Jeff Waldron attends an evangelical church and says his faith informs his principles, which shape his political views and guide how he votes.
That doesn’t mean he wants or needs his pastors to tell him which candidates, party or policies to support. And he doesn’t feel obliged to condone Donald Trump’s conduct because the president’s stances match some Christians’ priorities.
“Taking the Bible seriously” is at the core of his faith and the reason he attends Cities Church in St. Paul, but the book is not “a manual on policies,” Waldron said. The 36-year-old lawyer and father of four from Bloomington believes that too many churches have been “hijacked by the right or the left.”
Voters like Waldron will be crucial in November’s elections. If they sour on Trump and take it out on other Republicans, the GOP could lose control of Congress and seats in state legislatures. An erosion of support in his most steadfast constituency could endanger the president’s 2020 chances.
Despite Trump’s alleged extramarital affairs, a Pew Research Center poll found in March that 78 percent of white evangelical Protestants approved of his job performance. But some polls have tracked slippage in his support among evangelical women, and a recent CNN poll showed that four in 10 white evangelicals believed the women who alleged Trump’s infidelities.
Trump won 81 percent of evangelical votes in 2016 and since then has courted Christian leaders, nominated conservative judges and endorsed abortion opponents’ views.
That earned him support from high-profile evangelical figures. Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. has said that Trump “has done more for evangelicals than any other president.” Franklin Graham said in January, “I believe he’s president of the United States for a reason. I believe God put him there.”
Forgiving Trump’s flaws because of his policies could lower the standard of conduct that Christians want from their leaders, said Joe Rigney, pastor at Cities Church, which is based on Baptist traditions.
“I fear that if the letter after his name was any different, the conduct would be absolutely beyond the pale,” he said, suggesting evangelicals would never forgive such behavior from a Democratic politician. But Rigney understands why Christians who feel overwhelmed by cultural change, such as the acceptance of same-sex marriage and what they see as a loss of their own freedoms, embrace Trump.
“Many evangelicals have felt that pressure and said, ‘I don’t care who defends us as long as somebody defends us,’ ” Rigney said.
Doug Pagitt of Minneapolis ministry Solomon’s Porch and founder of Greater Things, a foundation focused on faith and civic life, considers himself a progressive evangelical. He thinks this it is “a clarifying time” for Christian voters.
“It’s very hard to imagine clergy of any faith suggesting that if we get what we want, it doesn’t matter how you behave,” he said.
University of Minnesota political scientist Lawrence Jacobs called evangelical voters “a very potent force” in the state. “It’s difficult to win the nomination of the Republican Party [unless candidates back] the evangelical and anti-abortion Catholic agenda,” he said. “You’ve got Republican candidates who view Trump’s policies and record as quite conservative, and issues they want to identify with, while his personal conduct is anathema.”
It’s a factor in this year’s campaigns in both parties. State Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, who ended his gubernatorial campaign in January, said many conservative Christian voters are frustrated.
“They feel very disconnected from politicians in Washington, D.C., and St. Paul and they feel as though their values not only are not being represented, but that they are being disrespected,” he said.
Bill Vikander, a DFL candidate in House District 35A, said that could be an opening for his party. “Democrats can certainly get the evangelical vote back on our side if we are connecting the values and the beliefs of what we stand for with them,” he said.
State Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, a former pastor and chaplain, also senses a conflict in the intersection of religion and politics that centers on values and integrity. But he doesn’t feel qualified to judge Trump.
“There are a lot of insinuations out there about his personal conduct, but … as a Christian I want to not judge somebody else, because we all have sin within us,” he said.
Joe Radinovich is a former DFL state representative who experienced the religious right’s power during a failed recall attempt after his 2013 vote to legalize same-sex marriage and a subsequent re-election loss. He’s now running for the Eighth Congressional District seat — an area Trump won by 16 percentage points.
Voters there, he said, “are informed probably not exclusively but largely by their religion and their spiritual belief, but I can’t say that they’re going to turn away from Trump.
“I think elections don’t come down to comparisons to the almighty, but to the alternative,” Radinovich said.
Christian leaders’ relationship with Trump is complex. “I do not want those leading me to say one thing and do another. That said, every single one of us is a hypocrite, because we all have high ideals, and our actions don’t match our ideals,” said David Clark, a theology professor at Bethel Seminary in Arden Hills.
He’s troubled by what he calls the president’s “inability to say what is true,” but he added, “Some people hold their nose and vote for Trump because they believe in some of his policies.”
The Rev. Fred Hinz, a public policy advocate for the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod in Minnesota, said Trump’s conduct is separate from his policies, particularly his appointment of conservative judges.
“It is part of the Lutheran tradition to allow a distinction between the actions of a governing person and the moral status of that person himself,” he said. “The perfect candidate who is both morally good in all respects and also … has the right policies” is rare, he said.
Bernard Brady, theology department chairman at the University of St. Thomas, said that overlooking the president’s failings for short-term gain is misguided. “There’s something lost here,” he said. “It’s hard to return a moral conscience to a community when it seems like you’ve rejected it outright in support of President Trump.”
Brady thinks backlash might be brewing: “My hunch is that people in the pews may not be thinking the same way that their leaders think on this.”
John Helmberger, CEO of the Minnesota Family Council, a Christian group with a socially conservative emphasis, said evangelicals’ clout could translate into November wins in the state’s U.S. Senate and congressional races. “It would appear that there’s potential for changing the makeup of our delegation,” he said.
He doesn’t expect Trump backlash to be a significant factor. Voters were “gravely concerned” about Trump in 2016, he said, but saw him as “the only option for preventing an even further slide away from our nation’s constitutional roots and moral roots.”
Christian churchgoers of all denominations are wrestling with such contradictions. Rob Carlson, 69, a retired businessman who participates in a contemplative prayer group at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, has a hard time reconciling evangelicals’ support for Trump with the tenets of Christianity. “Sometimes I think their movement is more political than it is faith-based,” he said.
Erin Horn, 35, is a mother of three and a nurse who worships at Cities Church. She considers herself an evangelical but doesn’t like labels. Voting is a responsibility, she said, but she wishes the political climate was less divisive. “I just hope for more for our country in the next election,” she said.
So does David Walters, 72, a retired pastor who is part of a contemplative prayer group at Northfield’s First United Church of Christ. He prizes people who “have compassion and concern for the least among us,” he said. “I’m going to vote for candidates who have those essential core values.” The church’s senior minister, the Rev. Todd Lippert, is a DFL candidate for the District 20B House seat.
Another First UCC prayer group participant, Judy Bond, 82, said people of faith have an obligation to get involved. “We are called to work for justice for everyone, and I think that means you have to be political,” she said. Mary Carlson, 59, a geriatric nurse practitioner, hopes for leaders “who treat others in a way we’d want to be treated or that we’d want our children to emulate.”
Marian McKone, 60, who is part of the same group and was raised in a conservative evangelical church, doesn’t blame Trump alone for divisiveness. “I honestly think that if he were to be removed today that all of the issues would persist,” she said. From the shared foundation of different faiths, she said, “I hope we can begin to create something different.”