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Trump reveals rifts among evangelicals that could shape politics for years


When Jen Hatmaker speaks to stadiums full of Christian women, she regales them with stories about her five children and her garden back in Austin, Texas — and stays away from politics. But recently she took to Facebook and Instagram to blast Donald Trump as a “national disgrace,” and remind her legions of followers that there are other names on the ballot in November.


“Trump has consistently normalized violence, sexual deviance, bigotry and hate speech,” she said in an email interview. “I wouldn’t accept this from my seventh-grade son, much less from a potential leader of the free world.”


In the nearly four decades since Jerry Falwell Sr. founded a group called the Moral Majority, evangelical Christians have been the Republican Party’s most unified and reliable voting bloc in November presidential elections. The leaders of what came to be known as the religious right were kingmakers and household names, like Pat Robertson, James C. Dobson, Ralph Reed.


But this year, Hatmaker’s outraged post was one small sign of the splintering of the evangelical bloc and a possible portent of the changes ahead. While most of the religious right’s aging old guard has chosen to stand by Trump, its judgment and authority are being challenged by an increasingly assertive crop of younger leaders, minorities and women such as Hatmaker.


“Those men have never spoken for me or, frankly, anyone I know,” said Hatmaker, the author of popular inspirational Christian books. “The fracture within our own Christian family may be irreparable.”

The fault lines among evangelicals that the election of 2016 has exposed — among generations, ethnic groups and sexes — are likely to reshape national politics for years to come, conservative Christian leaders and analysts said in interviews last week. Arguments that were once private are now public, and agendas are no longer clear.


“The idea of a monolithic evangelical voting constituency is no longer applicable in the American electorate,” said Samuel Rodriguez Jr., the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, who represents about 40,000 congregations and declined to join his friends and allies on Trump’s evangelical advisory board.

The big names who sit atop organizations that function largely as lobbying groups and mobilization squads for the Republican Party have stuck with Trump despite the lewd comments he made in a 2005 recording, even though he was never their preferred candidate. He wooed them and convinced them that he would appoint Supreme Court justices in the mold of Antonin Scalia, the conservative who died suddenly in February. To these pragmatic players, the election boiled down to only two issues, both that could be solved with Supreme Court appointments: stopping abortion and ensuring legal protections for religious conservatives who object to same-sex marriage.


But the evangelicals now challenging the old guard tend to have a broader agenda. They see it as a Christian imperative to care for immigrants and refugees, the poor, the environment and victims of sex trafficking and sexual abuse. Many support criminal justice reform and the aims of the Black Lives Matter movement. While ardently opposed to abortion, some are inclined to be more accepting of same-sex marriage.


“The next generation of evangelicals craves a less partisan, less divisive and more racially inclusive expression of political engagement that addresses concern on a range of issues, not just abortion and gay marriage,” said Jonathan Merritt, a young evangelical who writes on politics and culture.

 

The religious right’s machinery is still primed to turn out evangelical voters for Trump, said Johnnie Moore, a publicist for many Christian leaders and groups, who serves on Trump’s advisory board. But he doubts that the machinery will produce as it has in the past.


“I do not think there’s any way to get evangelical women in any force to show up for Donald Trump at this point,” Moore said.


Several polls show that Trump is underperforming among evangelicals compared with previous Republican presidential candidates, who commanded about 80 percent of the white evangelical vote. Trump received 65 to 70 percent of white evangelical support, recent polls show. A new poll from LifeWay Research, which specializes in surveys of churches and Christians, found that non-white evangelicals overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton over Trump, 62 to 15 percent.

Significant opposition to Trump has also come from evangelical leaders who are white and baby boomers or older. Many younger evangelicals said they took note when Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention and Erick Erickson, a conservative writer and radio host, rejected Trump early in the campaign. Last week, both Christianity Today and World magazine ran editorials rejecting Trump.


Kate Shellnutt, 30, the online editor of Christianity Today and editor of the CT Women section, said she had observed that “the millennial generation has a lot less patience for Trump.” Of the 33 influential millennial evangelicals she profiled for a cover story two years ago, she says she can now find only one, Lila Rose, who is pro-Trump, and even she has been publicly critical of him. Several have been using the hashtag #NeverTrump, she said.

Students at Liberty University in Virginia, which was founded by Falwell, started a petition late Wednesday criticizing the university’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr. (the founder’s son), for endorsing a candidate who is “actively promoting the very things that we as Christians ought to oppose,” and tarnishing the school in the process, the petition said.


“Liberty University is not Trump University,” said Dustin Wahl, a junior majoring in politics and policy, who wrote the petition. “We don’t stand with our president on Donald Trump. It’s embarrassing because most people here realize that Trump is a joke.”


Wahl said that more than 2,500 people had signed the petition in two days, including more than 1,100 who used email addresses affiliated with Liberty University. There are about 15,000 resident students at Liberty, and an additional 90,000 online.


Falwell, Reed and Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, who have all stood by Trump, did not respond to interview requests. However, Falwell issued a response to the students’ petition, saying that it represented the views of only a “few students,” and that he had endorsed Trump as an individual, not on behalf of the university.

The student body president, Jack Heaphy, as well as some students interviewed on campus, defended Falwell and Trump.


“I believe the vast majority of students on campus will be voting for Mr. Trump on Nov. 8 — not because he’s the perfect candidate but because his policies align most with the viewpoints of students,” Heaphy said.

While evangelicals on both sides are alarmed at the vitriol and division, not everyone agrees that it signifies a long-term split. Some maintain that the dissenters will return to the Republican Party post-Trump, and those who supported him will be forgiven.
“I don’t think it is permanent,” said Moore, the publicist who sits on Trump’s advisory board.

But the petition is one sign that the traditional reverence among evangelicals for authority figures has fallen by the wayside. On social media, there are calls for Perkins to step down for continuing to back Trump.


“It’s inconceivable that someone could run an organization named the Family Research Council and support a man like Donald Trump for president,” said Matthew Lee Anderson, 34, the author of several books and the blog Mere Orthodoxy.


Four years ago he spoke on a young leaders’ panel at the Values Voter Summit, which is sponsored by Perkins’ organization. Now, he said, “I don’t have any trust in his judgment any longer. And that’s the sort of loss of trust that lots of younger evangelicals are experiencing toward people like Tony Perkins, and it will not be rebuilt quickly.”


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