The Rev. Bryan Moak senses worry in the pews. Worshipers in his evangelical church are anxious about the presidential elections, which offer what many consider two seriously “flawed” candidates — with those flaws becoming more glaring every week.
“I’ve never seen it like this before,” said Moak, executive pastor at Hillside Church in Bloomington, echoing other Twin Cities pastors. “You may have used term ‘lesser of two evils’ before, but not like this.
“If you’re a Republican, Donald Trump has made it awkward to talk about your guy,” he said. “And if you’re Democrat, it’s the same.”
Evangelical Christians long have been considered a large and reliable voting bloc for GOP presidential candidates, with more than 75 percent casting Republican ballots in past three presidential races. But this year, the candidate whose platform supports their position on abortion restrictions and who holds the prospect of appointing like-minded U.S. Supreme Court justices is the same man who last week was heard saying he grabbed women’s genitals.
It’s created an excruciating moral dilemma for many evangelicals, who represent about one in five voters and attend churches across Minnesota.
Evangelicals care deeply about immigrants, the poor, the vulnerable, said Carl Nelson, president of Transform Minnesota, a coalition of 360 evangelical churches. But they’re also committed to “the sanctity of life” and their religious freedoms.
That “puts us at odds with both political parties,” he said.
Trump losing ground
The cracks in the white evangelical voting bloc were widening before the latest bombshell that Trump had bragged “you can do anything” to women if you’re a celebrity. Many already were uneasy with Trump’s inflammatory statements about immigrants, women, Muslims, along with his casino ownership and multiple marriages.
Last week, for example, about 100 evangelical leaders posted a petition on Change.org, urging the faithful not to vote for Trump. That number has surged to more than 20,000.
On Monday, Christianity Today, the most influential national evangelical publication, ran a scathing editorial. It argued that the Democratic Party was “hostile to expressions of traditional Christian faith,” but that Trump also had big problems.
“He has given no evidence of humility or dependence on others, let alone on God his maker and judge,” wrote executive editor Andy Crouch. “He wantonly celebrates strongmen and takes every opportunity to humiliate and demean the vulnerable. He shows no curiosity or capacity to learn. He is, in short, the very embodiment of what the Bible calls a fool.”
But Trump still has supporters. A poll taken Oct. 5-9 showed Trump held 65 percent of white evangelical Protestant support. The poll was conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based research group PPRI and the Atlantic.
Such support reflects the strong “cultural identity” that many evangelicals have with the Republican Party and the fervor that abortion restrictions hold in their election decisions, said Fred Van Geest, chairman of the political science department at Bethel University in Arden Hills.
Even the Minnesota Family Council, a conservative evangelical group long on the front lines of abortion politics, feels the tension. Typically, the council reminds followers to be sure to vote for local candidates, not just the president. This year, it’s urging people to vote — period, said council CEO John Helmberger.
“It’s not like anything in my life,” said Helmberger. “They are torn between character and public policy.”
Views from the pews
River Valley Church is among the nation’s fastest-growing evangelical churches, with eight sites. Last week, several hundred members gathered at its Apple Valley location, where services included a 10-piece Christian rock band. With arms raised, they sang, “Lord I believe. I trust in you. And not what I see.”
For many, what they “see” is the toughest voting decision of their lives. So tough that River Valley founding pastor Rob Ketterling is launching a three-part series of sermons entitled “None of the Above.” The series will explore the issues weighing on church members and ways to view them from a biblical perspective.
Ketterling said he’s never seen so much concern.
“I asked a group of about 20 men over lunch, ‘Do you have an idea who you will vote for?’ ” Ketterling said. “All but one raised their hand. Then I asked, ‘Do you have a bumper sticker, lawn sign, Instagram, Facebook post — anything showing the candidate?’
Most churches are approaching the issue with caution. Lay leaders at Church of the Cross in Hopkins, for example, hosted a forum featuring church members from both political parties, said the Rev. Christian Ruch.
This Thursday night, City Church in Minneapolis is hosting a type of Ted Talk called “Engaging A Divided Nation.” It too is designed to give attendees food for thought, said pastor John Sommerville.
Meanwhile, many of the faithful remain unsure about their vote, or if they will vote at all. During coffee hour at River Valley Church, Jen Pattengill of Lakeville said, “We will vote, but we will vote with a heavy heart. And we’ll vote more for issues than the person.”
Jim and Terri Kipka of Cottage Grove said they hadn’t decided, and were keeping quiet as they pondered. Said Jim Kipka: “I don’t post anything on Facebook. It makes your friends not your friends.”
Neil Turner of Apple Valley was a bit anxious.
“This is the time when I usually know who I will be voting for,” said Turner. “But things continue to come up.”
The choice is less difficult for others. Black evangelicals have typically voted Democrat, and the Rev. David Keaton sees no indication that will change. The pastor at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in north Minneapolis minced no words.
“There is no way an evangelical who follows the word of God can vote for Donald Trump,” said Keaton. “He does not demonstrate any Christian values we can support.”
Leith Anderson, the former pastor at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, is president of the National Association of Evangelicals. He steers clear of partisan debate, but acknowledges that the recent Trump ruckus “certainly makes it more challenging for those who want to focus on policy rather than character.”
He’s urging evangelicals to consider, “What does it mean to be a biblical Christian?”
“I remind them we are not primarily about the elephant or the donkey, we’re about the lamb of God,” said Anderson.
Nelson believes the situation could be converted to opportunity.
“For a long time, we’ve placed too much hope in government to solve the injustices of society,” he said. “The church never should have become so dependent on government to achieve its goals.”