This won’t be pleasant…but we need to talk about Donald Trump. A petty, childish, huckster with no political experience who retweets racists and makes arrogant, absurdist, pandering promises—and was until recently a Democrat and was pro-choice—has a comfortable lead in the presidential polls leading up to the GOP primaries. While most of us are tired of him and his charade and would rather pretend this is all a reality-TV prank in horrible taste, we have an obligation as a nation, as evangelicals, and as conservative evangelicals (for those of us who identify as such) to understand how this could happen—especially since Trump’s popularity among evangelicals has been a key to his success.

Already many sharp minds have offered explanations for Trump’s rise and continued dominance despite all predictions that he would fail (including my own—which I stand by). But I’d like to ask a more pressing question: What next? What does the future of evangelical political engagement look like post-Trump?

Trump’s appeal is that he tells many frustrated, scared, and defensive (mostly) white, middle and lower-class Americans what they want to hear: that the reason their lives aren’t better is because immigrants, Muslims, and the elitists in government have weakened our country, and he can make America (and their lives) Great Again, by force.

People don’t support Trump because he would be good for the country; they support him because he’d be good for “me and my people.”

If we can’t understand this appeal then we cannot begin to offer an alternative; no matter how revolting we find Trump’s candidacy, many of his supporters are responding to deeply felt concerns, some of which are valid. The modern world is terrifying. We do feel impotent in the face of the global evil and suffering that modern media makes us hyperaware of. Maybe being helpless was okay for medieval serfs, but for individualist Americans living in a democracy where we define ourselves by our power to choose, powerlessness is terrifying. We need to know that we can do something.

And that’s what Trump promises to do: something. Specifically, something for white, middle and lower class Americans. He even recently went so far as to promise to give Christians “power” if he gets elected. In this way, his campaign is mirroring the identity politics of the left. People don’t support Trump because he would be good for the country; they support him because he’d be good for me and my people.

This kind of self-interested power shouldn’t be tempting to evangelicals. Our hope is in a sovereign God who overcomes the chaos and evil of our world, and our model is Christ, who denied Satan’s offer of power in exchange for submission. But just like the rest of society, we can get overwhelmed with fear, and the promise of secured power becomes more attractive when we are afraid.

Part of Trump’s appeal seems to be that his rhetoric is diametrically opposed to Obama’s. Obama negotiates, moves slowly, won’t call a mass shooting by a Middle Eastern man a “terrorist attack” until days after the event, and seems afraid to call radical Islamic terrorism “radical Islamic” terrorism. Then there was his so-called “apology tour” after his first election. Obama is perceived as soft and effeminate.

It’s true that Obama has sought to be conciliatory, at times perhaps to a fault. But the idea that Obama is weak is also the result of several conservative publications that consistently choose a bad faith reading of Obama’s strategies. In part because of the horrific persecution of Christians by radical Muslims across the world, evangelicals are very sensitive when our leaders respond to radical Islam with anything but a direct show of force, sometimes misinterpreting legitimate strategy for “weakness.”

For example, Obama’s reticence to call Islamic terrorism “Islamic” stems not from a spirit of “political correctness,” but a desire to undermine radical Islamic propaganda that the West is at war with Islam and therefore all Muslims. Admittedly, this strategy may not be the most effective way to address radical Islam (some major critics have argued that we need to identify terrorism as “Islamic” in order to encourage Islamic reform from within). But to suggest that Obama is too cowardly to call it what it is is to privilege web traffic over the duty to tell the truth.

The uncomfortable reality is that a sizable portion of the conservative media have actively and relentlessly pushed these exaggerated fears about our nation’s loss of identity, our apparent weakness, and the existential threats of immigration and Islam. In some cases, these outlets have spread outright lies, making up entire stories; but in most cases, it has been the relentless stacking of evidence and the promotion of demagogic voices that have had this effect. (Look at FOX News’s willingness to make Ann Coulter and Pamela Geller frequent guests, for example.) And evangelicals have sometimes joined in this fearmongering, as in the case of Todd Starnes’s reports on the “war” on Christianity or Franklin Graham’s calls to end Muslim immigration.

Make no mistake: There is big money in selling fear. And much to the shame of evangelical conservatives and conservatism broadly, we have been tolerant of this demagoguery for years as long as it suited our purpose. But in the end, it really hasn’t. Paranoia about Obama being a secret Kenyan Muslim working for the Muslim Brotherhood didn’t make our country better or safer; instead, it helped shape the imagination and desires of Republican primary voters who now believe that Cruz is ineligible to run for president and that we need to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it.

So let me say this again, because it is absolutely critical: Trump’s rise to political prominence is in large part the result of a failure on the part of mainstream conservatives to clean their own house—a failure that has led to a movement of conservatives, driven chiefly by paranoia and powerlessness, who latch on to the only candidate willing to fully pander to their fears. Which means that the way we fix this mess is not primarily by defeating Trump (although we pray for that, too!), but by beginning the hard work of showing a better way forward.

But this “better way forward” can’t just be for “us.” Conservative evangelical politics must reflect a desire for the good of all people. A politics for the good of our neighbors does not require us to turn a blind eye to problems in the name of standing up to “political correctness.” We don’t need worse vision; we need much better vision.

We don’t need to ignore the problems created by illegal immigration, for example; we need a more robust understanding of those problems and a more humane response. It is not enough only to acknowledge that the current system is profoundly broken and encourages the poor and helpless to risk their lives to come to this country illegally, encourages criminals to prey upon illegal immigrants who are too afraid to report abuse, and encourages companies to underpay their employees. We also must never lose sight of the fact that each immigrant is a human being striving to create a better life for themselves and their family, and that the violence, government corruption, poverty, and hopelessness immigrants are fleeing would drive many of us to risk our lives for the promise of America, too. Any immigration policy that sees immigrants primarily as a threat—or, even worse, an invading force of societal destruction—fundamentally denies the shared humanity of immigrants, and is therefore opposed to biblical teaching.

Trump’s rise to political prominence is in large part the result of a failure on the part of mainstream conservatives to clean their own house.

Similarly, Trump’s brute-force approach dealing with radical Islam and elements like ISIS will not make the world or the US safer. Targeting Muslims just for being Muslim, banning them from our country, monitoring mosques, and going after the families of terrorists might sound like strength, but the consequences would be the loss of trust and help from the wider Muslim community and a dramatic rise in sympathies for ISIS. The better way forward is a cautious use of force, surveillance limited by just cause, and close work with Muslim leaders to help stop radicalism, promote reform, and encourage just, economic flourishing in the Middle East. These policies have in common a concern for the rights of American Muslims and the good of people in the Middle East in addition to our own security. Realistically, they won’t completely stop global terrorism; but they will give us the best chance to create stability, whereas brute force will undoubtedly create more chaos.

Related to both the immigration and radical Islam question is the fear that our nation is undergoing a profound change in its character—that soon all of our essential American virtues will be gone. This fear is particularly acute among evangelicals who have watched our country grow increasingly secular. The solution offered from characters like Ann Coulter and Donald Trump is to stop the flow of foreigners into the US, especially when they will not assimilate. A better conservative evangelical response is to recognize that our culture will not be saved by keeping out foreigners or forcing them to assimilate. It will be conserved through our mediating institutions. If we are worried about the loss of our culture, we would do better to look at how our churches are embodied in their communities than to rail against immigration. We’d do much better by supporting Christian schools that devote a significant portion of their space to underprivileged students (rather than acting as de facto segregation) than rail against the problems with foreigners flooding our schools. This political vision does not neglect our families, communities, or culture; rather, it adds to these good things a love and concern for the foreigner in our midst.

What is needed, then, is an intentional effort by conservative evangelical institutions to offer a better, truer, more just vision of our country. Conservative evangelicals need to holistically display this vision and teach the ways it can be pursued, not merely in our policies or think-tanks, but in all of our rhetoric: on our radio shows, in our campaigns, through our slogans. That vision must be defined not by the conservation of cultural Christianity, but through the active promotion of the good life for all citizens, the opportunity to flourish within communities, the unrolling of justice and uprooting of discrimination, and national humility.

Donald Trump isn’t going to be the next president. But we need to understand why so many evangelicals felt attracted to Trump so that in the next four years we can offer an alternative, more compelling vision of what America should be—one that addresses the challenges of immigration, racial tensions, and the lack of shared values clearly, but ultimately desires and pursues the good for everyone.

Image by DonkeyHotey via Flickr.


  1. Alan, this is a thoughtful and deeply faithful piece. I’m grateful to you for reminding us to do politics through our faith filter, not vice versa. Christians of all sorts (and surely folks from other traditions) often forget that, and we can’t be faithful Christians if we think of ourselves as party members or even as Americans first. Our Christian identity has to be our first stop on the way to any other reasoning we do.

  2. Alan, this is outstanding. This type of constructive criticism is essential for conservatism. I have one small quibble, and that is the emphasis you place on the role of evangelicals in Trump’s success. Based on polling averages it would seem his success is in spite of having lower support among evangelicals than the other main candidates. I am not sure if I am allowed to put links in comments, but is a cool explainer on his base of support.

    Obviously, any support he does have from evangelicals is worthy of being critiqued and examined, but I don’t think it is fair to say they have played a very big role in his success.

  3. “Conservative evangelical politics must reflect a desire for the good of all people. A politics for the good of our neighbors does not require us to turn a blind eye to problems in the name of standing up to “political correctness.” We don’t need worse vision; we need much better vision.”

    That “better vision” would begin by abandoning political conservatism, which has been a disaster. If you “desire the good of all people,” you will support unions, not bust them. You will stop undermining public schools with proposals for yet more charter schools. You will support a higher minimum wage. You will realize that 35 years of calling for “smaller government” has benefitted no one except for the mega-rich, who don’t need government to make it through the day. You will not allow the lawmakers you elect to continually cut food stamps, or suggest that safety net programs like Medicare and Social Security are cushy “entitlements” that ought to be privatized, or eliminated altogether.

    Evangelicals need an epiphany, and fast. Realize that Reagan led you down a divisive path, and that FDR was right all along. The seeds of Reaganism led you straight to Trump 2016, and your horror at The Donald ought to lead you to intensive soul-searching regarding all of your positions and assumptions.

  4. Great piece, great peace. Thanks for the perspective. I am not a trump supporter, but if he turns out to be the Republican candidate, what real choice do we have…

    Praying for wisdom, leaning on Jesus.

    1. You have real choices. As a Christian, you can consider which party wants to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and empower ordinary citizens rather than billionaires and massive corporations. You can consider which party has policies that reflect compassion, and which party has policies that reflect uncaring and hardhearted attitudes.

      Neither political party, and neither end of the political spectrum, has ever had a monopoly on truth or righteousness. So I’m kinda flummoxed by Alan Noble’s emphasis on ‘conservative’ this or that. Because conservatives aren’t always right, and liberals aren’t always wrong.

      And if evangelicalism is defined in part by an identification with conservative politics, then that’s part of the problem. Trump’s dominance (so far) of the campaign for the GOP nomination shouldn’t give rise to a crisis in evangelical Christianity, because evangelicals shouldn’t be so attached to the GOP that it’s a problem for them.

  5. My takeaway (other than that I largely agree with you) is the realization that conservative Evangelicals perfected the modern political play of identity politics, reacted hotly when other identity groups co-opted this approach and are now haunted by it in the message of Trump.

    1. What a silly comment. All immigrants come from “one party socialist state[s]”? And they all vote for the identical governments that ruled their abandoned homelands? The massive community of anti-communist Cuban immigrants concentrated in south Florida is one of countless examples of the complete fiction of your statement.

      And while you’ve either been misled or you’re intentionally lying, socialism and democracy aren’t mutually exclusive, nor does socialism require a one-party system. Regardless, you’re wrong.

    2. …and, they don’t vote, not until they are citizens, and that takes a long time and a lot of assimilation. This is indeed a silly fear.

  6. Dr. Noble, Really appreciate the perspective. Very refreshing to hear one of my brothers in Christ commenting about politics with thoughtful, biblical wisdom. Would to God that I could find just 10 more like you in the City of God. Perhaps I would return to the Republican party. LTC David Thomas

  7. I just want to respond to this part:

    “Related to both the immigration and radical Islam question is the fear that our nation is undergoing a profound change in its character—that soon all of our essential American virtues will be gone. This fear is particularly acute among evangelicals who have watched our country grow increasingly secular.”

    ‘Our’ American virtues? Whoa!

    I thought we were supposed to be in the world, but not of it. So if we’re not of the world, we’re not of America either. We are called to be active in the world – and America – to embody God’s love and compassion in this fallen world.

    We are who we are in Christ, no matter what the world – or America – does.

    Jesus called us to be the salt of the earth, to be out in the world bringing life to it. The presence of the Lord in us is stronger than the world, and we should be infecting the secular world with what God’s given us, rather than being concerned that the world is secular.

    And the whole business about *fear* – yes, sometimes fear overtakes me. But when I move into the Lord’s presence in prayer, He clears my mind and my heart, and calms the troubled seas in my soul, no matter how much I was going to pieces only moments before. Does this not happen to you?

    The notion that fear of the sorts of things that, say, talk-radio yammerers might try to get us worked up about, could be more than a momentary, passing thing with Christians – well, I am surprised. That this sort of fear could multiply and find reinforcement when two or three or more of us have gathered together – if that is happening (and it seems clear that it does) speaks of a cancer on our faith community.

  8. I am rather disappointed that Trump’s vicious attacks on women were not mentioned. I’m sure Dr. Luke would not have approved. The beloved physician had a real heart for that half of the human race.

    1. Lila,

      You are right! I wasn’t trying to cover all of Trump’s terribleness though, just why he’s gained popularity.

  9. Although Mr. Trump’s “middle school boy” antics and comments make me nervous, attitudes such as some you have indicated make me ever more so! If being conservative and expecting our national leader(s) to name enemies of our freedom for what they are is somehow “unfaithful”, then you certainly don’t believe as I do. The Bible says that leaders are put in place by God and are there to help us have peaceable lives and security, as they follow God’s will. Much of what you have outlined in this article is not only naive and insulting, but dangerous and not particularly biblical. Perhaps you would be more comfortable just moving away from conservative Christians entirely–you’re apparently closer to “pop culture” than to Christ and His examples.

  10. I often wonder like with the Sanders camp, the level of education achieved by followers. Also I was hooked with the article until the tirade about Obama being soft and effeminate. A Presient cannot and should not jump to crazy conclusion and that is why we vote for a level minded person. Also use of force is appaling and should never be condoned. If true Christians are reading this please tell me you are opposed to force and heavy handed authority. Supreme power will be a conservative government closer to the Bush God complex and communism.

  11. A thought out piece with the exception of the discussion on immigration was lacking in truth, not dealing with history of how our own country has been using the Mexican population for generations and has created this mess. Also dismayed at the putting down of Obama’s being calm, thoughtful, level headed, not knee jerk response- being call effeminate. He has tried over and over again to do the right thing, to care for people and with the exception of abortion, has had people and their concerns first. Why on earth do Christians still rant on him is beyond me, and to follow so quickly behind such a hateful self centered leadership of Trump that is the complete opposite of everything we know is biblical. Christians should be all about others first, self last. Total opposite of everything we are hearing in the debates. And then to say if Trump is the only Republican candidate what choice do we have? Well I need to sleep at night, and I will not vote for the absolute opposite of everything I have and know is biblical. I would rather write in Micky Mouse. I am ashamed of the Republican party that they have dismissed and ignored good and right for ugly and wrong.

  12. This is key: “Maybe being helpless was okay for medieval serfs, but for individualist Americans living in a democracy where we define ourselves by our power to choose, powerlessness is terrifying. We need to know that we can do something.” It unfortunate that the something so many are gravitating toward will most likely (inevitably?) result in the oppression of others.

  13. The answer to trump and Government is Freedom. Actual Freedom! The church need not be involved in politics. To say conservationism is an awesome is to say Collectivism is ok. If we support the state (republican and democrat) we are as Christians supporting the Murder of children ,women, grandmothers and grandfathers. The state starved thousands of children to death in Iraq in the early 90s due to sanctions. When asked if this was acceptable the Government said we think it’s worth it. The state has murdered thousands of children in Afghanistan and Iraq. Stop supporting the State. Evangelicals praise men like Chris Kyle as heroes. A man who klled 160 people and brags about it on national tv saying he enjoyed killing and wished he could kill more. His first kill was an 8 year old boy. This type of man is not a hero. He is (was) a psychopath. The Lord has said not to have any God’s before him. Yet American Christians have made our soldiers and police officers god’s. The cheer at the use of force against our fellow man. This article mentioned that America shouldn’t use brute force but should rather use a nicer kinder force. Force is force. That’s the real problem. Everything the state does is by force . If they don’t like someone puts a drug in their own body(the drug user owns himself) they get kidnapped by men in blue costumes, then are locked in a cage. The state uses force to steal 40%of our yearly income. If one does not agree with taxation and try to get around it. Men with guns will come kidnap then and lock them in a cage. The State is an evil institution. To say Government is a necessary evil is to say evil is necessary to have a society. Stop supporting evil! For when you give a candidate your endorsement you are endorsing Evil psychopaths. Just think about what I’ve said and ask God what you should do.

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