“Evangelicals support Donald Trump.” I am troubled by all the ways that this statement is true, but also by all the ways it isn’t. It seems to persist as a headline, in both conservative and mainstream media, certainly after the election, but agonizingly after every Trump outrage, including Charlottesville. Journalists speculate as to whether there is anything that Trump can do that will cause evangelicals to abandon him. Apparently not.
I feel like American evangelicalism has abandoned me. I can’t see however how I can abandon them. Christianity is my faith, not Evangelicalism, but evangelicals are my people group. With this article, I begin a series where I seek to reconcile with the Trump-supporting church. Mostly I am seeking a personal freedom, a way to go forward with my fellow evangelicals. Sometimes I will use the word “reconcile” in the relational term: our “ministry of reconciliation” is not thwarted by any new Constantine who may poison the witness of the church. At other times, I will use the term in an accounting sense, like one who “reconciles his bank statement.” There is no guarantee in moving forward that the ledger is in the black. Today though, we start simply:
Part I: Do the Math
The statement “Evangelicals Support Trump,” is based on a published statistic: “Eighty-one percent of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.” This statement however is as inaccurate as Trump’s claim to having won the popular vote. Pollsters from Pew Research conducted an exit poll and asked voters to declare a religious affiliation, if any. They however had only one option for evangelicals: “White, born-again/evangelical Christian.” If you were black and born again, or Latino and evangelical, the nearest category you could check was“Protestant/other Christian,” where you get mixed in with a sizeable section of WASPs. When it came to surveying Catholics, the researchers did differentiate. Sixty percent of white Catholics reported voting for Trump whereas only 26 percent of Hispanic Catholics voted for him. So all we can, in truth, claim is: “Eighty-one percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump.” This suggests a reconciliatory move for me: namely, to repent of the arrogance which presumes that all evangelicals are white, or that only white evangelicals have a voice.
But even our revised statement doesn’t go far enough. It should at least read: “Eighty-one percent of white evangelicals who bothered to vote, voted for Trump.” Reportedly only 58 percent of eligible US voters went to the polls in 2016. I suspect that turnout among evangelicals is higher than the rest of the population (though perhaps not in this disgusting election), but nonetheless if we say that 81% of the 58% percent of eligible evangelicals who bothered to vote, voted for Trump, the most you can claim is that 46.98 percent of the total group of eligible evangelical voters voted for Trump—a minority, in other words.
And of course the most accurate statement of all should read: “Eighty-one percent of white evangelicals who could vote and who bothered to do so, voted for Trump.” If evangelicalism is simply an American voting bloc—which is how the Religious Right and the Republican Party value us—than so be it: “Evangelicals support Trump.” But if Evangelicalism is a spiritual force, an expression of the euangelion, a potent vessel for the Spirit of Holiness, a living expression of our quadrilateral definition of Biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism—then that spiritual force is not limited only to those evangelicals who were eligible to vote. For instance my wife Robynn could not vote. She is a Canadian green card holder, but nonetheless a vibrant part of the American evangelical church. Even our friends Brendan and Leif, who are Aussies living in Southeast Asia, exert a strong influence on the American evangelical church through their prayers and exhortations. My daughter Adelaide couldn’t vote. She only turned 18 in January. She wouldn’t have voted for Trump. I even know ex-felons who have left prison and who have strong ministries for Christ. By law, they could not vote. By voice, they did not vote for Trump. These people don’t signify to Pew Research exit pollsters, but they certainly signify to the building of God’s kingdom in a country where Trump is nonetheless president.
But this leads to the flip side of the equation, and where most of our freedom will be found: if 81% of [white, etc.] evangelicals voted for Trump, then that means that 19% did not. Nineteen percent is a significant number. It evokes the Pareto Principle. Perhaps you’ve heard the Pareto Principle stated this way: “Eighty percent of the work is done by twenty percent of the people.” The actual principle is more like “Twenty percent of the input results in eighty percent of the output.” To choose to focus on the 19 percent who didn’t vote for Trump is to be hopeful of the prospects of what God might do among us.
Nineteen percent is also in the range of the Law of Diffusion of Innovation. Simon Sinek draws a bell curve in his famous TedTalk: How Great Leaders Inspire Action. He then bisects the curve with four vertical lines, dividing the curve up in categories. “The first 2.5 percent of our population,” Sinek explains, “are our innovators. The next 13.5 percent of our population are our early adopters. The next 34 percent are your early majority, your late majority [also at 34%], and your laggards [at 16 percent.]” He points to the laggards and jokes, “The only reason these people buy touchtone phones is because you can’t buy rotary phones anymore.” The audience chuckles. He continues, “We all sit at various places at various times on the scale, but the Law of Diffusion of Innovation tells us is that if you want mass market success, or mass market acceptance of an idea, you can not have it until you achieve this tipping point between 15 and 18 percent market penetration, and then the system tips.”
If true, at 19 percent, we’ve already reached a tipping point, even among white evangelicals. We will tip into loving our neighbors, Blacks, Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, refugees, women, creation, the poor and the LGBT community in obedience to the commands of Christ. Let the tipping begin, and let it begin with me!