No, Christians Were Not Driven by Persecution to Vote for Donald Trump

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To hear some conservatives tell it, American Christians today are being fed to lions.Illustration: Ignatius of Antioch from the Menologion of Basil II (c. 1000 AD)

One of the most popular post-election interpretive themes among conservatives is that Christians were forced to vote for a presidential candidate they largely despised (or had reason to despise) because mean old secular liberals, especially gay people, were persecuting them. At National Review the Never-Trump conservative David French gave a full but not atypical treatment to the cries of the martyrs he seems to hear:

[O]rthodox Christians feel as if they’re under cultural and legal siege because they are….
[W]ith all the social pressures on the left driving Democratic politicians to ever-more-vicious acts of religious persecution, the election of 2016 presented conservative Christians with nothing but terrible options: Vote for an immoral man who might help, vote for an immoral woman who will try to hurt, or vote for someone decent who can’t win.

French’s case for Christians being fed to the lions is not very precise, and mostly seems to involve the disdain of academics who are not, by and large, “Democratic politicians.” He does at least go to the trouble of talking about orthodox or conservative Christians (not acknowledging, of course, that these words do not mean the same thing), not conflating them with Christians generally. But it does raise the question of how many millions of Christians, including quite a few who voted for Donald Trump, have read the same Bibles and recited the same creeds as French and have somehow avoided the conclusion that having to sell pizza to gay people is like a second crucifixion of Christ.

Even observers who don’t share French’s apparent belief that conservative Christians can no longer get a job or run a business (he has clearly never spent much time in my home state of Georgia) seem to think the only possible reason Trump got 81 percent of the white evangelical vote is that these people are, as Sean Trende put it, “scared” by a wide range of anecdotal incidents from the involuntary servitude of bakers and pizza-makers to the threat transgender people pose to America’s restrooms. Progressives were, he suggests, poor winners in the culture wars, and have vengefully rubbed it in to the traditionalist losers in ways that helped produce President-elect Trump.

It is not clear, however, what progressives are supposed to do to avoid scaring conservative Christians into voting for any old Republican. Surely we cannot accept the proposition that anyone in the country can self-select the discrimination and employee health-care laws and regulations they will and will not obey. There are in fact exemptions that even the godless Obama administration acknowledges for religious institutions; in the interstices between these institutions and individuals claiming religious inspiration, hard cases will arise. That they are sometimes decided in favor of the discriminated-against rather than the religiously guided discriminator should not be a source of cultural panic, should it? Barry Goldwater once said, “Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Should Americans who believe treating LGBT people like everyone else is a matter of simple justice hold back because some of our fellow citizens cherish injustice? And are conservative Christians rightly aggrieved if the state does not rush in and protect them from hurt feelings over the “bigotry” or “disrespect” sent their way by private individuals in academia or the media?

In some cases the pose of religious conservatives as people just minding their own business and trying to obey their consciences is even less convincing. We are often told one major reason white conservative evangelicals voted for Trump is that they very badly want pro-life justices on the Supreme Court to overturn the constitutional right to abortion. If one is convinced on religious or any other grounds that legalized abortion is legalized homicide, that stance makes sense. But it is not a defensive reaction to some secular-progressive effort to interfere with private religious belief. So far as I am aware, no law has ever forced a conservative Christian to have an abortion. The right-to-life cause is aimed at imposing a set of beliefs on the private behavior of people who do not share those beliefs. Being thwarted from achieving those aims is not persecution.

There is a very real argument to be made that what conservative Christians need most is better leadership: leadership that does not whip up paranoid fears in order to sanctify entirely secular political decisions. Some of the claims of persecution are almost entirely fabricated, like the bizarre idea the IRS is systematically discriminating against Christians. It is hard to imagine that the agency’s alleged slow-walking of applications for tax-exempt status for political groups seeking that status to hide their donors could have become a religious cause célèbres without some fairly hysterical fanning of rhetorical flames. In the end, though, the idea of Lois Lerner being the latter-day successor to the Romans in persecuting Christians is appropriately fatuous. Being denied 501(c)(4) status is not exactly the rack and the stake, the cross and the grave. Culturally panicked conservative Christians need to get a grip and realize all they have lost are political battles, not a holy war.