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Opinion: The GOP and White Evangelicals — A Forever Match?

Less than compassionate policies might be fraying ties

The rise of President Donald Trump has exposed a few cracks in the long-standing relationship between white evangelical Protestants and the Republican Party, Curtis writes. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images file photo)
The rise of President Donald Trump has exposed a few cracks in the long-standing relationship between white evangelical Protestants and the Republican Party, Curtis writes. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images file photo)

Will a health care proposal that could toss “the least of these” off its rolls cause divisions between evangelicals uncomfortable with a close relationship with the Republican Party and those who feel just fine with the political association?

A shared anti-abortion stance, with the promise to appoint like-minded judges, has so far helped to keep the link between evangelicals and the GOP strong. But strains — along policy, generational, and racial lines — are showing within conservative faith groups, despite agreement on core beliefs. 

Friction has been building for a while, recently with controversy involving Southern Baptist Convention official Russell Moore, whose immediate prayers over his own job may have been answered. The president of the policy arm for this large and powerful Protestant denomination has been under fire for his pre- and postelection criticism of Donald Trump; he has made peace — or so the announcement goes — with the group’s more conservative members, for now.

But it was a public airing of a growing debate.

As reported in The Washington Post, Moore, who heads the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, took issue with both presidential candidates in 2016. But his support of a New Jersey Muslim community’s right to build a mosque, his questioning of his church’s deep involvement in partisan politics, as well as criticisms of Trump’s comments on refugees and women rankled older and more traditional members of the convention.

Younger evangelicals and a growing number of African-American members, however, warmed to Moore’s message of justice and racial reconciliation, not a small thing in a denomination that only in the 1990s voted to apologize for its role supporting slavery and opposing civil rights and equality.

After a meeting this week, Moore and Frank Page, president of the denomination’s executive committee, smoothed over differences and promised a commitment to addressing biblical and gospel issues, including religious liberty, racial healing and the sanctity of human life. As a sign that discontent continues, though, a small but powerful group of churches in the denomination is still threatening to withhold funds from the program that supports Moore’s committee.

One wonders if the well-publicized and shaky reconciliation could truly be called a “come-to-Jesus” moment, when several policies backed by an administration that white evangelicals supported in overwhelming numbers aren’t consistent with those favored in biblical verse.

Certainly, pronouncements from some backers of the health care changes that the president is going on the road to support did not sound particularly compassionate.

The poor “just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves,” said Kansas Rep. Roger Marshall, a member of the GOP Doctors Caucus, when discussing many of the folks covered by the Medicaid expansion. Marshall said it was a challenge “morally, spiritually, socially” for those caught without coverage. He explained his remarks, in part, by touting all the babies he has delivered. Rep. Jason Chaffetz said poor Americans might just have to choose between health care and a new iPhone before the Utah Republican, too, allowed that his words may have been poorly chosen.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, sleeves rolled up and visual aids at the ready, has seemed almost gleeful as he has explained his signature plan, one that the Congressional Budget Office has estimated would increase the number uninsured by 24 million by 2026. Vice President Mike Pence, who has described himself as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order,” has offered support to his boss and the proposed health care bill.

Certainly, other issues hold together Republicans and evangelical voters, even those who find themselves precariously trying to cover living expenses and health care costs. But church leaders such as Moore shine a light on inconsistency that has seen, for example, transgressions with women condemned when it comes to former President Bill Clinton but overlooked with Donald Trump.

Christian minister and former candidate Mike Huckabee, who has been a particularly harsh critic of Moore, is wholeheartedly a Trump backer, and will twist himself into any position to maintain that support. The same goes for Jerry Falwell Jr., and Franklin Graham, who offered prayers at Trump’s inauguration.

To evangelicals who care about abortion and same-sex marriage, and also seek environmental justice, criminal justice reform, health care for those dependent on Medicaid and help for refugees, will the church’s leaders continue to speak for them? What about those who feel trapped in hypocrisy when being Republican trumps all else and stifles thoughtful discussion over what it means to be truly Christian?

Certainly, the GOP has little to worry for now over its most solid voting bloc. In a recent survey, white evangelical Protestants were the only group more likely to perceive discrimination against Christians than Muslims; they favor more than any other group the president’s travel ban — still being argued in the courts.

But as the news is filled with the faces of refugee families in distress or African-Americans wondering if a Jeff Sessions-led Justice Department will protect voting rights or an elderly or disabled person frightened a health care subsidy will disappear, that old 1990s slogan “What Would Jesus Do?” might reappear, with the realization that no single political party has all the answers for what ails body, soul and country.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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