For Evangelicals, Trump brings new hope – and a thorny question

After feeling persecuted for the past eight years, many Evangelicals see a chance to protect their rights. But how far should they go?

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
David Cox stands in the Union United Methodist Church in Stockbridge, Ga.

After eight years of feeling “like an outcast” as a Christian, David Cox has been walking a lot lighter the past few weeks.

Given an election where more evangelical Americans voted for twice-divorced Donald Trump than they did for church-going George W. Bush, Mr. Cox has witnessed a major mind-set shift among many fellow Evangelicals – from trepidation, even fear, to hope – a sense, he says, of “being accepted again.”

On one hand, Mr. Trump is a large spoonful of hard-to-swallow castor oil, he says.

But the grimace, to him, is worth it, because he believes a Trump presidency will help reconnect the country to its Judeo-Christian values, much like his own 187-year-old Union United Methodist Church re-laid original antebellum wooden beams as the foundation when it built a new sanctuary in rural Georgia’s Henry County.

“Christians really got a chance to see what could happen to this country under Obama, and we knew we needed a change,” says the retired small-business owner, one of the 81 percent of Evangelicals who voted for Trump. “Now it’s liberals who are finding out that if you try to grab too much, it can come back to bite you – hard.”

In many ways, that is now the question before many Evangelicals like Cox: How much to push back. Should they attempt to roll back laws that they see as antithetical to Christian values – from LGBT rights to abortion – or should they focus on defending their constitutional right to freedom of religion, which they feel has been infringed upon?

The forces that would turn the tables on those who, many Evangelicals feel, have essentially targeted a Christian way of life are strong. But there is also evidence that some wish to use this moment to change the conversation to ensure that Christian concerns are more heard and respected going forward.

“Yes, there is a sense of relief [among Evangelicals],” says Michael Griffin, senior pastor of Liberty Baptist Church in Hartwell, Ga. “The perception of the Obama leadership allowed for extreme overreaching in LGBT activism, and that impetus is no longer going to be there.

“But my point, with much disagreement among Evangelicals, [is that] today we have same-sex marriage – that has been accomplished on their part. But it seems like [liberals] are attempting to go from accommodation to approval, and I think that in America you have a right to disagree.”

A feeling of persecution

For many Evangelicals, the Obama administration’s promotion of transgender rights on bathroom choice, as well as the mounting number of lawsuits against religious business owners has felt like persecution.

Some 32 percent of American evangelical leaders say they currently experience persecution for their faith, while 76 percent believe they will experience persecution in the form of social, financial, and political pressure in the future, according to an October survey by the National Association of Evangelicals.

That sense played heavily into Trump’s victory: 26 percent of the electorate last month was made up of white Evangelicals – a record, according to exit polls. Clinton won only 16 percent of those votes.

Now, Republicans are marshaling forces to expand the ability to invoke religious values in the public square. Congressional leaders including Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah said this week that they will reintroduce the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA).

The bill would prohibit the federal government from taking discriminatory action against a person who acts in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction that marriage should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, or sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.

Likewise, state legislators have been emboldened by Trump’s victory.

After the election, Ohio lawmakers quickly passed a bill that banned abortion after a fetal heartbeat could be detected – a standard that would effectively have made abortions illegal after six weeks. One lawmaker called its passage a “victory” that she could not have foreseen until Trump was elected.

At this point, such moves face significant challenges. Many pro-business Republicans are wary of bills that are seen as openly attacking the LGBT community, given the boycotts that have resulted. And such bills are also seen as being on shaky legal footing. Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) vetoed the heartbeat bill, suggesting it would be found unconstitutional.

But Trump’s vow to install conservative Supreme Court justices might make politicians more confident. Certainly, key conservative groups feel emboldened.

Family Research Council president Tony Perkins said last month that the US is now “on the cusp of a conservative generation.”

A conversation at the extremes

The lifting of a sense of persecution on one side, however, risks simply shifting it back to the other side, with the LGBT community, in particular, noting that they have felt persecuted for centuries. That looming clash could make common ground difficult to find, constitutional law experts say.

“The debate is [now] in the control of extremists on both sides: FADA goes way, way beyond small business and the wedding industry, and the gay-rights movement increasingly wants no religious exemptions of any kind – not even for religious nonprofits,” says Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia law professor.

Americans are divided on the extent to which the Constitution protects Christians and other religious adherents who say they are compelled by their beliefs to push back in some way. The Pew Research Center found this fall that 48 percent of Americans believe that owners of wedding-related businesses should be able to refuse services to same-sex couples if they have religious objections, while 49 percent of Americans believe those owners should be required to serve same-sex couples.

But the battles between religious conservatives and the LGBT community show how quickly the terms of the fight have changed. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) lost reelection this year partly because of his support for a bill that nullified significant protections for the LGBT community.

“Ten years ago, who would have thought a politician would get into trouble for taking the position [Governor McCrory] did? And that’s a significant fact: It’s an indication of how far the battle line has moved into the territory of religious conservatives,” says Harvard University law professor Mark Tushnet, author of “Why the Constitution Matters.”

Hearing both sides

In many ways, the shape of the battle to come will depend largely on Evangelicals like Cox. On one hand, the church lay leader would like to see a more conservative Supreme Court. But given that forgiveness and seeing every human as evidence of God’s greatness are key Christian tenets, he thinks of the issue along the lines of a covenant he entered into with his wife upon their marriage: “I can be right, but that doesn’t mean she’s wrong.”

Along those lines, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, an evangelical group, is pushing for a “Fairness for All” national law that mirrors a compromise hammered out in conservative Utah, which secured LGBT rights while also carving out solid exemptions for religious people.

“Rights need not always be secured by one group at the expense of another group,” Shapri LoMaglio, the CCCU’s vice president for government and external relations, told Christianity Today.

And there are other signs of compromise. On Wednesday, Massachusetts officials agreed to revise the state’s Gender Identity Guidance after four churches brought a lawsuit. As part of the agreement, the state admitted that the First Amendment does allow religious expression in community outreach activities like spaghetti suppers.

At the end of the day, Cox argues that Americans, including conservatives, need to stop being fundamentally offended by other people’s beliefs.

“You can’t ever prevent someone from being offended, because when you remove what’s offensive to you, that removal becomes offensive to me,” says Cox. “It seems like we’ve forgotten that we’re a melting pot where we all have to learn to live together. I’m hopeful that we can do better, and ultimately love each other as God’s creatures.”

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