Understanding the Single-Issue Voter
Moving around often as a child and as an adult, I had the privilege of joining or regularly attending many different American churches in different regions. I've been a member of small (40-80 people), medium (200 members), and large (multi-service) churches. All of these churches have been non-urban, except one (in China). They are demographically just what you'd expect from the suburbs: mostly white communities where lower-middle class to upper-middle class families live. Congregations like these can be very diverse when it comes to livelihood and educational level. Members typically commute into the nearby city; are local service and care workers such as nurses, first responders, and teachers; or run small businesses (everything from storefront business owners to contractors to hairstylists). Some of these suburban areas abut rural areas.
As evidence of the liveliness of their faith, the particular churches I have attended (all in conservative denominations) have embraced multiple local and international outreaches to those in need. After all, a robust commitment to reaching those in need - the poor, the widow, the orphan -- is surely one of the clearest evidences of a true and living Christian faith. A quick survey I conducted of these yields a rich and prolific list of justice-and-mercy ministries. These believers have been busy with the following:
Partnerships with urban ministries and crisis pregnancy centers, support for single mothers, support for homeless ministries, divorce recovery, marriage and family and addiction counseling, ministries to people facing disabilities, prison ministry, deacon's funds, clothing collection or food pantry or service, refugee support, local and international student ministries and meals, ESL classes or Spanish language services, ministries and services for those who are homebound, ill, the elderly, and grief response and caring programs like Stephen Ministry. (And this list does not touch upon a deep-pocketed commitment to multiple overseas missionaries and programs.)
The vibrant outreach of these Christians is a living picture of James' teaching that a personal faith in Jesus Christ necessarily works out through the hands, feet, and wallets of real believers. But for me, all of this is more than a list on a website or a line on a graph. I know these people as friends. My family has worked alongside them and learned from them. I haven't told you the individual stories of people I know who whose personal ministries nurture their communities (in addition to the work they do during their regular work week, of course). If I shared some of their stories, you'd be encouraged and challenged. I can say with the psalmist in Psalm 16, "As for the saints who are in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is my delight."
Many of these evangelical saints -- with their sleeves rolled up in ministry and partnerships that cross local, international, and demographic lines -- voted for Donald Trump. Yet there seems to be a growing notion among some evangelical leaders that white Christians who voted for Trump may not love the least of these as well as Christians who voted otherwise. There seems to be a distancing from and disdain for faithful brothers and sisters who also voted for Donald Trump.
This disdain, despite the fact that these suburban churches believe that salvation is found in repentance and faith in Christ alone, hold Scripture as the final authority, and show it by loving the least and the lost, both in their neighborhoods and out of them.
So -- why the dismissal of the good works of white suburban evangelicals? Perhaps some of these religious leaders are leaning too heavily on their own notion of political purity as an indicator of true Christian faith. Perhaps they struggle with true openness towards "the other," politically speaking (more on this, below). Perhaps they simply have lost sight of the biblical example set by God's people since ancient times. Or perhaps something else.
But the biblical example is that, in a fallen world and as citizens of nations and regions ruled over and populated by pagans, the people of God are often obligated to labor and partner with pagan rulers for the saving of lives and the benefit of His people. Across time, God's people have partnered with pagan kings whose beliefs, rhetoric, and practices might make Presidents Trump, Clinton, and Kennedy collectively blush. Abraham partnered with the kings of the plain. Joseph supported the pharaoh of Egypt (in a powerful position). David allied himself with foreign kings and worked for a Philistine. Daniel worked (apparently with aplomb) on behalf of Nebuchadnezzar. Isaiah refers to the future pagan king, Cyrus, as "anointed." In so doing, they saved innocent lives and the people of God were delivered.
This article is in no way whatsoever a defense of Trump's entire set of values and behavior or, in saying that, of Hillary Clinton and her values and behavior. (And as an aside, have I missed the many hand-wringing articles and interviews from these same evangelicals over the blocks of believers who voted for Hillary Clinton or for President Obama in past years?) This is an explanation of and defense of the faith of the Christians I know who labor for the least and lost, and who also voted for Trump
Of all of the appalling policies in our nation, many Christians have strong convictions that the most appalling is abortion. Minorities rank high in the ledgers listing those killed by abortion, and these Trump-voting believers care about their neighbors. Abortion's victims are hidden, not seen ("undocumented). The oppressor is the only one to see their faces. His acts are valorized as "choice" and "services" in our culture, and his grisly work flourishes behind a glossy storefront or in a clinical building.
In The Screwtape Letters preface, C.S Lewis described the modern age and its evils like this:
"But it [evil] is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern."Evil does a very good job at looking nice, and, well, clinical. And since it is easy to forget victims when they are hidden, it is easy to marginalize them. To make the systematic killing of millions a secondary policy issue.
And so, by and large, when I speak to my suburban friends, their vote for Trump came down to abortion. And while they disagree with much or most of his rhetoric, they already see his administration enacting pro-life policies which will work for the saving of international lives as well as those of American children of all races. (And, oddly, Trump's pro-life policy moves are relatively unheralded and uncelebrated by the some evangelicals.)Christians may disagree with a vote for Trump, just as they may for Hillary Clinton or any of the list of 2016 third-party candidates: Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, Evan McMullin, Darrell Castle, etc. As a matter of fact, conservatives in general can understand that disagreement. Why? Two possibilities.
First of all, it may be a matter of mindset. In The Righteous Mind, social psychologist and "partisan liberal" Jonathan Haidt concluded that conservatives in general (of which white evangelicals are often a subset) are more broadminded than liberals, and appear to be better able to understand various perspectives.
Second of all, it is a matter of experience. Within these churches during the election, there was frank debate and discussion. I sat around coffee tables and at dinner tables in intense conversations with people who were coming at this election from all angles.
These saints are used to disagreeing politically with the very same brothers and sisters they love, admire, and work alongside in ministry. And they have found they can disagree during a difficult election without dismissing the other's faith. Perhaps this nuanced way of understanding each other may be eluding influential evangelical leaders. But people in "flyover churches" confront serious, thoughtful, differing opinions from serious, thoughtful people all the time.
And so I make an appeal for my friends, to my friends. People may assess the political situation differently, but surely canny Christians can understand that many of their brothers and sisters who voted for Trump are also fully Christian, are sacrificially serving the least and the lost, and may even have a legitimate, thoughtful reason for their vote.
Anne Chamberlin is a wife, mother of three living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is a freelance journalist who has written for the Gospel Coalition.