US Christian college faculty failing to fall in behind Trump

New polling indicates that college-educated white evangelicals are moving away from supporting Trump, while many on Christian campuses are struggling to back him

October 19, 2020
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On Sunday evening, President Donald Trump took a break from tweeting to talk to a key segment of his supporters − people of faith − to tell them that God will help the nation survive the coronavirus pandemic.

“We know that God hears our prayer,” Trump said in a broadcast on his campaign’s Facebook page. “We have no doubt about it. He’s always with us and he’ll help us overcome this challenge.”

He then switched to his re-election. “This is the most important election of our lives, and whether it’s evangelical, whether it’s Christian evangelical, call it whatever you want − people of religion − this is the most important election of our lives and we have to get out and we have to vote.”

As he spoke, another aspect of his pitch to religious voters, Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, was poised to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Opponents of abortion are excited that she will lead the court toward striking down Roe v Wade.

And Monday morning, Trump’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, told reporters in a call that Barrett’s confirmation hearings couldn’t be coming at a better time to mobilise religious voters. “This happening is a well-timed grassroots opportunity,” he said.

But while recent polls show Trump continues to hold a wide lead over Democrat Joe Biden among religious voters, a bad sign for the president is that some of his support is slipping, including among white evangelicals who, like the faculty at Christian colleges, have a college education.

At the nation’s Christian colleges, a number of professors described in interviews this week their struggle to reconcile their support for a president moving toward ending abortion with their discomfort, and even spiritual revulsion, over him.

Among those noticing the struggle is Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU).

“President Trump has taken actions on issues like abortion and religious freedom that are important to Christians,” she said in an interview. “But President Trump’s actions distress many who have deeper faith practices. I think the president’s behaviour has made it a hard choice.”

At the same time, she said, some religious voters are troubled by actions by the Democratic candidates, including a bill introduced by vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris to weaken a prohibition on laws burdening the exercising of religion.

Wheaton College − a Christian college in Illinois, which is sometimes described as the Harvard of evangelical colleges − appears to be a place where Barrett’s nomination should be causing many to embrace Trump.

The university requires students and faculty each year to reaffirm a statement of faith, based on a biblical doctrine consonant with evangelical Christianity. Students and faculty are also expected to affirm that they agree with a community covenant, which, among other things, condemns “the taking of innocent life”.

David Iglesias, an associate professor of politics and law at Wheaton and director of the college’s Center for Faith, Politics and Economics, was clearly struggling over whether his faith would allow him to vote for Trump.

“In my faith, everything is subservient to Scripture,” he said and brought up the biblical account of David’s adultery with Queen Bathsheba.

“The prophet did not give him a pass,” he said. “The Scripture is pretty clear that when our leaders do the wrong thing, we shouldn’t excuse them. Character counts. What you do matters.”

And, he said, “we know our Scripture here”.

Just in the past few months, he said, Trump has “failed to criticise the Proud Boys. What did he say? ‘Stand by’?”

“His behaviour during the debate − he wouldn’t let Joe Biden speak. I’ve never seen a worse debate. It was pathetic. He’s said disparaging things about Muslim Americans,” Mr Iglesias said.

“And there’s his recent treatment of veterans,” he said referring to a report in The Atlantic in September that Trump privately referred to service members killed in combat as “suckers” and “losers”. (Trump has denied insulting veterans.)

Mr Iglesias served in the US Navy for 30 years.

On Christian campuses, “there’s going to be some soul-searching in supporting someone you disagree with on 90 per cent of the issues but who agrees with you on the one that you hold dear, and that’s right to life”, he said.

Supporting Trump shouldn’t be in doubt, either, at Union University, a Christian college in Tennessee, a state that Trump is expected to win easily.

“I really don’t know,” said Hunter Baker, the university’s dean of arts and sciences, when asked whom the college’s faculty is supporting. “People are keeping it close to their vest.”

But, he said, Trump will likely get less support on the campus than in the rest of western Tennessee.

He laughed when he was asked about Trump.

“What troubles me about Trump? Oh, my gosh, how long do you have?” he said.

“He’s more polarising than anyone I can remember,” he said. “Ideally, we’d have someone who would reduce that polarising. There’s no question he exacerbates it, and he almost seeks it out.”

In what could be a bad sign for Trump, polls are showing that recent controversies, from his failure to condemn white supremacists, even amid national protests over the death of George Floyd, to his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, could be turning off key religious voters.

A Pew Research Center poll, released last week, found that support of Trump by white Roman Catholics, white Protestants who are not evangelical and white evangelical Protestants had slipped since 30 September.

Just over a month ago, 59 per cent of white Protestants backed Trump. But in the latest Pew poll, conducted between 30 September and 5 October, only 52 per cent backed him. Among white evangelical Protestants, support for Trump dropped during that time from 83 per cent to 78 per cent.

More telling is data assembled by the non-profit, non-partisan Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) at Inside Higher Ed’s request. Previous national polls have shown a political divide nationally based on education. Those without college degrees have been much more likely than those who graduated from college to support Trump.

Previously, polls had not shown that distinction among white evangelicals. But since this summer, “we do see a significant gap emerge”, said Natalie Jackson, PRRI’s director of research.

For Dan Caldwell, distinguished professor of political science at Pepperdine University, a Christian college, it is not surprising that college-educated evangelicals might be turning away from Trump.

“At long last, they’re opening their eyes to his behaviour,” said Professor Caldwell, who is supporting Biden. “I think people have become more sceptical that he believes in racial equality after his support of white nationalists.”

Professor Caldwell, a Navy veteran, was also insulted by Trump’s comments about members of the military.

“I’m doing everything I can to keep him from getting elected,” said Professor Caldwell, who is part of a group called National Security Leaders for Biden, which has placed op-eds in local newspapers such as The Pensacola News Journal.

That academics at Christian colleges are also troubled by Trump isn’t surprising to Dr Baker. “The more education you have, the more you value a certain type of discourse. And Trump violates that. He’s rude, and he doesn’t care how anybody feels.

“Christian college professors are still college professors,” he said.

But despite the polling, a positive sign for Trump is that even some of those like Dr Baker, who struggle with supporting the president, are ultimately deciding to back him.

Like many faith leaders, Dr Baker was troubled when Trump politicised the National Prayer Breakfast in February, where, according to the Associated Press, he held up two newspaper headlines about his acquittal by the Senate after impeachment, then attacked Republican senator Mitt Romney, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Catholic.

“You haven’t experienced a conversion that brings with it a drive toward continuing repentance and personal holiness,” Dr Baker wrote in an open letter to Trump. “Please don’t shame us by attending events like the National Prayer Breakfast and turning a meeting based on faith into another avenue for political combat and vindication of your grievances.

“Here’s a Bible verse that might appeal to you and help with that. It’s Romans 12:20, which reads, ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Maybe you should try that,” he wrote.

But despite all that, he is supporting Trump, he said, because of the issue of abortion.

“I view that cause as fundamentally about justice. In the way some people view the civil rights movement, I prioritise that more than every other issue,” he said.

Another sign of the soul-searching among evangelicals came last week, when the National Association of Evangelicals released a statement, which in part calls on evangelicals to repent in ways that seem to run counter to Trump’s positions. The Christian college association endorsed the statement.

“Despite the example of Jesus and the teaching of Scripture, many of us have not adequately opposed the unjust systems that fail people of color, women, children and the unborn. We have not always fulfilled God’s commands to protect the immigrant, refugee and poor. We have not always treated those who hold different opinions − both inside and outside of our faith − with dignity,” the statement said.

Despite the conservative image of Christian colleges, Ms Hoogstra said there are different viewpoints, noting many colleges have student groups focused on climate change and immigration.

In preparation for Ms Hoogstra’s interview with Inside Higher Ed, the Christian college association surveyed the chief student development officers at their member campuses.

Those at the 54 campuses that responded estimated that 54 per cent of their students are Republican and 41 per cent are Democrats. Forty-one per cent of the campuses have a Republican student club, while 32 per cent have a Democratic student group. And 81 per cent of the campuses said that they invite speakers from both political parties.

Richard Muow, who served as president of Fuller Seminary before retiring in 2013, also sees a generational change among evangelical students. He recalled Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern being booed by students at the seminary during a speech in 1972.

Two years ago, he said, Wheaton College held a series of sermons against racism, where civil rights activists spoke. “All the students got up and gave them a standing ovation,” he recalled.

As some evangelicals struggle with reconciling their faith with politics, Professor Muow is helping organise a group called Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden, which is urging opponents of abortion to take a broader view.

Many women get abortions because they do not have enough money to care for another child, he said in an interview. Biden’s policies to raise the minimum wage, provide affordable healthcare and free childcare work to minimise abortions, he said.

Among those who agree is Daniel Lee, academic dean for the seminary’s Center for Asian American Theology and Ministry. “It’s about life. It’s not just about abortion. A lot of people don’t just think about the one issue, but the broader issue of social justice. About Muslims, refugees and how you treat the marginalised,” he said.

“If you don’t vote against Trump, you’re missing what the Gospel is all about, what our faith is all about,” said Dr Lee, who was among 1,600 faith leaders who endorsed Biden through Vote Common Good, a Christian political group supporting the Democratic candidate.

“Love your neighbour,” he said. “It’s so basic.”

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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