These Evangelicals Voted For Trump In 2016. They Refuse To Do It Again.
Becky Madigan carried around her copy of Virginia’s sample election ballot for days. After a while, the edges of the pale yellow form began creasing. She highly suspects she spilled coffee on it at one point.
Still, the 54-year-old from Leesburg read the ballot again and again, praying daily for clarity.
Madigan is an evangelical Christian. For most of her life, she believed that meant she had to be a Republican. It’s why she voted for Donald Trump in 2016.
“It was this very deep programming,” she told HuffPost. “It wasn’t even necessarily a conscious thought. I can remember as a very young woman thinking that you can’t be a Christian and a Democrat.”
But now, her heart is in a different place. She has been appalled by the president’s character and the way he treats people, and she doesn’t think she can stomach four more years. She spent months thinking through her decision to vote for Democratic candidate Joe Biden, reading the Gospels and asking Jesus to speak to her and allay her fears.
“I am jumping way out of the box here, I’m jumping into the deep end,” she told HuffPost in early October. “Hopefully, someone throws me a life preserver.”
One day, as she was reading through her Bible, clarity came in the form of a verse ― Luke 11:42. The verse decries people who tithe according to the letter of the law, while neglecting “justice and the love of God.”
This is what the Republican Party has been doing, Madigan thought ― it has been ignoring justice and love. She underlined the verse in her Bible and wrote it down on her sample ballot.
On Oct. 23, when she walked into the voting booth at Loudoun County’s General Registrar’s office to vote for a Democrat for the first time in her life, she was overcome by tears.
“It just feels like a big moment in our history, but not only collectively as a nation, but it just really felt like a big moment for me because I did it differently this time. I didn’t toe the party line or do what I was supposed to do,” Madigan told HuffPost after voting. “Here I am, at 54, and for the first time, I feel like I’ve really voted and studied and made my own decision, fear or no fear.”
For months now, there have been rumblings of discontent about Trump in certain pockets of American evangelicalism. These dissenters have become increasingly vocal over the past year, publishing opinion pieces and books challenging fellow evangelicals to reconsider their loyalty to the Republican Party. Some leaders have even publicly endorsed Biden.
Despite this movement, Madigan’s decision to vote for the former vice president still makes her an anomaly in her religious group. White evangelicals have long been a reliable base for the Republican Party and there’s no indication that will change substantially this year. About 78% of white evangelicals told the Pew Research Center this fall they were leaning toward voting for Trump. Many of the evangelical leaders speaking up against the president these days have either expressed their displeasure with Trump before or hail from the progressive wing of American evangelicalism.
Nevertheless, since white evangelicals are a key part of the electorate ― making up over a quarter of voters during the 2016 election ― the slightest dip in support in a few crucial swing states could spell trouble for Trump.
The emotional heavy lifting white evangelical voters need to do to move away from the Republican Party is no easy feat, according to John Fea, a history professor at Messiah College and the author of “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.” And it would be even harder for them to vote for Biden, instead of a third-party candidate. The Christian right has convinced evangelical voters that abortion and religious liberty are the most important issues facing believers, Fea said. Ahead of the 2020 election, pro-Trump evangelicals have been making the case on social media that anyone who votes for Biden is not a real Christian or will be held responsible for the killing of millions of babies in the womb, he said.
Because of these fear-based tactics, many first-time Democratic voters will have moments in which they will second-guess their decision to vote for Biden, Fea said. To break away from their loyalty to the Republican Party, these Christians need to believe that Trump and some of his policies are so deeply immoral that they have no other choice but to vote a different way, he said.
“Such a move is not for the faint of heart. It requires courage,” Fea said.
To get a snapshot of the reasons voters like Madigan have chosen to go against the grain, HuffPost spoke to nine white evangelical voters from across the country who cast their ballots for Trump in 2016 but have decided not to do so again this year.
The voters, who range in age from 31 to 77, spoke of praying for weeks about their choice. They peppered their conversations with references to Bible verses and stories, trying to demonstrate how their faith has shaped their views. Some talked about being misunderstood by their family members, being politely forced out of church ministries or having to find a new church altogether. For most, this year will mark the first time they have ever voted to put a Democrat in the White House — not because they agree with everything Biden and the Democratic Party stand for, but because this is where their faith has led them.
“The fact that Trump has fulfilled his promise by appointing three conservative Supreme Court justices might make a vote for Biden a bit easier,” Fea said. “Whatever the case, some conservative evangelicals are looking for reasons ― any ― to feel better about voting for Biden.”
Here are just a few of the issues that came up repeatedly in HuffPost’s conversations with those nine voters.
The Fruits Of His Spirit
Bill Werts, a 46-year-old veteran from Greensburg, Pennsylvania, grew up deeply immersed in white evangelical culture. He listened to conservative talk radio for years and looked up to Vice President Mike Pence as a role model.
Werts told HuffPost the prospect of breaking away from the Republican Party in a presidential election for the first time breaks his heart. But ultimately, he said, Trump did not pass his litmus test for character and integrity.
He referred to Bible passages about the “fruits” of a good Christian life ― characteristics like love, kindness, gentleness and self-control.
“Christ said by their fruits you will know them, and that a good tree can’t bear bad fruit,” Werts said. “I was looking for those fruits of the spirit and Trump had none. Zero.”
“Character and integrity come before policy,” he added. “If I agree with everything you agree with, but you have no character and integrity, I’m not voting for you.”
All nine voters HuffPost spoke with brought up Trump’s character as a key reason for their loss of faith in him.
Sandy Orth, a 77-year-old from Des Moines, Iowa, has been a registered Republican her entire adult life. Orth had reservations about Trump in 2016, but she was hoping he would be humbled by the presidency once he arrived in Washington. Instead, Orth said, the opposite has occurred ― Trump has changed the office of the presidency to suit his own goals.
Orth said she’s heard other Christians defend Trump because of his appointment of conservative judges. But Orth said she refuses to give the president a pass for his behavior.
“What good are these Christian judges when we live in a country where we hate each other so much?” she asked. “I have always felt that the person at the head of a family, team, or company sets the tone that trickles down. And I feel very strongly about the fact that having Donald Trump as our president is setting the tone that we see in our country today ― divisiveness, hatred, lying. People are not truthful about things, they don’t show concern for their fellow human beings.”
“I think we need a president who is truthful and transparent and who can bring peace to our country and bring people back together again,” she added. “I think somebody of better character can do that job a lot better than our current president.”
Welcoming The Stranger
Catherine Prichard, a 48-year-old from New Paris, Ohio, told HuffPost that from childhood, she had always equated being Christian with being a Republican.
Prichard started to question her decision to vote for Trump in 2016 days after his inauguration, when he signed an executive order halting the U.S. refugee resettlement program and blocking immigration from several predominantly Muslim countries. Prichard’s concerns escalated the next year, when the Trump administration implemented a “zero tolerance” policy at the U.S.-Mexico border that resulted in over 2,500 minors being separated from their parents or caregivers. This 2018 policy proved to be deeply unpopular ― even among typically loyal evangelical voices, such as Franklin Graham.
Prichard said she’s upset that, years later, hundreds of kids still haven’t been reunited with their parents.
“It broke my heart and it still breaks my heart, as a mom, as a grandmother. No mother or father should be without their child,” she said.
The migrants at the border have a right to seek asylum, Prichard told HuffPost ― and Christians have a responsibility toward them. She pointed to a Bible passage from the Gospel of Matthew ― one that has been quoted often by critics of Trump’s immigration agenda ― that calls on Christians to care for the “least of these.”
“Trump just doesn’t get it and neither does his administration,” she said about the verse.
Although Trump later rescinded the zero-tolerance policy, Adam Hardy, a 39-year-old from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, hasn’t forgotten what happened that spring. He said Trump’s approach to that crisis planted the first seeds of doubt in his heart. The Bible calls on Christians to welcome marginalized people ― not to treat immigrants as the enemy, he said.
“If we as evangelicals want to claim that we’re pro-life, then we should be pro every life,” Hardy said.
Joy Kinser, a 31-year-old from Oklahoma City, also referred to Trump’s response to migrants at the border in 2018 as the period when her politics started shifting. Kinser said she was grieved to see people in her faith community claiming on social media that God was on Trump’s side of this debate, because he was a God of law and order.
“Something in me broke. I thought, ‘If this is who we think God is, that he wants to traumatize children to get his way, I don’t think we know the true nature of God,’” she said. “We are aligning this president with God’s nature and I don’t think this is right.”
‘Pro-Life’ From ‘Womb To Tomb’
Nearly all of the voters HuffPost interviewed said abortion was the toughest issue they had to navigate this year. Their belief that life begins at conception is what pushed many to ignore their misgivings and vote for Trump in 2016.
But over the past four years, these voters’ ideas about what “pro-life” means have expanded.
Kelly Dingess, a 35-year-old evangelical Christian from San Diego, said she believes being “pro-life” shouldn’t just mean being “pro-birth.” It’s also about preventing unplanned pregnancies by increasing young people’s access to sex education, she said, and about making sure mothers are financially supported.
“It’s beyond just getting the child born,” she said.
Kinser said she has been passionate about the “pro-life” movement for years. But under the Trump presidency, Kinser has started questioning how she defined that term.
Being “pro-life” should mean protecting every life, including those of immigrants and minorities, from “womb to tomb,” she said. That means thinking about how to decrease the need for abortion by supporting paid family leave and health care coverage for women and children, Kinser added. These policies tend to be Democratic causes, she said.
In addition, Kinser has been disturbed by how white supremacists seem to have been empowered during the Trump presidency, while minorities feel unsafe, she said. The lives of Black Americans, Native Americans and other marginalized communities matter to God, she said. When the Trump administration forcefully dispersed a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters before the president’s photo shoot in front of a church near the White House, Kinser remembers thinking, “This is not how I want my Christianity to be manifested in politics.”
“I feel like it’s a really ugly false dichotomy we’ve been given where we have to support everything Trump stands for, which includes harm to minorities and harm to immigrants, and support the unborn, or we have to support Biden and support minorities and be a baby killer,” she said. “If I have one, myopic view of abortion that allows me to support harm in countless other ways, that is really damaging.”
Damage To Christian Witness
When Ronald Hawthorne, a 51-year-old from Warren, Michigan, accepted Jesus into his heart in the summer of 2016, it turned his life around. Hawthorne told HuffPost that it helped him step away from drugs and alcohol, introduced him to a supportive spiritual community ― an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Church ― and, eventually, led him to his wife.
It also changed the way he voted. Hawthorne said he had serious trepidations about Trump before the 2016 election. But with the encouragement of his new pastor, he cast his ballot for Trump ― before tucking the memory of that decision deep into his brain and deciding to focus less on politics and more on his spiritual journey.
Three years later, Hawthorne’s faith felt stronger than it had ever been and he was eager to tell others about the way Jesus had changed his life. He was talking to a co-worker about the Gospel one day, when the man asked a question that caught him off guard.
“He looked right at me and said, ‘Why would I want to be a Christian when you support such a horrible human being?’”
Hawthorne said the question left him dumbfounded ― and cut the conversation short.
“It just reminded me of how I felt that day in that voting booth,” Hawthorne said. “I didn’t have an answer.”
That conversation with his co-worker was the beginning of a long journey. He started paying more attention to politics and eventually came to the conclusion that the Jesus he had come to know was not reflected in Trump’s words and policies.
That’s why this year, Hawthorne said, Trump will not have his vote.
“When the world looks at the church, we’re supposed to look different. Purer, a higher moral standard. That’s gone with Donald Trump,” he said.
Dingess, the San Diego resident, told HuffPost she believes that Trump has damaged evangelicals’ public witness. She said she sees evidence of that in her interactions with an online debate group. The private Facebook group, where people post opinions about news articles and invite others to offer alternate perspectives, is largely made up of people who Dingess says don’t have any specific religious affiliation.
When a story about evangelicals is posted on that group, Dingess said, other members react by pointing out the religious group’s hypocrisy.
“They say things like, ‘I thought we were supposed to love people,’ and ‘What would your savior say about this?’” she said. “And I can’t even tell them they’re wrong, because they’re right.”
The members of her debate group have a deep distrust of religion, she said. Dingess worries that, because of evangelicals’ indefatigable support for Trump, they have “completely lost their ability to win people for Jesus.”
A Different View Of Christianity And Power
Over the past four years, Dingess has also become increasingly disenchanted with the Republican Party. Its leaders have failed to keep Trump in check in an effort to hold onto political power, she said.
As a result of that disappointment, Dingess said, she recently changed her party affiliation.
“I always held these people on this moral pedestal,” Dingess said about Republican leadership. “But they’re there for the power and they don’t care who they hurt.”
Kinser said she believes some evangelicals have fallen prey to Christian nationalism, fusing Christianity with a desire for political power. Evangelicals feel that their religious rights are being taken away and that traditional family values are being attacked, she said.
“We become so fearful of being oppressed that we become the oppressor, we pass laws that restrict people’s freedom when God actually gives us the dignity of choice,” she said. “We’re convinced that we need temporary power for the church to be what it’s supposed to be. But there is no threat to the true church of Jesus Christ when we are persecuted.”
She pointed to the story of Palm Sunday, which is about Jesus arriving in Jerusalem. People expected him to ride in triumphantly, in a show of defiance of the Roman empire, Kinser said. But instead, Jesus rode into the city on a donkey and days later, died on a cross.
“We feel that it’s going to hinder us if we don’t have power. But I think our quest for power is hindering our witness,” she said.
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