How Did Obama Win White Evangelical Votes and Clinton Didn’t? He Asked for Them

Former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton speaks to Florida voters at a Baptist Church in Miami. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton speaks to Florida voters at a Baptist Church in Miami. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The 2012 Obama campaign’s director of religious outreach says Democrats are throwing votes away.

The white evangelical vote has been a focus of post-election coverage, and for good reason. If you had told the average person that white evangelicals would account for more than a fourth of the entire electorate, they may not have believed you: After all, evangelicals are often imagined as a fringe population. But they represented more than a quarter of the electorate in 2012 and 2008, and again this year.

In the 2016 presidential election, 81 percent of these voters — voters that Democrats only remember exist every four years — voted for Donald Trump, and only 16 percent supported Clinton, well below the level of support of white evangelicals for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, when he won 26 and 21 percent of white evangelical votes respectively.

I am a white evangelical, but I could not support Donald Trump. This might not be surprising: I led religious outreach for Barack Obama’s reelection campaign. Even so, I saw Trump’s candidacy as uniquely disqualifying for evangelicals. Trump will be the most secular president America has ever had. His unabashed pursuit of money, sex and power represents the kind of disordered loves that are commonly preached about in churches around the country. And a number of evangelical leaders denounced his candidacy during the primaries.

So what happened?

First, it’s a disturbing fact that safe harbors in white evangelical culture for an acceptance of or willingness to overlook racism, misogyny, xenophobia and anti-Semitism still exist. These tendencies do not wholly define evangelicalism; nor do they summarize all white evangelical support for Trump. But they still plague evangelical communities, and it is the responsibility of evangelicals who supported the winning candidate to be open to these conversations for the unity of the church.

But there are also ordinary political explanations for how white evangelicals voted. Trump’s message to evangelicals was that the challenges they face require a suspension of their values in politics — that it is now time to stop playing nice and start busting heads and disrupting the entire system. For evangelicals who feel embattled, isolated and marginalized by the onslaught of cultural change from sexual liberation to same-sex marriage to the coarsening of culture, Trump promised that he would relieve the pressure. Perhaps many of the 81 percent of white evangelicals who supported Trump were uncomfortable with his approach to winning, but there was an even firmer sense that they could not afford to keep losing.

This was on stark display at the second presidential debate, for instance, when Anderson Cooper asked in regard to the now-infamous “Access Hollywood” tape: “You called what you said locker room banter. You described kissing women without consent, grabbing their genitals. That is sexual assault. You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?” To which Trump replied: “I apologize to the American people. Certainly I’m not proud of it. But this is locker room talk. You know, when we have a world where you have ISIS chopping off heads, where you have — and, frankly, drowning people in steel cages, where you have wars and horrible, horrible sights all over, where you have so many bad things happening, this is like medieval times. We haven’t seen anything like this, the carnage all over the world.” Trump framed concern with what he characterized as typical male speech as a luxurious distraction, basic morality as a weakness in the face of evil.

Trump’s outreach to religious people consisted of telling them he was the only one who could save them and the country from what was coming — terrorism, a loss of religious freedom, the ratification of abortion as a moral good — and that he would offer them not just protection, but power. His message was to affirm conservative Christians’ sense of isolation and vulnerability, and to offer himself as the only way out. The debate line Trump used to deflect from his “Access Hollywood” comments was not new. He used it at Liberty University:

…We’re going to protect Christianity, and I can say that. I don’t have to be politically correct. We’re going to protect it. You know, and I asked Jerry [Falwell Jr.] and I asked some of the folks because I hear this is a major theme right here, but II Corinthians, 3:17, that’s the whole ball game. Where the spirit of the lord, right, where the spirit of the lord is, there is liberty, and here there is Liberty College, but Liberty University, but it is so true. You know, when you think — and that’s really — is that the one? Is that the one you like? I think that’s the one you like because I loved it, and it’s so representative of what’s taken place. But we are going to protect Christianity. And if you look what’s going on throughout the world, you look at Syria where if you’re Christian, they’re chopping off heads. You look at the different places, and Christianity, it’s under siege.

This helps us understand how a majority of Trump’s voters could question his temperament and fitness for office, and still think he’s the man for the job.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post
Michael Wear is the Founder of Public Square Strategies LLC, and author of the forthcoming book Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America.

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