Evangelical Dilemma: Do Principles Trump Practicality?

Trump’s ban on Muslim immigration is just as antithetical to religious freedom as Cruz’s brand of Dominionism.

Donald Trump won the New Hampshire Republican primary last night, and he split the state’s evangelical vote to do it. According to The Washington Post, Trump won 27 percent of self-identified evangelicals. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) won 23 percent and placed third in the primary overall.

These results are a real blow to Cruz, who’s positioned himself a consistent Christian conservative in contrast to the thrice-wed Trump. And Cruz has the credentials: He won the Values Voter Summit straw poll three years running and edged out Trump in the Iowa caucus largely due to evangelical support.

But as Mark Silk noted at Religion News Service today, New Hampshire evangelicals aren’t quite like their Iowa brethren. “For the past half-century, New Englanders have shunned faith-based politics, and New Hampshire evangelicals are no exception to the rule,” Silk wrote. “It’s a rule that helps explain why there are so few Republicans left in the region.”

Exit poll data appears to support Silk’s point. The Post reports that two-thirds of New Hampshire Republicans said they’d support a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States. That’s a core talking point for Trump – and one the Republican establishment thoroughly condemned. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), no liberal, said that Trump’s proposal “is not what this party stands for and more importantly it’s not what this country stands for.”

Cruz, too, rejected the proposal but in milder terms, saying, “[T]here has been no shortage of criticism of Donald Trump and I do not believe the world needs my voice added to that chorus of critics.”

That still didn’t sway New Hampshire voters. Trump’s success there may owe to his ability to amplify secular fears, and not his piety, but it may be difficult for him to replicate that success in other states.

Despite last night’s results and a prominent endorsement from Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., evangelicals as a national bloc aren’t necessarily sold on Trump. At Rolling Stone, Sarah Posner interviewed several who expressed serious misgivings about the mogul’s candidacy.

“I'm mainly concerned about issues and the fortunes of the issues I care about most: the sanctity of life, the definition of marriage and religious liberty. [Trump's] candidacy seems to be inimical to those things,” said Denny Burk, professor of Biblical studies at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Boyce College.

Another prominent Southern Baptist, Russell Moore, has long been critical of Trump. After the Trump campaign announced Falwell’s endorsement, Moore tweeted a photo of Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer with the caption “Keep Christianity Christian.” He also vehemently condemned Trump’s controversial comments about migrants and Muslims and contributed to The National Review’s recent anti-Trump issue.

That could be relevant to the results of the next primary, which takes place in South Carolina.

Trump leads Republicans there now but that could change: South Carolina is 35 percent evangelical Protestant; 22 percent of that number belongs to what Gallup terms the “Baptist Family,” a category that includes Southern Baptists. That’s a significant contrast to New Hampshire, where only 13 percent of the state’s adults identify as evangelical Protestants and a mere 4 percent as some version of evangelical Baptist. Polling numbers aren’t always an accurate forecast of a primary’s results, and given the evangelical establishment’s general wariness toward Trump, he should not expect an easy victory in South Carolina.

Cruz and Trump effectively represent competing priorities for evangelical voters: culture war and nativism. These issues may split voting blocs, but the candidates are more than willing to use them make hay and win votes. Many people view this with dismay. Trump’s ban on Muslim immigration is just as antithetical to religious freedom as Cruz’s brand of Dominionism.

It’s a long, strange road to November. For First Amendment advocates, it looks a little rocky too.