In her nomination speech to the Democratic National Convention in July, former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described her Methodist faith as the foundation of her activism. “[My mother] made sure I learned the words of our Methodist faith,” she said “‘Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.’” This is almost Sermon-on-the-Mount material, and one hopes that Clinton actually means it.
Trump and evangelicals
Meanwhile, her political rival Donald Trump says that he’s a Presbyterian. But in his nomination speech to the Republican National Convention, he only explicitly mentioned religion while praising evangelical Christians. “I would like to thank the evangelical community,” trump said, “because, I will tell you what, the support they have given me — and I’m not sure I totally deserve it — has been so amazing.”
Trump’s gratitude is understandable. For decades, white evangelicals have been the bedrock of Republican support. In 2012, they voted 73 percent to 21 percent for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama, and a poll published by the Pew Research Center in July indicated that an even greater percentage of them intend to support Trump in 2016. This is especially significant because evangelical Christians in the U.S. make up about 30 percent of the population or 100 million people. They also have their own network of churches, schools, colleges and media outlets which can be mobilized during elections.
The assumption, generally, is that most evangelicals are suspicious of “big government” and would prefer a throwback to an era when families and the church took care of their own. Ironically, however, it was Democrat Bill Clinton who balanced the budget and Republicans, including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush who rang up enormous government deficits, much of that attributable to military spending.
Evangelicals and sexual politics
In reality, however, sexual politics are likely a more important issue than economics as the basis for white evangelical support for the Republicans. Most evangelicals are deeply opposed to a woman’s right to end a pregnancy if she chooses and also to same sex unions and marriages. The Republican platform contains language that is anti-abortion and anti-gay while the Democrats are clearly pro-choice.
For most (but not all) evangelicals, the ideal candidate embodies a combination of family values, as evangelicals see them, and personal integrity. Trump, however, has been divorced twice with sexual affairs thrown in. He is a real estate magnate who owns both hotels and gambling casinos. And his companies have declared bankruptcy four times, leaving creditors and workers in the lurch. Yet Trump has been embraced by evangelical leaders, such as Jerry Falwell Jr., who took over as president of Liberty University in 2007, upon the death of his ever-controversial father. The younger Falwell says that “Donald Trump is God’s man to lead our nation.”
Power not compassion
In response, writer Peter Wehner, who has served in three Republican administrations, said that Trump holds a worldview that “is incompatible with Christianity.” Trump is all about power, Wehner wrote. He holds anyone he considers weak or vulnerable in contempt, including prisoners of war and people with disabilities, as well as those who he considers physically unattractive and politically powerless. He is a bully who “disdains compassion and empathy.” So expect no Sermon on the Mount from him.
No lock on people of faith
But Trump, it turns out, doesn’t have a lock on people of religious faith. He has offended and frightened Latinos by calling them criminals and rapists, actually promising to build a wall between Mexico and the U.S. Latinos, however, now represent 17 percent of the American population and fully one-third of the nation’s 50 million Catholics. The latest Pew poll showed that registered Latinos intend to vote for Clinton by a margin of 77 percent to 16 percent, which would provide her with a 17-point advantage among all registered Catholic voters.
Trump is also using his “law and order” campaign to target blacks, although somewhat more subtly than his overtly racist attacks on Latinos and Muslims. Nonetheless, black churchgoers understand what Trump is doing. The Pew pollsters also anticipate that registered voters among black Protestants plan to vote for Clinton by a margin of 89 percent to 8 percent.
Beatitudes may sink Trump
Trump, in turn, will continue focussing on white voters while the Republicans will likely attempt to suppress the vote of Latinos and blacks — a strategy that has been used in the past. The chances are good, however, that changing demographics — combined with attention to the beatitudes — will finally sink the reality TV star in November.
An abbreviated version of this post appeared with the United Church Observer on August 11, 2016