueling dumpster fires of either Trump or a possible Bernie Sanders presidency, they will vote overwhelmingly for Trump. And anyone who misunderstands this will continue projecting onto religious conservatives the usual tired bromides that refuse to reckon with a complicated situation.
Some religious conservatives may see the world in moral terms — right and wrong; black and white. But there’s a long moral tradition, as far back as Augustine, that sees our world in shades of gray. The City of God lives as earthly inhabitants of the City of Man; thus, our world is imperfect. We are to be “in the world, but not of it.” History does not progress only toward human perfection. In this calculus, religious conservatives might see moral contrasts in black and white, but see voting for a morally compromised figure whose administration pushes back against progressivism as an uncomfortable shade of gray. They understand that, in a fallen world, they will not always be able to vote for candidates of good character and policy. Sometimes, all the candidates are deeply flawed, and a judgment is required of how to steward faithfully one’s democratic privileges.