Baker Academic

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Tr*mp as a Topic of Jewish-Christian Dialogue - Part 1 (Larry Behrendt)

I am happy to feature a guest post by my co-author, Larry Behrendt. This is first of two parts wherein Larry addresses Christian support of Trump as a topic of Jewish-Christian dialogue. 

"Your vote will affect the future and be recorded in eternity. Will you vote the values that will stand the test of fire? This is Mike Huckabee asking you to join me November 6th and vote based on values that will stand the test of fire"

You read it here earlier: Anthony Le Donne and I wrote a book together about Jewish-Christian dialogue. We’ve begun to promote it, in a series of events last month near Anthony’s teaching gig at United Methodist Seminary, and also in Boston during the annual conference of the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion.

If you’ve listened to Anthony talk about Jewish-Christian dialogue, he’ll sometimes mention the thing he thinks Jews most want to ask Christians and Christians most want to ask Jews—these questions are sometimes asked in dialogue, and more often they’re not asked, but it’s interesting what we wonder about each other even when we leave it unsaid. Anthony thinks that the number one question Christians want to ask Jews is about Jesus, and that’s certainly my experience. Anthony’s said he thinks many Jews want to ask Christians about the Holocaust: how could Christians have participated in it, or allowed it to happen … and I’ve sometimes thought that Jews really want to ask Christians about proselytization: why do some Christians seem so keen on converting others (especially Jewish others) to Christianity? Other times, I’ve wondered whether there is any single thing Jews want to ask Christians (most Jews don’t seem to me to be all that interested in Christianity). But I’ve never objected to Anthony phrasing his inquiry in this way. If nothing else, it leads to good conversation.
At some point during our book promotion last month, Anthony wondered out loud whether he still had a bead on what Jews want to ask Christians. Maybe, Anthony asked, the number one question on the minds of Jews today is: How could so many Christians have voted for Donald Trump? His question has been bouncing around in my head since then. At least when it comes to me, Anthony is right.
A caveat: when I’m wondering how Christians and Jews could have voted the way they did, I’m not talking about all Jews and all Christians. I’m talking statistics, and trends. There are something like 2.7 billion Christians worldwide, and roughly 75% of U.S. residents identify as Christian, which means that there are a lot of different types of Christian: Catholics, Protestants, Mainline Protestants, Evangelical Protestants, white Christians, Christians of color, Christian men, Christian women, Hispanic Catholics, Hispanic Protestants (who knew there were so many Hispanic Protestants?). In the U.S., 70% of Mormons are Republican or lean Republican; 58% of the members of the United Church of Christ are Democrats or lean Democrat; 75% of Jehovah’s Witnesses have no party affiliation. Even within these subgroups of Christians, there are sub-subgroups, and sub-sub-subgroups, as well as individuals who simply don’t fit any pattern we might devise for them, and a lot of these people did not vote for Trump. So when we talk about “Christian support for Trump,” we can only speak in a broad general sense, one that needs all the nuance we can muster.
With this caveat in mind, let’s look at the broad numbers. Clinton won the Jewish vote by 47 percentage points, 71% to 24%. There is nothing surprising in this vote margin; it is on par with how Jews have voted in past Presidential elections. American Jews strongly identify as liberal and Democrats, with the minority Orthodox Jewish-American population representing something of an exception to this rule (though even Orthodox Jews supported Clinton over Trump by a wide margin).
Contrast the Christian vote. Per the respected analysis of the Pew Research Center, Trump won the Protestant vote by 19 percentage points (58% to 39%), and the Catholic vote by 4 percentage points (50% to 46%). Again, no huge surprises here. Since 1952, Protestants have supported the Republican Presidential candidate in every election except two—the 1964 Lyndon Johnson landslide, and the 1992 election where Protestants voted about equally for Bill Clinton and the first George Bush. As for Catholics … we generally expect the Catholic vote to be close and to go to the winning candidate. Between 1972 and 2016, Catholics supported the Republican Presidential candidate six times and the Democrat six times, and the majority of Catholics voted for the winning candidate in 11 of these 12 elections. 
If we stopped our analysis here, we’d say that 2016 is same old, same old: Jews and Christians voting in the usual ways. Certainly, there’s nothing in this Christian voting pattern that’s surprising to Jews. If there’s any wonder here, I think it flows in the opposite direction, with many Christians puzzled why Jews “paradoxically” keep voting liberal and Democratic. Even as Jews have assimilated into American life and been accepted as friends and neighbors by Christians, Jews have never joined other “white” ethnic Americans in voting for conservative candidates for public office. Indeed, Jews today vote more like Muslims than Christians. 
No, the wonder I feel about the 2016 election is why so many white Christians voted for Trump. Actually, I should place emphasis on how white Christians voted. No pollster (to my knowledge) provides us with numbers that neatly split the white and non-white Christian vote, but we can clearly see this split in the polling that was reported. Pew tells us that Trump won the white, born-again/evangelical Christian vote by 65 percentage points (81% to 16%), won the white Catholic vote by 23 percentage points (60% to 37%) and lost the Hispanic Catholic vote by 41 percentage points (67% to 26%). And an earlier Pew poll (taken before the election, in June of 2016) showed that Trump then led Clinton among white mainline Protestants by 11% (this at a time when Clinton led Trump in that same poll by 9%, and 11% of the mainline Protestant vote was undecided; my best guess is that Trump won the eventual white mainline Protestant vote by at least 15%), and that Clinton then led Trump among Black Protestant voters by 81 percentage points (89% to 8%). Obviously, there’s a pattern here: the Christian vote was dramatically split along racial lines.
I can show you my math if you want to see it, but I estimate that white Christians overall supported Trump by about a 2-1 margin, while Christians of color (and all non-Christians) supported Clinton by a bit more than that same 2-1. Trump beat Clinton in large part because his white Christian base showed up at the polls in large numbers. Consider that in 2016 white evangelicals made up about 17% of the U.S. population, but these same white evangelicals accounted for 20% of registered voters and represented about 26% of the U.S. electorate. Some of this 17%-26% gap might be due to different ways of measuring who is a white evangelical (and in this piece I’ve followed the path of many others, and failed to make any effort to distinguish “evangelical” from other relevant categories, like “fundamentalist” and “born again”), but some of this gap has to represent a high white evangelical interest in voting in national elections. Given this gap, it’s difficult to argue (as some have tried) that white evangelical voters were not enthusiastic supporters of Donald Trump. 
Notice how I slipped in this discussion, from a focus on white Christians to one on white evangelicals. It’s easy to make this slip, because so much attention has been focused on the white evangelical vote. But it’s obvious from the polls that white mainline Protestants and white Catholics also voted for Trump in substantial numbers. In the 2016 Presidential vote, the sharpest political divide was not between white evangelicals and everyone else, but between white Christians and everyone else. If this seems unfair to progressive white Catholics and mainliners, then think of it this way: if we look at the vote solely in terms of race and religion, the only group that supported Trump were white Christians. Christians of color voted for Clinton, as did white non-Christians and every other non-Christian group I can measure (Jews and Muslims in particular), and the margin of the Clinton vote among these other groups was substantial in every case. I’ll throw in one additional factoid: PRRI’s data shows a substantial correlation between the percentage of white Christians in a given state, and support for Trump in that state. Four key battleground states where Trump performed better than expected had larger than average concentrations of white Christians, including Iowa (64 percent), Wisconsin (63 percent), Ohio (53 percent), and Pennsylvania (57 percent). Indeed, if we look at the 20 states with the largest populations of white Christians by percentage, only two of them (Maine and Minnesota) voted for Clinton.
So far, I’ve focused solely on the numbers. But the reason Jews might ask Christians about support for Trump is not limited to the numbers. It’s also a product of the way many Christians participate in politics. These Christians—conservative Christians, predominantly white conservative Christians, have announced their intent to vote their Christian values. So the online Christian Voter Guide proclaims their “mission” to be “to get unregistered Christians registered to vote, educated in the Biblical worldview, and voting accordingly on Election Day.” A second Christian voter guide explains its purpose, “simply put, to vote as Jesus would have us vote.” A third guide (calling itself queries all Presidential candidates “who claim to be Christian to share their Christian testimony with the voters by answering pointed questions about their walk with God, who precisely is their God, and their candidacy platforms.” There are evidently so many competing Christian voting guides that Christianity Today deemed it necessary to publish a “Guide to Christian Voting Guides.” Of course, the people who write Christian voting guides might be expected to think Christian voting is important, but there is evident interest in politics among evangelical leaders generally: fully 93% of evangelical leaders say that it is important or essential to take a public stand on social and political issues when those issues conflict with moral principles. The following declaration of Christian political faith is typical of what I’ve frequently read in Christian voting guides and voting guidance:
Some people proclaim, “I don’t mix my politics with my faith” or “I don’t take my religion into the voting booth”. The problem with a statement like this is: for a true Christian that is not even possible. When a person confesses to be a Christian, then it logically follows that being a follower of Christ should invade every aspect of their life. The true believer cannot separate their Christianity from their politics … To do so is an open denial of the faith which they profess to hold to. In all of life and certainly politically, Christians are called to declare and defend a biblical worldview.
Today we might associate the evangelical movement with a keen interest in politics, but not so long ago the exact opposite was the case. The tendency among conservative Protestants in the first half of the 20th century was to separate from politics, not to engage in it. It’s also instructive, I think, to consider whether Jews think they should bring their “Torah values” into the voting booth, because for the most part I can’t find that view articulated by contemporary Jewish leaders. (By Jewish conservative Republicans, perhaps, but not by Jewish religious leaders). For example, the myth that American Jews vote mostly to promote U.S. support of Israel is … a myth (a 2015 poll showed that the “U.S.-Israel Relationship” scored fifth among the primary political concerns of American Jews, well below the concern expressed for the economy, national security and healthcare). You have to search hard to find Rabbis discuss whether Jews are even obligated to vote, but if you succeed, you’ll probably find some lukewarm statement about how Jews should “contribute to the general welfare of the lands in which we sojourn.” But if what we’re looking for is a Jewish view on voting for a “Biblical worldview,” I think Rabbi Yitz Greenberg nails it here:
It does not say in the Torah, “Thou shalt vote; I am the Lord.” The Torah’s laws generally take off from where the society is; they try to move the standard situation closer to the ideal. The Torah does not advocate voting for political leadership because it was given in a culture that was neither egalitarian nor democratic. The Torah does instruct that the king and the leaders be and act under the rule of law—but it does not deal with the population at large or with the selection process.
I mean … doesn’t that make sense?
I shouldn’t get too chauvinistic here. Let’s go back to what I said earlier, about statistics and different kinds of Christians and Jews, and the tendency of humans to break whatever patterns we describe for them. Jews are a tiny minority in the U.S., and something like 900,000 of us voted for Trump, including such prominent Trump supporters as Steve Mnuchin, Gary Cohn, Wilbur Ross, and of course Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. If we wanted to assemble a Jewish-Christian conference to assess responsibility for Trump, there’d plenty of shame to go around. Moreover … I can easily find prominent Christian voices who said “no” to Trump, from Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore to popular ex-evangelical Rachel Held Evans. (The Evans essay I’ve linked here might be the most thoughtful expression of Christian conscience I read during the 2016 campaign, even if I did disagree with much of it.)
But at the risk of self-righteousness, I find it hard to get over what I saw in last year’s election. With Trump, an overwhelming number of “values-based” white Christians voted for a President who personally contradicts every value I might associate with Christianity (humility, honesty, empathy, kindness and generosity). These very same Christians who proclaim the importance of voting for a Biblical worldview, voted by a large majority for a thrice-married failed casino mogul who has bragged that he has never asked God for forgiveness. Christians instructed to vote as Jesus would have us vote, voted in substantial numbers for a candidate who insisted (in an interview with Playboy magazine) that Jesus Christ had a massive ego, told a crowd at a Christian university not to forgive their enemies but to “get even,” championed the birther movement and lied with alarming frequency, talked about religious liberty (even claiming that he was personally a victim of anti-Christian persecution because he was subject to a routine IRS audit) but called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, and bragged on tape about engaging in sexual assault.
Yeah. I’d like to ask Christians about how this could have happened.
(If you want to know why I think white Christians voted for Trump in such numbers, tune into Part 2 of this discussion, which will appear in this space in a few days.)


  1. I think Trump, maybe because of all his warts, was considered more honest than Hillary.
    She DID backstab Sanders as Brazile proves. She has a track record of questionable integrity on legal issues.
    Maybe the Church saw the issue defined as a legalist vs someone who will own their sins? Thanks!

    1. Because I don't wan't to discourage dialogue, I'll leave aside the issue of 45's perceived honesty. This is topic that will make dissertations. Cf. Larry's link:

      I only want to correct two points. I don't think that we can speak of "the Church" as an unified seeing and defining entity. Clearly, we're talking about segments of the white, American, voting church. Global Christianity seems to have a much different take on 45.

      Also, I'm a bit curious about the vocabulary "legalist" in this context? By legalist you seem to have in mind someone of "questionable integrity on legal issues." Do I have this right? I've never seen legalist defined in this way.

      Finally, 45 is famously unwilling to "own" his sins. He addressed this directly before the election:

      Moderator Frank Luntz asked Trump whether he has ever asked God for forgiveness for his actions. Trump remarks "I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don't think so," he said. "I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don't bring God into that picture. I don't." Link:

      I can understand why someone might not want to vote for Clinton. But why not David Evan McMullin or Gary Johnson? Or anyone who is not on the record with the phrase "grab them in the p*ssy"?

    2. PrayThroughHistory, I apologize for my tone. As you can see, I'm still having difficulty with the whole business.


  2. Thanks for that, Larry. From this side of the Atlantic, the phenomenon baffles me...

    One thing which might underly some of your figures comes from my own denomination, which would be labelled "mainstream" for you - Anglican. In the UK, I would estimate that something approaching half the Anglican laity would consider themselves "evangelical" (the current Archbishops of Canterbury and York among them), as would a significant proportion of Catholics and a sizeable majority of Methodists, and if the US mainline denominations follow that, your "mainline" division is going to include a lot of people who identify with the "evangelical" POV, at least theologically.

    However, I can't see ++Welby or ++Sentamu voting Trump, or even Republican (here, Conservative perhaps), so there's a different dynamic there.

    Myself, I can't see how any serious thinking Christian could vote for anyone more "conservative" than Bernie Sanders, though, so what do I know? (I have in mind a recent reading of Roman Monteiro's "All Things in Common - the Economic Practices of the Early Christians", which pretty much tells me that the early church interpreted Jesus as I do in terms of economic practice).

    1. Chris, thanks for this. I'm going off survey results from a couple of years ago, but you Brits are described as some of the least religious people on Earth (on average, of course). But you seem to draw your religious borders differently than we do, and your church's relationship to politics seems radically different as well.

  3. Thanks for this, Larry. I want to write more, lots more, but I'm still too angry, embarrassed and ashamed of my own kind. Let me say, though, that I very much appreciate your recognition that not all Christians, not even all white Christians, voted for this horrible man. I will gladly stand with you any day, my friend.

  4. Anthony's response to my guest post will appear on my blog,, on Monday morning. I'll have my reply to his response, in the form of a Part II to this post, ready for Anthony later next week.