Of all the bizarre aspects of the 2016 presidential campaign, none has been more puzzling to many observers than the embrace of Donald Trump by evangelical Christians. After losing the evangelical vote (and first-in-the-nation caucuses) to Ted Cruz in Iowa, Mr. Trump won a plurality of evangelical votes in a string of primaries. He did so again in Michigan and Mississippi this week, and a Fox News poll shows him with a 17-point lead among evangelicals ahead of the March 15 Florida primary. Mr. Trump would not be the Republican front-runner today without his ability to compete for evangelical votes.
The vision of Jerry Falwell Jr. and Sarah Palin endorsing the twice-divorced Manhattan real-estate developer while evangelicals pack arenas to cheer his unique brand of politics-as-performance-art has caused some jaws to drop. For the chattering class, the odd alliance is like a plot twist from “Elmer Gantry,” offering an irresistible opportunity to bash the Republican front-runner and the party’s evangelical base.
New York Times columnist Frank Bruni recently faulted evangelicals for supporting a man who “personifies greed” and “radiates lust,” proving “how selective and incoherent the religiosity of many in the [Republican] party’s God squad is.”
This consternation is shared by more than a few evangelicals. Former George W. BushWhite House aide Pete Wehner has bemoaned his coreligionists’ joining Mr. Trump in an angry politics of grievance that seeks “scapegoats to explain their growing impotence.” Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore offered a simpler, half-in-jest explanation in a Washington Post op-ed: Many evangelicals “may well be drunk right now.”
But something larger and more interesting than resentment (or spirituous liquor) explains Mr. Trump’s performance among evangelicals.
First, a reality check: Mr. Trump is currently winning about one-third of evangelicals—about the same share of self-identified evangelicals who supported the primary campaigns of Sen. John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. An impressive performance for Mr. Trump in a crowded field, to be sure, but hardly a majority. If the race narrows to Messrs. Trump and Cruz, expect a fierce, neck-and-neck battle for voters of faith.
Mr. Trump benefits from an issue mix custom-made for an outsider businessman promising toughness on the international stage. After the Great Recession of 2008 and the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino late last year, Americans desire a strong leader who will revive the economy and protect the homeland. This is true for evangelicals too.
Despite what liberal pundits imagine, they don’t vote solely based on abortion and gay rights. A February Quinnipiac University survey found that the top issues for evangelical voters in the Republican primary were the economy (26%), terrorism (21%) and immigration (9%). Only 6% listed abortion.
Second, evangelicals don’t cast ballots based only on a candidate’s religiosity (or lack thereof). They backed Ronald Reagan, a former Hollywood actor and the first divorced man to occupy the White House, over Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter. Reagan, while he was a deeply spiritual man, rarely attended church and eschewed the label “born again.” But evangelicals admired him because he was pro-life and cast the Cold War in starkly moral terms. Those stands trumped Mr. Carter’s piety.
Similarly, Mr. Romney, a devout Mormon, drew 78% of evangelicals’ votes in the 2012 election, despite their profound disagreement on theology.
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SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal
Ralph Reed is founder and chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition.