Earlier this summer, Deborah Fikes, a former executive adviser of the World Evangelical Alliance, which represents some 600 million evangelical Christians in 129 countries, decided she needed to take a stand in the presidential race. Long before the hot-mic tape that would reveal Donald Trump’s propensity for groping women, Fikes determined the real estate mogul simply was unsuitable for the presidency. But the brief essay she wrote in the New York Times didn’t decry Trump’s extremely casual acquaintance with the Bible, his history of marital infidelity and his generally un-Christlike desire to always punch back twice as hard. She made a case that was almost unique among her fellow evangelicals: Hillary Clinton, she argued, was not the lesser of two evils but in actuality the more Christian candidate and therefore far more deserving of their support.
“Many well-intentioned evangelicals have been drawn to the Republican Party platform with the hope of making an impact on culture and voting their values,” she wrote. But, “for the first time in my life, I feel compelled to reject my community’s unquestioned political alignment with the G.O.P. and challenge my fellow evangelicals to reconsider.”
Around the world, evangelicals reject the ideologically rigid positions that have become the norm for American conservatives. In other countries, she wrote, evangelicals view capital punishment as barbaric, accept the reality of climate change, reject torture by their government, endorse nuclear arms control and can’t understand why anyone would oppose gun reforms. “All of these stances are viewed as being pro-life and pro-family,” Fikes wrote.
And then she took it a step further. Those same evangelicals, she said, “consider Hillary Clinton a ‘sister in Christ’ and someone who lives out the Golden Rule in all the good she has done for women and children. Many affectionately call her ‘Sister Hillary.’”
The response to Fikes’ endorsement of Clinton has been mixed, to say the least. Among the many evangelicals for whom opposition to abortion is the single standard by which they assess a candidate, support for Clinton, who has been consistently pro-choice, amounted to apostasy. “Your organization doesn’t represent me or other Christians,” wrote a woman on Facebook. But Fikes said her public statement elicited a wave of private applause. “I’ve had many more evangelicals than you would realize email me and tell me and text me and say, ‘You are doing the right thing. I’m proud of you. I wish I could do it.”
During an election in which the evangelical right has bitterly split over its support for the Republican nominee, revealing to many both inside and outside the Christian conservative community a preference for political expedience over moral authority, Fikes’ campaign to peel away evangelicals looks less crazy than it might normally seem. Trump’s waffling views on abortion have made many conservatives wonder where his views really lie, and the parade of women who have emerged to accuse him of sexual misconduct has clearly appalled others, including students at Liberty University who signed an open letter rebuking their president, Jerry Falwell Jr., for his continued support of Trump after his “Access Hollywood” outing. Trump, the students argued, had boasted about behavior that would get faculty and staff at his university fired.
Trump’s success with the Republican Party’s evangelical base is mediocre at best. Though more than 70 percent of the Christian conservative electorate have supported the past three Republican candidates. But an October poll released by LifeWay Research, a Christian polling group, showed that Trump wasn’t even getting half of the evangelical vote, while Clinton was getting a third. The evangelical problem with Trump was most visible among non-white evangelicals, now up to a quarter of that demographic, among whom he trailed Clinton by nearly 50 points, though he did maintain an unbreachable lead with white evangelicals.
Yet despite this opening, Clinton, a committed Methodist, rarely talks about her faith on the campaign trail in a way that might appeal to evangelical voters. A campaign spokesperson told POLITICO that Trump’s inability to mobilize evangelicals has given the campaign an opening to this traditionally Republican demographic, and that the campaign has reached out to evangelicals as part of a broader faith-based outreach effort. But it’s an opening that the Clinton campaign has not fully exploited. Clinton met with some evangelical leaders this summer to discuss issues of common ground, like refugees and international assistance. That outreach, for the most part, has come from individual advocates like Fikes, instead of a focused campaign effort.
Without a defined role in the Clinton campaign or even a formal mandate to act as a surrogate for the former secretary of state, Fikes remains focused on the long-term rebranding effort that she believes should ultimately align evangelicals with views that are considered more classically liberal, but which, she argues, are simply true to Christian precepts.
The Republican Party sometimes pretends like “Jesus Christ is on their calling cards,” she says, but their views on immigration, economic issues, gun control, environmental issues, disarmament and others don’t always bear that out, Fikes says. “When we love like Jesus taught us to love, when we serve the poor, that to me is the good news being proclaimed in very empowered ways,” she says. “The walk of sharing the good news is so powerful, compared to when people just speak and say, ‘This is what you need to do.’”
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