It’s been three years since I and many other Christians voted for Donald Trump, and I for one am done defending that decision. At long last, I’m finished explaining my values to people who are hell-bent on misconstruing them.
Among those people are the left’s media foot-soldiers, who insist Trump-voting Christians have a “branding problem.” They conclude that because we could elect a man like Trump and because the number of Christians in America is shrinking, the two must be inextricable, and the culture wars we now fight are decidedly “post-Christian.”
Ezra Klein says as much in his latest column at Vox, “The post-Christian culture wars.” It seems Klein largely understands why many Christians voted for Trump. He pens:
Whatever Trump’s moral failings, he’s a street fighter suited for an era of political combat. Christian conservatives believe — rightly or wrongly — that they’ve been held back by their sense of righteousness, grace, and gentility, with disastrous results. Trump operates without restraint. He is the enemy they believe the secular deserve, and perhaps unfortunately, the champion they need. Understanding this dynamic is crucial to understanding the psychology that attracts establishment Republicans to Trump, and convinces them that his offense is their best defense.”
Why Did Christians Vote for Trump?
Klein’s analysis isn’t far off in this regard. Trump’s good offense won him the 2016 election. But his “offense” on behalf of Christians, or a handful of our values, doesn’t make Trump himself “Christian.” Most of us evangelicals don’t think so, and neither do the secular progressives who deceptively broadcast Trump as the scarlet letter on the Christianity coat. Only for the minority of cult Trumpians who have elevated that allegiance above their Christian identity does this become a “branding problem.”
In 2,000-or-so words, Klein analyzes why voters, namely Christians, voted for Trump. He quotes extensively from Attorney General William Barr, and his evaluation is fairly accurate.
To Barr, the challenge of the 21st century rests predominantly on the fact that freedom preservation requires a religious people and adherence to Judeo-Christian values, which today’s left detests. The left, in turn, has propped up politics as its own religion. To them, “acceptable” policies are not only desirable but are ultimate and righteous ends.
Consequentialism is the progressive left’s religious credo. Thus the long-term, rule-of-law principles of the religious right are pitted against the left’s teleological ethics in what Barr calls the progressives’ “scorched earth, no-holds-barred war.”
The election of Trump, then, wasn’t a calculated move toward theocracy, but more an attempt by the religious right to halt the advancement of the left’s forgiveness-free religion before it becomes the official National Church of Progressivism, where we all must pay homage and perform penance. Some, including Klein, would qualify this calculation as Flight 93ism or laughably apocalyptic, but that’s only because nobody has yet forced him to wax another man’s genitals or offered his hypothetical 15-year-old daughter an abortion without his knowledge.
The Number of Christians in the U.S. Has Declined
But next, Klein examines the downward trajectory of Christianity in America, leading to his conclusion that the country is “post-Christian.” As evidence, he points to General Social Survey data, which showed the nones, or those with no religious affiliation, eclipsing the number of Catholics and evangelicals in 2018.
Additionally, he says according to estimates by Robert Jones, president of the Public Religion Research Institute, white Christians made up 54 percent of Americans at the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency, and by the time he left office, that number had dropped to 43 percent. “This is largely because young Americans are less white, and less Christian, than older Americans,” Klein says. Most American seniors, nearly 70 percent, are white Christians, with only 29 percent of young adults falling into that category.
While I question the relevance of race in this religion analysis — in a graphic included in the article, the number of black Protestants remained relatively constant, for instance — once again, Klein is correct in some respect: The number of Christians in America has remarkably declined.
Klein Diagnoses a Branding Problem
But it is here that Klein and so many others in the media and the Never Trump movement go wildly off course. They conclude that Americans are abandoning Christianity because of Trump. And therefore, this decline in Christianity is evidence Christians have a “branding problem.”
Klein concludes that Christians’ support for Trump is ironic, stating:
Christian conservatives are likely hastening the future they most fear. In our conversation, Jones told me about a 2006 survey of 16- to 29-year-olds by the Barna Group, an evangelical polling firm, that asked 16- to 29-year-olds for their top three associations with present-day Christianity. Being ‘antigay’ was first, with 91 percent, followed by ‘judgmental,’ with 87 percent, and ‘hypocritical,’ with 85 percent. Christianity, the Barna Group concluded, has ‘a branding problem.’
What future exactly does Klein think Christians fear most? That America will fall short of theocracy? That the number of non-Christians will continue skyrocketing, leaving behind dwindling churches?
Being considered “judgmental” and “hypocritical” by people who hate your message sort of comes with the Christian message. It’s a big part of the “the world will hate you because it hated me first” message Jesus preached to his followers while he walked on this Earth.
Of course, Christians are sinners, so hypocrisy and judgment sometimes slip through in our words and actions as we war against our sins. But being misunderstood is part of the cost we’ve counted. It isn’t a branding problem. And weighing the pros and cons of a presumably unregenerate president who is also willing to defend some of the values we think are worth preserving isn’t hypocritical. It’s prudential.
As National Review editor Rich Lowry told Klein, “At the end of the day, we’re asked to either favor Trump or root for Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden or Mayor Pete, who oppose us on basically everything. So it’s a pretty simple calculation.”
Klein further concludes that clinging ever tighter to the president won’t fix the branding problem he’s diagnosed, noting Trump’s low polling numbers among both Gen Zers and millennials. “If young people are abandoning Christianity because it seems intolerant, judgmental, and hypocritical — well, intolerant, judgmental, and hypocritical is the core of Trump’s personal brand,” Klein asserts.
We Didn’t Elect Trump for His Morals
Right here is where Klein’s analysis and that of others on the left ceases to be honest. Why do they keep pretending Trump voters elected him because of his superior morals? Why do they keep linking him with a religion he doesn’t seriously associate himself with?
According to Pew Research, in 2016, voters, including Republicans, considered Trump to be the “least religious” candidate. As I wrote in a recent column, “Trump doesn’t appeal to scripture to absolve his shame. He simply doesn’t have shame. And while objectively, that isn’t a good thing, it also doesn’t in itself harm the cause of Christ because it doesn’t associate itself with Him.”
If millennials and Gen Zers are abandoning Christianity — which they are — and attributing that religious exodus to Trump, that is evidence of them being unwilling and unable to think critically about him. Of course, it’s easier to reject Christianity and conservatism if you can tie it to an objectionable figure. People are always looking for convenient ways to reject what they don’t want to engage with.
On that note, the Never Trumpers can take a seat, too. This isn’t a defense of the man’s character. The Never Trump movement largely contributed to Klein’s so-called branding problem by smearing Trump for lacking a Christian ethic he never really had claim to.
If the religious right wanted a president who was overtly Christian, we would have elected Mike Pence. We didn’t elect Trump to lure millennials and Gen Zers to Christianity. We didn’t elect him for his doctrine or because we thought he would be the most tolerant or the most bipartisan.
We elected him because we wanted the option to send our kids to religious schools that uphold the values we believe, because we wanted to see our grandchildren compete in fair athletic competitions, because we didn’t want to see small businesses exploited and Twitter-destroyed by transgender religious bigots.
Trump is the man for that job. He’s no saint. But no milquetoast Mitt Romney was going to get it done. Trump’s is precisely the “personal brand” we needed, personal life aside.