More than 25% of Americans identify as evangelical Christians. And according to a recent PBS/Marist poll, 73% of evangelicals continue to support Donald Trump, despite his flouting of traditional values. The disparity between Christian morality and Trump’s evident lack of personal virtue has led to charges of hypocrisy from the larger culture. Feeling the sting of these charges, the minority of evangelicals who oppose Trump are increasingly worried that populist evangelical support for the president will discredit Christianity’s “moral witness” in American society. This growing division among evangelicals has recently been brought to a head by Christianity Today’s forceful call to remove President Trump from office.
Progressive media coverage of this cultural divide within evangelicalism has focused primarily on what can be done to encourage the further liberalization of Christian culture. But an unexamined piece of this puzzle is how progressives themselves can evolve their own culture to reduce evangelicals’ enthusiasm for the Trump presidency. According to poll analysis by FiveThirtyEight, many evangelical Christians feel alienated from the Democratic Party because of its perceived hostility toward religion.
Throughout most of our history, America’s liberal values have been undergirded by Christianity’s traditional moral system. In recent decades, however, a new moral system of progressivism has replaced traditional Christian morality within major segments of American society. As conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks admits, progressives have won the culture war decisively. But although progressives and their liberal allies on the left now command the heights of American culture, they have not yet won the culture war in the realm of politics.
To defeat Trump in November, and defeat Trumpism once and for all, progressives would do well to acknowledge their cultural victory and make peace with their Christian fellow citizens. Yet to become cultural peacemakers, progressives don’t need to move toward the middle, soften their political demands, or otherwise compromise their values. On the contrary, liberals and progressives can reduce the sense of alienation that drives support for Trump by extending their own inclusive values to encompass evangelicals, who are experiencing their own cultural marginalization. It is important to recognize that evangelicals feel “unsafe” and have elected Trump to serve as their cultural bodyguard. And when hiring a bodyguard, one may be inclined to overlook his arrest record.
Even as they oppose the politics of the religious right, progressives can make common cause with the many enduring values that traditional Christian culture continues to contribute to our society. These values include decency, loyalty, modesty, patriotism, and respect for rightful authority. The traditional reverence for family life can also be carried forward by progressives within their more inclusive understanding of family.
By tempering their self-sabotaging hostility toward Christianity in this way, progressives can atone for their own unwitting complicity in the rise of Trumpism. And by doing their part to make America’s political discourse more civil, and even welcoming, for ideologically diverse groups, progressives can sway the evangelical vote at the margins, which might be enough to prevent Trump’s reelection in November.
The self-sabotaging effects of progressive hostility toward Christianity were on full display in the Supreme Court’s 2018 Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling. The high court found in favor of the Christian baker who refused to make a gay wedding cake because of the “clear and impermissible hostility” shown by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which “disparaged the baker’s faith as despicable.”
And assertions during a judicial confirmation hearing by Sen. Dianne Feinstein that strong Catholic faith should disqualify a nominee from serving as a judge also demonstrates progressive contempt for Christianity. While I’m personally sympathetic to Feinstein’s concerns about packing the federal bench with ultra-conservative jurists, it’s easy to see why evangelicals conclude that progressives are hostile to their beliefs.
Although evangelical support for Trump does constitute moral hypocrisy, progressives evince their own hypocrisy when it comes to their stated values of diversity and inclusivity. Progressives are keen to demonstrate cultural sensitivity toward Islamic traditionalists, for instance, despite Islamic homophobia and contempt for liberal freedoms. If progressives showed a similar degree of cultural sensitivity toward Christian traditionalists, even while opposing them politically, this would help ameliorate the hyper-polarization that led to the rise of Trumpism. Progressives may have won the culture war, but unless they are gracious in their victory, their cultural success will continue to result in their political defeat.
When it comes to American democracy, we’re all in this together. By simply acknowledging that conservative Christians “have a right to be who they are,” progressives can persuade a politically significant number of evangelical voters that they don’t need a cultural bodyguard.