I go to a Christian liberal-arts school in the Southeastern United States. It is common for students to cover portions of the university’s thoroughfares with colorful sidewalk chalk. Usually these chalky visuals advertise campus events; sometimes they are just pretty pictures. Last semester, an unidentified person wrote pro-Donald Trump slogans and messages in chalk on one of the walkways. This mysterious character has since become known as “the Trump artist.” The bizarre event is emblematic of my experience with young, Evangelical Christian Trump supporters. I know they exist – and apparently some are rather committed – but it is often hard to tell who these young people are and why it is that they support Trump’s candidacy.
As Ryan McDowell recently wrote for Juicy Ecumenism, U.S. youth (ages 18-29) show significant Left-leaning tendencies. The Progressive movement among the Evangelical youth may not be as strong, but it is present in both their political and theological views. To illustrate: 54% of young Evangelicals say homosexuality should be accepted, as opposed to discouraged, and 11% say the Bible is not the word of God, according to a Pew Research survey.
What then is the profile of the young, Evangelical Trump voter? If they are not following their peers to the political Left, what is keeping them with Trump? Does it have to do with how they understand their faith? This post combines formal survey data of young Evangelicals with informal data I compiled by surveying some of my young, Evangelical friends and acquaintances. The results are anecdotal and conclusions speculative, but they may offer a window into the thinking of a seldom-studied group of voters.
Twenty-seven young Evangelicals responded to my survey, which asked them if they identified as Evangelical and to explain their rationale for or against voting for Trump. Each of the 13 respondents who will definitely be voting for Trump revealed either deep disagreement with much of his platform, serious reservations about his character, or both. Their voting rationales are highly context-dependent. Every pro-Trump response offered “Hillary Clinton is worse” as a reason for choosing Trump, and 7 of the 13 offered only this impetus.
Here is one interesting response:
“I consider myself an evangelical Christian, and like all Christians, I am tasked with spreading Christ’s Gospel to all ends of the earth. Considering the alternatives for this fall election, I will in fact be voting for Donald Trump. While I don’t necessarily agree with all of (or perhaps not even the majority of) Mr. Trump’s moral values, it has become increasingly clear to me that having Hillary Clinton as our Commander-in-Chief would be a far worse moral predicament for our country. I consider it my civil responsibility and a privilege to vote, even if neither option is an ideal candidate.”
Another response began by calling Trump “very impulsive, devious, and abject,” but concluded,
“Although I don’t like the concept of the ‘lesser of two evils’ argument, it is very practical and is one of the leading factors influencing my voting decision later this year … I do not think Trump should have ever gotten to this position as he is not very presidential, but … due to the fact that there is no better candidate with a legitimate chance of winning, and that numerous of Trump’s political ideals align with my own he will receive my vote later this year.”
These young, educated Evangelicals offer the justifications that recently prompted Chelsen Vicari to ask, “When Picking a President, Does Character Still Count to Evangelicals?” Young Evangelicals seem perfectly comfortable offering their political support to an individual with few – if any – of the personal characteristics they find admirable.
One respondent told me, “the religious beliefs of a candidate have little to no influence on my vote choices.” Another contended,
“When voting for a human being, as a candidate for the presidency, I cannot weigh them for their sins. I know not what they may have committed in private and may not know their heart … Donald Trump is no greater sinner than any one of us. Because we as people cannot weigh a man or woman’s character based entirely on sin we should look at them separately from the spiritual sense.”
I find these context-driven responses striking in light of research on how young Evangelicals believe their faith speaks into moral decision making. According to Pew Research, 73% of young Evangelicals say religion is very important in their lives, and 83% think the Bible is the word of God. However, only 34% believe clear standards for right and wrong exist. Apparently, the majority of young Evangelicals derive such standards neither from religion writ large nor the Bible specifically. Indeed, 63% say right and wrong depends on the situation. Although no causal claims can be made, the voting rationales of Trump supporters I contacted seem to fit the pattern of context-dependent decision making that characterizes young Evangelicals more broadly. Is it wrong to vote for Trump? “Not at this point,” appears to be the standard answer.
While three of the most articulate responses did stress that “Hillary Clinton is worse,” each also contended that Trump has redeeming qualities. They endorsed his tough stance on immigration, pointed to his business acumen, and speculated that he would appoint conservative Supreme Court justices.
However, one young person, who had yet to decide how to cast his ballot, mused that Trump’s business acumen may be a double edged sword:
“At first glance Donald Trump seems like a complete idiot … Perhaps we are the idiots. Donald Trump is a business man, he knows marketing, he knows that exposure (even when it is negative) is more effective than no exposure at all. So one of my first thoughts about Donald Trump is perhaps he is playing us all, maybe the jester is the one getting the last laugh.”
If these responses are representative, then the profile of a young Evangelical voter looks a lot like the profile of a non-religious Republican.
Although the Evangelical label has nothing to do with politics (it comes from the Greek word εὐαγγελἰα, which means “good tidings”), in the media it connotes a reflexively Republican voting bloc. Evangelicals of all ages should prayerfully consider whether that is the political witness they wish to portray.