Earlier this month, President Trump spoke before a group of evangelical Christian supporters at the Ministerio Internacional El Rey Jesús in Miami. That morning, the president had ordered a drone strike that killed Iranian military leader, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, and his address to the largely Hispanic crowd touched on national security, religious freedom, and his potential opponents in the Democratic Party.
According to exit polls by Public Religious Research Institute, Trump has enjoyed support from white evangelical voters in higher numbers than the previous three Republican presidential candidates. Many high-profile evangelical leaders’ disavowals of the president have raised questions about whether Trump can maintain support from this loyal coalition.
Another question, however, is appropriate: Who, exactly, comprises this group of “evangelical Christians” and how can we understand this movement that has become seemingly inextricable from the Republican Party in recent decades?
Thomas S. Kidd, a self-proclaimed evangelical and the Vardaman Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University, has written Who Is an Evangelical: The History of a Movement in Crisis to attempt to answer these questions. Though Kidd, a former Republican, says he couldn’t ever bring himself to support President Trump, he understands the tendency for white evangelicals to do so. But, he says, the larger evangelical community — including those at Trump’s rally in Miami — holds more diversity than people think, and the allegiances of born-again Christians aren’t necessarily in Trump’s pocket.
The Saturday Evening Post: What is an evangelical?
Thomas S. Kidd: The simplest definition is just evangelicals are born-again Christians, but, of course, there’s a little more to say than that. I define it by three characteristics. One is to be “born again” or converted. Another one is a very high view of the Bible as a source of religious truth, and, finally, an ongoing sense of the presence of God in your life — a personal relationship with Jesus, or walking in the Holy Spirit. People would describe this different ways. Those things are not utterly unique about evangelicals, but I think they’re distinctive enough to set them apart from a lot of other kinds of Christians. I think those are historical and spiritual attributes to evangelicals, but also it gets beyond a sort of America-focused and political definition of who evangelicals are.
SEP: Another attribute of evangelicals that I’ve come across is proselytism. I’ve seen others include that in a definition of evangelicals.
Kidd: Yeah, Some people have put that under a category of general activism, or a kind of missionary impulse. I think that’s definitely an evangelical attribute, or at least it’s supposed to be, but, if you look at it historically, Catholics beat Protestants to the punch on missions by about a hundred years. I might make that a little less of an evangelical trait, but it definitely counts as one.
SEP: Would you say that the evangelical movement is growing?
Kidd: I think in the United States, it’s probably holding steady. The growth areas are mainly among charismatics and Pentecostals, and especially among immigrant groups — most obviously among Hispanics, but also among Asian and African immigrants. A lot of that tends to be off the radar screen, because those people are either not involved in politics or their political allegiances are more up for grabs than white evangelicals. I think white evangelicals are on a slow decline — not catastrophic, but a slow one. For instance, there’s been a slow decline in the Southern Baptist Convention over the past decade or so. The people that we tend to recognize most readily as evangelicals are white voters. Those people are definitely becoming a smaller percentage of the overall evangelical population in America.
SEP: In your book, you write about the white, conservative movement that most associate with evangelicals, particularly the media. If that isn’t the whole story, then what would you call that group otherwise?
Kidd: I think the term evangelical is going to be used in the media, so I think it’s probably futile for us to come up with other names. For me, personally, the only commitment I have to the term evangelical is that it’s a biblical term, meaning “good news.” In that sense, Christians can’t get away from the term evangelical. Some people have proposed terms like “gospel Christians” or “Jesus-followers” to bring some detachment from politics to the term. My view is that we’re kind of stuck with the term evangelical, so part of what I’m trying to do is to give a more historical and global view of what the term means and disconnect it a little bit from contemporary American politics.
SEP: If evangelicals aren’t united under support of the Republican party or the current administration, how would you say they are united?
Kidd: Well, they’re united in the characteristics that I’ve listed: conversion and the Bible and the felt presence of God. That allows you to look at evangelicalism as a global movement, so evangelicals in Brazil, Nigeria, and China are united on those kinds of attributes, but not on American political issues.
I do think in America there would be a pretty broad commonality on cultural and social issues. For instance, even though African American evangelicals tend to vote Democrat, they would be the most likely Democrats to have conservative views on marriage and abortion. Also, I think you would find a lot of white evangelicals who are more sympathetic to immigrants than other Republicans. I do think there are potential points of unity, but across those ethnic divides — especially between white and black evangelicals — in terms of electoral preferences, there’s not much unity.
SEP: Could an evangelical be a leftist?
Kidd: Sure. You don’t see very often, I don’t think, evangelicals who would be pro-choice — especially staunchly pro-choice. But, African American evangelicals are overwhelmingly Democratic. Historically, you certainly have a number of white evangelicals who, on economic issues, are leftwing. The magazine Sojourners, for instance, is a notable evangelical publication that is leftwing on economic issues — taking care of the poor, working class, etc.
SEP: You mention in your book that you’re a “Never Trump” evangelical. When did you decide that?
Kidd: I was certainly not supportive of Trump in the primaries. I was actually affiliated with Marco Rubio’s campaign, on one of his faith advisory boards. Where I saw the difference between me and most Republicans — I don’t necessarily consider myself a Republican anymore — was that the vast majority of active Republican voters coalesced around Trump. When he got the nomination, I decided I couldn’t support him.
SEP: When he is talking to his evangelical base, President Trump talks about “believers” and religion being under attack. Would you say that’s true?
Kidd: Not overall in America. I think what he’s referring to is some of the policies, especially under the Obama administration, like the HHS mandate, requiring companies to cover contraceptives, and even going after groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor, which was a major controversy, culturally. So, I think policies like that fed into a sense that the Democrats, and the Obama administration in particular, were inclined on some issues, like abortion or same-sex marriage, to require Christians to act against their conscience. I think that concern counts for Trump’s references to Christians being “under attack.”
I’m sure he would bring up the “Merry Christmas” issue too [laughs], but I don’t think that’s a very important issue. It is the sort of thing that people can understand.
But I think the religious liberty concerns are what he’s pointing to, and I think on issues like the HHS mandate, there really were religious reasons for Christians to be concerned. Whether that all amounts to Christians being under attack in America is probably overstated. But there are legal reasons for concern about religious liberty in America for sure.
SEP: You’ve talked about how you couldn’t support Trump, so where do you break from him?
Kidd: Different voters have different views on what is important, and some evangelical leaders have said that personal characteristics don’t matter that much, but I do think that they matter. For me, about half of what we’re looking for in any given president or presidential candidate is personal temperament and character. There are legions of problems with President Trump: the way that he talks about immigrants, the profanity, the Access Hollywood tape. There are all kinds of things you could list that are problematic, as far as character issues, with him. Policy-wise, I’m all for border security, but there are serious problems with the ways he has talked about both Latino and Muslim immigrants.
There are areas where I think evangelical support for Trump has panned out well. I think he’s made good nominations to the Supreme Court and other parts of the federal judiciary. I don’t think that white evangelical support for Trump has turned out to be absolutely unwarranted or foolish. But, for me, the character and confidence issues continue to make him unqualified for office.
SEP: How do you contend with that evangelical support for Trump? Would you urge other evangelicals to drop their support for him?
Kidd: Well, I think it depends some on what happens in terms of the democratic nominee. I didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton either. I didn’t feel like there was a good alternative for evangelicals in the 2016 election. Because of that, I didn’t feel that there was one acceptable option. What I’ve often said is that I don’t understand the enthusiastic support of Trump where he can do nothing wrong. That, I think, is especially unseemly. But I can understand why evangelicals would have voted for Trump, and I can understand why some evangelicals even voted for Hillary Clinton. I personally don’t think evangelicals had good options in 2016, and I suspect it’s going to be the same in 2020.
SEP: What about Pence? Is he a good representation of what evangelicals are looking for in a politician?
Kidd: My main concern about Pence is the way he has enabled Trump to do what Trump does, but I do think had Pence been a candidate in 2016 that he would have been a better alternative for evangelicals. Evangelical support in the 2016 election was deeply divided between Trump, Rubio, and Cruz. It wasn’t until the general election that white evangelical support largely coalesced around Trump. It’s a tough call between being willing to serve in Trump’s administration, but I think in general he would’ve been a better choice.
SEP: We have seen some evangelical leaders disavow President Trump, like Christianity Today’s former editor Mark Galli and author Beth Moore. White evangelical support for the president was polled at 81 percent in 2016 and, more recently, about 72 percent to 75 percent. Do you see that support from his evangelical base going anywhere?
Kidd: The Christianity Today editorial was certainly notable, because CT is still sort of the flagship evangelical magazine. They weren’t ever in support of Trump, though. What they did wasn’t a break with Trump; it was just coming out in favor of his removal. But, the fact they were willing to take that position was quite controversial and spectacular, and it was worth the attention that it got.
When you go back to 2016, Beth Moore, as you mentioned, but a lot of white evangelical leaders and of course a lot of Hispanic and African American evangelical leaders were critical of Trump and even went so far as to say they wouldn’t support him. Russell Moore at the Southern Baptist Convention got into a dustup with Trump and Trump denounced him on Twitter. Albert Mohler of Southern Seminary, John Piper, the prominent Baptist parachurch leader. World magazine, which tends to be a very conservative evangelical magazine, was highly critical of Trump in 2016. So, there were a lot of evangelical leaders who either expressed significant reservations or just outright opposed Trump in the 2016 election. As you said, 81 percent of self-identified white evangelical voters said they supported Trump in the general election.
I think a lot of this speaks to some disconnect between evangelical leaders, particularly white evangelical leaders, and rank-and-file white evangelicals. When you look at that 81 percent, it definitely reflects something important. And I’m sure a strong majority of white evangelical voters really did support Trump in 2016. Sometimes media reports get this right, but those exit polls were only asking white people, saying to them, “Are you an evangelical and who did you vote for?” By design, it doesn’t represent nonwhite evangelicals. And it’s only asking voters, obviously. Probably something like 45 percent of self-identified evangelicals didn’t vote in 2016. That’s why I want to pump the brakes on that number, especially when it gets reported as “81 percent of evangelicals voted for Trump,” which is simply not true. It’s way off from being true.
SEP: Out of that 81 percent, though, do you see that base of support diminishing at all?
Kidd: I don’t see that base of white support dwindling much, if at all. Part of the reason for that is because I think Trump has given those people enough to work with to be happy. Some of that has nothing to do with religious reasons. The economy is good. It’s not that these people voted only on religious, cultural issues. But, the Supreme Court nominations from that perspective have been good, and that’s probably the most important issue that core evangelicals vote about.
I think the more interesting story is probably Hispanic evangelicals. It was very much a calculated decision that Trump’s evangelical meeting was at a Hispanic-led evangelical church in Miami. I suspect the Trump campaign feels confident that they’ll be able to retain white evangelical voters, but Hispanic evangelical voters’ allegiances are far more up for grabs. They’re the second-largest evangelical ethnic group in America to whites, and — to the extent that we know their voting patterns — their allegiances seem much more up for grabs.
SEP: Back to your book: What are you hoping that a history of evangelicalism can say in today’s political and religious landscape?
Kidd: I guess I would like people to come away realizing the evangelical movement has a long history that mostly doesn’t have to do with contemporary American politics or the Republican party. Evangelicals of different ethnicities have taken a lot of different political stances over time, but there are particularly reasons why, over the past 50 years, white evangelicals have become closely attached to the Republican Party. That wasn’t a given, even as late as 1976. I would hope readers come away with a different understanding of who evangelicals are than just “white religious Republicans in America today.”
Featured image: SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo
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