Evangelical Leaders Question Movement's Support Of Trump
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Donald Trump continues to win over evangelicals. Exit poll data from the Super Tuesday states show he won the self-described born-again vote in most states. These Christians are choosing a candidate who's given to profanity, insults and boastfulness. And NPR's Tom Gjelten says some evangelical leaders are so upset they're now distancing themselves from the movement that carries their name.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The man winning the evangelical vote is a casino mogul who seems unfamiliar with the Bible and has been married three times. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is disappointed, to say the least, that so many of his fellow Christians support Donald Trump nonetheless.
ALBERT MOHLER: His entire mode of life has been something that has been at odds with American evangelical conviction and character. So yeah, this is shocking.
GJELTEN: It's tainting the image of the evangelical movement, says Peter Wehner, who worked in the last three Republican administrations, mostly as a speechwriter.
PETER WEHNER: When Bill Clinton was president, an awful lot of evangelical Christians ranked moral probity high on their list of leadership qualities, and they attacked Bill Clinton because they felt like he was a moral failure. And now you have Donald Trump who's a moral degenerate, and a lot of the evangelicals are supporting him. By my definition, that's hypocrisy.
GJELTEN: A few conservative pastors, like Jerry Falwell, Jr., have no problem with Trump, but hostility among evangelical leaders is widespread. Russell Moore from the Southern Baptist Convention announced this week that he has stopped calling himself an evangelical so as not to be associated with Trump supporters. His own explanation for why so many self-described evangelicals are in Trump's camp - they're not all that evangelical.
RUSSELL MOORE: At least in the Bible Belt, someone may claim to be an evangelical who's drunk right now and who hasn't been to church since someone took him to vacation Bible school back in the 1980s. And so that's not a useful category. What's useful is finding out whether or not people are actively following Christ, whether they're church attenders, for instance.
GJELTEN: It may be that evangelical has become more a cultural label than a religious label. Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Seminary says that would mean the true evangelical block is smaller than he and others realized until now.
MOHLER: We have taken comfort in the fact that there have been millions and millions of us in America. And a part of that evidence has been the last several election cycles, with the evangelical vote being in the millions. And now we're having to face the fact that, evidently, theologically-defined - defined by commitment to core evangelical values - there aren't so many millions of us as we thought.
GJELTEN: So what is motivating the evangelical voters who are supporting Trump if it's not their faith? One recent study suggested that the best predictor of support for Trump is a preference for authoritarianism, a belief in the need for aggressive leaders. Trump's candidacy is also associated with hostility toward minorities. Some conservative Christians can seem judgmental, but Russell Moore insists there is nothing in the New Testament that, in his words, gives any space for hatred and bigotry.
MOORE: As a matter of fact, the Scripture tells us that we are to engage with people who disagree with us with kindness. That ought to be the message that drowns out any hint of bigotry or hatred in our lives. And as we've seen, over the centuries, Christianity has been a vibrant force against racism, for instance.
GJELTEN: With this new identity crisis in evangelical Christianity, Moore says he wants to be known - at least for the rest of this election season - simply as a gospel Christian. Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.