Why Trump is triumphant with Evangelicals... for now

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni is scratching his head over Donald Trump’s growing popularity with Evangelical Christians—and for good reason.  How does one explain that a candidate like The Donald who has been married three times, runs casinos, discounts the need for asking God’s forgiveness, and has difficulty citing one verse of the Bible is trouncing card-carrying evangelical candidates like Huckabee, Cruz,  and others too far down the list to warrant mention?

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Bruni claims that Evangelicals’ support of Trump demonstrates “how selective and incoherent the religiosity of evangelicals are.”  Translation:  Evangelical Christians are either too ignorant to know who Trump really is or too hypocritical to care.  However, rather than “ignorant” and “hypocritical,” I believe there are two other words that explain why so many evangelicals are registering their support for Trump:  Barack Obama.

There is a palpable feeling among many Christians (as well as non-Christians) that our nation has been in a downward death spiral during the last seven years of  President Obama’s administration.  

Some feel that the 2016 election may be the last opportunity to reverse that trend.  Rightly or wrongly there is a perception that other candidates are incapable of changing  the status quo—which Ronald Reagan famously said is Latin for “the mess we’re in.”  Trump, they believe, is the only candidate with the leadership skills necessary to lead us out of that mess.

Evangelicals no longer require their president to be one of them, they just want a president who doesn't hate them.

Contrary to Bruni’s assertion, evangelicals are not ignorant of the inconsistencies between some of Trump’s unorthodox beliefs/behavior and the Christian faith.

No Christians I know who are supporting Trump are under the illusion that The Donald is a seasoned student of Scripture.  In fact, they chuckled several weeks ago when Trump refused to cite a single verse  from the Book he had spent the week saying he “loved.”  They get the joke . . . and they don’t care.

Overlooking Trump’s spiritual shortcomings doesn’t make Evangelicals hypocrites as Bruni charges, but realists.  

In a perfect world, Evangelicals would love a truly born-again candidate who possesses both a maturity of faith and all the requisite leadership skills necessary to solve the nation’s ills.  But as they survey the landscape of seventeen possibilities, a majority of evangelicals cannot find one candidate whom they believe possesses both attributes.

Think of it this way.  If you were in a jetliner nose-diving toward the ground because the crew was incapacitated and you had only two choices of whom to hand over the controls, whom would you select:  a  novice pilot who had only flown a single-engine propeller plane several times or a pastor?  You’d probably ask the beginner pilot to use his acquired skills to fly the plane and  ask the pastor to pray.

As Evangelicals see America careening downward toward a devastating crash, they are willing to bifurcate leadership responsibilities for the well-being of our country. 

They are looking to the Church to lead our nation to the spiritual renewal that we so desperately need, but a growing number  are searching for  a president who has both the leadership skills and tenacity to solve our country’s practical problems  such as the immigration dilemma and our economic stagnation.

No Evangelical I know is expecting Trump to lead our nation in a spiritual revival.  But seven years of Barack Obama have drastically lowered the threshold of spiritual expectations Evangelicals have of their president. No longer do they require their president to be one of them.  Evangelicals will settle for someone who doesn’t HATE them like the current occupant of the Oval Office appears to.

While the national polls indicate Trump is the preferred candidate of evangelicals in the pew, it should be noted that he is not resonating with evangelical leaders.

A recent survey by World Magazine of 103 Evangelical leaders  revealed that only three of those leaders selected Trump as their first choice for president—tying Hillary Clinton.

The Donald should not be discouraged by those numbers.   There is often a  disconnect between pastors in the pulpit and people in the pews (where the votes are).

Evangelical leaders have a dismal record for choosing a president.  In January of 2012, a group of evangelical leaders who were searching for the “anybody-but-Romney” alternative settled on Rick Santorum as their choice.

Although Santorum went on to win the Iowa caucus in February, he dropped out of the race several months later.

Will Trump’s popularity with Evangelicals continue?  The real test will come when some of the other Evangelical-friendly candidates inevitably begin dropping out of the race.  That’s when the law of mathematics takes over. Will their supporters coalesce around another traditional Evangelical candidate,  or will they throw up their hands in frustration and run to Trump?

I say this as reverently as possible:  only God knows what will happen.  But in the meantime, it certainly will be fascinating and fun to watch.