Pastor Gary Fuller planned a Sunday service focused on involving Christians in the political process and featuring a speech by the pastor father of Sen. Ted Cruz. But after a week in which Cruz abruptly dropped out of the race, his father scrapped his appearance here and Donald Trump became the Republican Party’s standard-bearer, a dismayed Fuller kept the political portion short.
“Vote according to your convictions,” Fuller told congregants at Gentle Shepherd Baptist Church who will cast ballots in Nebraska’s presidential primary Tuesday. “What you believe is the right thing to vote for, according to the Scriptures.”
He told congregants that the church can’t and won’t promote one candidate over another. But Fuller has a hard time stomaching Trump as the Republican nominee and plans to vote for Cruz on Tuesday, even though the senator has dropped out of the race.
“In a sense, we feel abandoned by our party,” Fuller said. “There’s nobody left.”
Fuller and other conservatives whose voting decisions are guided by their Christian faith find themselves dismayed and adrift now that Trump has wrested control of the Republican Party. It is a sentiment that reaches from the small, aluminum-sided church with a large white cross on its front that Fuller and his wife built on the Nebraska plains to the highest levels of American religious life. Even progressive Christians — evangelicals and Catholics, among others — who don’t necessarily vote Republican are alarmed that Trump is attracting many voters who call themselves religious. A coalition of nearly 60 Christian leaders — many progressive and some conservative — published an open letter last week asking voters of faith to reject Trump and his “vulgar racial and religious demagoguery,” warning that the nation faces a “moral threat” from the candidate.
“Certain kinds of political appeals and certain kinds of political developments are fundamentally antithetical to the Christian faith and must be named as such,” said David Gushee, a professor of ethics at Mercer University who signed the letter.
There is consternation about the hard line Trump takes on immigrants and about the morality of a thrice-married man who has long bragged about his sexual conquests. But another factor is at work as well: The traditional social and cultural positions that drive many religious conservative voters, including same-sex marriage and abortion, have been cast aside by a candidate who seems to have little interest in fighting the culture wars.
In the past, Trump has espoused social views to the left of his party, including a longtime acceptance of gay rights, although he has since moved right on many of them. He has praised Planned Parenthood for helping millions of women. He is running as an antiabortion candidate but had said in the past that he supported abortion rights and would not ban the procedure known as partial-birth abortion.
And while he says he is against same-sex marriage, he has attended a same-sex wedding and is opposed to a North Carolina law — aimed at transgender people — that requires people to use bathrooms that correspond with the gender on their birth certificate. He said transgender activist Caitlyn Jenner could use the women’s room at his properties.
“This year the Republican Party has not just surrendered on the culture wars, they’ve joined the other side. And that’s a unique situation,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Cruz crusaded for social issues, making opposition to the transgender bathroom law one of his biggest fights at the end of his candidacy. The gambit failed when the senator from Texas lost badly to Trump in Indiana, a state that passed a controversial religious freedom law last year that led to a heated fight few want to relitigate.
“Trying to use social issues as primary issues to define a campaign has not borne out as effective for those candidates who embraced it,” said Gregory T. Angelo, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, which advocates for conservative gays and lesbians.
But there are voters like Fuller for whom “it’s always about social issues.” He cast ballots for John McCain and Mitt Romney despite not loving their platforms, but he felt they were men of character who would do right by the country. Many at a Baptist conference he attended last week were shaking their heads, he said, unsure about how to handle the upcoming election; supporting Hillary Clinton and her liberal positions seems contrary to everything many of them stand for.
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