[Updated with James MacDonald reaction]
Two days after The Washington Post released a video of Donald Trump candidly bragging about his aggressive groping and kissing of women, there has been little public movement among his leading evangelical supporters and detractors.
While Republicans in Congress—most notably John McCain—scrambled to distance themselves from Trump this weekend, many of his evangelical backers dug in. Conversely, many of his evangelical opponents amped up their criticism of both Trump and their Christian counterparts.
The bigger question: How will the Trump tape affect the plurality of evangelical pastors (44%) who remain undecided on Trump vs. Clinton? Those undecided pastors told LifeWay Research last month that the top characteristic for getting their vote in 2016 is personal character (36%), while likely Supreme Court nominees (14%) ranked second by a more than 2 to 1 margin.
One of the most notable reactions to Trump’s lewd comments came from Harvest Bible Chapel pastor James MacDonald, a member of Trump’s evangelical advisory council [membership does not equal endorsement]. Over the weekend, MacDonald denounced Trump’s “misogynistic trash that reveals a man to be lecherous and worthless,” according to email excerpts published with MacDonald’s permission by CT blogger Ed Stetzer.
“I cannot and will not offer help to a man who believes this kind of talk a minor error,” wrote MacDonald. He later noted, “No more defending Mr. Trump as simply foolish or loose lipped.” (The Exchange blog offers more details as well as Stetzer’s reaction.)
The other most notable reaction came from Wayne Grudem, a respected evangelical theologian who drew much attention for his July argument that Trump was a “morally good choice” for president. Yesterday, the Phoenix Seminary professor and co-founder of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood pulled his endorsement from Trump, writing, “I strongly urge him to withdraw from the election.”
“Some may criticize me for not discovering this material earlier, and I think they are right,” Grudem continued. “I did not take the time to investigate earlier allegations in detail, and I now wish I had done so. If I had read or heard some of these materials earlier, I would not have written as positively as I did about Donald Trump.”
Grudem then laid out the conundrum that has caused many evangelicals to still support Trump: “Hillary Clinton is no better.”
Indeed, those who are sticking by Trump say it isn’t because of his character, but because of the issues they hope he will advance.
James Dobson, founder of Family Talk and one of Trump’s religious advisers, stated that Trump’s comments “were deplorable and I condemn them entirely. I also find Hillary Clinton’s support of partial birth abortion criminal and her opinion of evangelicals to be bigoted. There really is only one difference between the two. Mr. Trump promises to support religious liberty and the dignity of the unborn. Mrs. Clinton promises she will not.”
Ralph Reed, who heads Trump’s religious advisory board, told the Post that “people of faith are voting on issues like who will protect unborn life, defend religious freedom, grow the economy, appoint conservative judges and oppose the Iran nuclear deal.”
Franklin Graham wrote on Facebook that Trump’s comments “cannot be defended,” and reiterated that he was “not endorsing any candidates.” But Graham called the Supreme Court appointment “the most important issue of this election is the Supreme Court.”
Family Research Council president Tony Perkins told the Post that his support of Trump was not “based upon shared values rather it was built upon shared concerns.” And Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and one of Trump’s earliest supporters, said the “lewd, offensive, and indefensible” comments weren’t enough “to make me vote for Hillary Clinton.”
Sam Rodriguez, the leader of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, hasn’t endorsed Trump, though his executive vice president, Tony Suarez, is on Trump’s religious advisory board. Rodriguez toldTheWall Street Journal that Trump’s situation was “redeemable” if the candidate would apologize, explain how he is different than he was in 2005, and emphasize that God uses “broken people to accomplish great things.”
For evangelicals who oppose Trump, the lack of stronger reaction to his latest scandal is sounding a death knell for the Religious Right.
“[Trump] reaffirmed who he is over and over again, even during this campaign—from misogynistic statements to racist invective to crazed conspiracy theorizing,” wrote Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission president Russell Moore for the Post. “And yet here stands the old-guard Religious Right establishment. Some are defending or waving this away, with the same old tropes they’ve used throughout this campaign.”
He pointed to the embarrassment that televangelists in the 1980s caused the church, and added that “the damage done to gospel witness this year will take longer to recover from than those 1980s televangelist scandals.”
“Younger evangelicals and former evangelicals have taken note,” wrote Collin Hansen, editorial director for The Gospel Coalition, in an opinion piece for the Post. “An aspiring president of the United States can brag about sexually assaulting women and still claim the backing of many if not most of the older stalwarts in the Religious Right.”
Hansen called the election “the last spasm of energy from the Religious Right before its overdue death.”
Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said that while evangelicals are “not wrong” to see the danger in another Clinton administration, the popular “we’re electing a president, not a pastor” argument collapsed with the release of the video.
“Donald Trump is not just disqualified from being a Sunday school teacher,” he wrote in the Post. “Honest evangelicals would not want him as a next-door neighbor.”
A recent poll by Barna Group showed Trump doing better than Clinton among American Christians, but by narrower margins than past Republican-Democrat matchups:
That includes evangelicals (among whom he holds a 55% to 2% lead over Clinton); non-evangelical born again Christians (he has a 49% to 31% lead among them); those who attend a Protestant church (47% to 32% lead); adults who claim to have a biblical worldview (57% to 30% margin); people who believe that absolute moral truth exists (48% to 37% preference for Trump); and those who consider themselves to be theologically conservative (60% for Trump, 28% for Clinton).
More than 4 out of 10 evangelicals told Barna that they refuse to vote for either of the candidates. “Nearly 3 out of 10 are presently undecided, making them the largest block of undecided votes still up for grabs,” stated George Barna. “One out of 8 evangelicals plan to protest the quality of the major party candidates by voting for a third-party or independent candidate.”
If the election were to be held today, the evangelical vote would be at least 20 percentage points lower than that of evangelicals for the Republican candidate in each of the last five elections, Barna reported.
Evangelical pastors are no different. A plurality (44%) told LifeWay Research last month that they are undecided in who to vote for. Almost 4 in 10 plan to vote for Trump (38%), while about 1 in 10 plans to vote for Hillary Clinton (9%). Four percent support Gary Johnson. Two percent do not plan to vote.
While evangelical pastors believe American Christians have a biblical responsibility to vote (94%), most don’t think Christians who follow their conscience will end up voting the same way (59%) or that Christians are obligated to vote for someone who has a reasonable chance of winning (63%).
LifeWay also broke down which characteristics pastors are basing their votes on:
American pastors voting for Trump are more likely to cite Supreme Court nominees (36%) and abortion (17%) and less likely to say personal character matters most (10%). Pastors voting for Clinton are more likely to cite personal character (28%) and immigration (7%) and less likely to cite abortion (less than 1%).
Baptist pastors care most about potential Supreme Court nominees (28%). Presbyterian/Reformed (36%), Methodist (34%), and Holiness pastors (34%) care most about personal character, and Pentecostal pastors (30%) care most about religious freedom.
In June, CT profiled the 25 figureheads on Trump’s “tremendous” born-again advisory board. Not everyone on the board endorsed Trump—but they agreed to consult with him as he reached out to an evangelical movement solidly split between the already on-board, the hesitant, and the decidedly #NeverTrump. The breadth of his list served as a reminder of the wide reach of American evangelicalism, and a sign of who was most eager to influence the theology of Trump.
Today CT’s executive editor, Andy Crouch, explained the importance of speaking truth to Trump.