Conservative Christians are fond of the adage WWJD — What Would Jesus Do? A good question raised in the Christmas season was HWJV — How Would Jesus Vote?
Democrats have struggled for years with the label that they are the secular party, while Republicans represent voters of faith. In 2016, attendance at religious services was a reliable predictor of voting behavior. Folks who worshiped at least once a week — one in three Americans — voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by 55% to 41%. Voters who shunned organized religion — a bit more than one in five Americans — favored Clinton 62% to 30%. Among white evangelical Christians — about one-quarter of the electorate — 80% backed Trump.
But now Democrats have been handed a road map for appealing to voters of faith — especially evangelicals. It comes from Mark Galli, the editor of the evangelical magazine Christianity Today. In a stunning editorial, Galli called for Trump’s removal from office — either through impeachment or election — and based his argument on religious principles.
Yes, he conceded, Trump has done many good things for religious voters, especially appointing conservative judges to the federal courts. However, Galli wrote, “None of the president’s positives can balance the moral and political danger we face under a leader of such grossly immoral character.”
“His Twitter feed alone — with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies and slanders — is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused,” wrote Galli. And he doesn’t even mention Trump’s three marriages, his promiscuous sex life, his prolific use of profanity and his blatant rejection of basic Christian values like caring for the poor and welcoming strangers.
And while Galli does not say so directly, his question is clear: Would Jesus vote for such a “morally lost” soul?
The Democrats, however, have major problems convincing voters that the answer is no. And the main reason is summed up in two words: Supreme Court.
For the last half-century, virtually all the issues religious conservatives care most about — abortion rights and gun rights, prayer in public schools and religion in public spaces, same-sex marriage and gender identity — have all been adjudicated by the courts, not Congress. Trump himself said recently that the “single most important thing you can do” as president is appoint federal judges, and while he has not kept many of his campaign promises, he’s clearly made good on his vow to stack the courts with highly conservative jurists.
The composition of the courts is only part of a much larger battle for religious conservatives. As Matt Moore, a Republican leader in South Carolina, told the Washington Post, “A lot of evangelicals believe the current culture war is a zero-sum game and their side has to win. They see Trump as sort of a Moses figure who is leading them out of the wilderness.”
Indeed, that sort of apocalyptic language is increasingly common among Trump and his supporters. Robert Jeffress, a prominent Baptist pastor, endorsed Trump in 2016 by saying the election “is a battle between good and evil, light and darkness, righteousness and unrighteousness.” The president himself said recently, “I am the chosen one.”
So how do the Democrats counter those arguments? For one thing, they have to be far better at treating believers with respect. The party is rooted today in liberal coastal enclaves — universities and technology companies, think tanks and research institutes — that tend to embrace a secular culture and seem hostile to people of faith.
Barack Obama’s infamous comment about conservatives who “cling to guns or religion,” or Hillary Clinton’s disastrous denunciation of Trump supporters as “the basket of deplorables,” reflect an intellectual snobbery that makes it much harder for Democrats to appeal to voters of faith. It’s no accident that the only Democrats to win the presidency since 1976 — Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Obama — were all fluent in quoting Scripture and invoking religious values.
Appeals to morality will not shake Trump’s core base of support, the true believers who think of him as “a Moses figure.” But in 2016, more than 60% of all voters said Trump was not honest and trustworthy and did not have the temperament to be president. Yet one in five of those doubters voted for him anyway.
That’s the group that’s still winnable for the Democrats. That’s the group that might still be convinced that Jesus would not vote for a man who is “morally lost.” But they can only be persuaded by a candidate who understands and embodies religious values.