Suppose you believe the presidential frontrunners are unfit for office — so unfit, in fact, that they are a threat to the moral, political, and social fabric of our nation. For the past three decades, conservative evangelical Christians in America have felt this way about Democratic nominees, particularly because of their stances on abortion and, more recently, religious liberty.
As we see it, a failure to protect the most vulnerable lives and our freedom of religion in a pluralist society is a direct threat to the foundations of that society.
White evangelical disdain for the Democratic Party is borne out in our voting patterns: According to exit polls, 79 percent of evangelicals voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, 73 percent voted for John McCain in 2008, and 79 percent went for George W. Bush in 2004.
But GOP nominees have never been ideal candidates. Whether it is neocon hawkishness or the expansion of the federal government at the cost of local, community-based governance, most conservative evangelicals have had some serious objections to the policies of GOP presidential nominees. But then, that is the two-party system. Nobody really gets what they want. We all just have to settle for someone close enough to our values.
Like many younger conservatives, I was very uncomfortable with Bush's interventionism and surveillance state. And although I did not vote for Obama, I became very frustrated and disillusioned with the GOP when McCain chose Sarah Palin as a running mate. This seemed to me like a failure to understand the seriousness of the presidency.
What options do we have if we value traditional conservatism and Christian values?
Romney's run in 2012 was uninspiring, and since my mind was focused on finishing a dissertation, I did not have strong enough feelings about either candidate.
But I was excited about the 2016 election. I had grown to see the threats to religious liberty in our nation, but I was also concerned about the reactionary responses to these threats from some influential conservative politicians and pundits, responses that I felt would only distract us from the critical work of pluralism.
My political writing at Christ and Pop Culture, where I am editor in chief, focused primarily on rebuking the extremes of conservatism as a conservative and calling for a more truthful, compassionate, and virtuous movement.
I was particularly alarmed by the popularity, even among some Christians, of fringe right-wing sites that promoted conspiracy theories, inflammatory and racist rhetoric toward minorities, and the demonization of Muslims. It was from these sites that Trump would later lift (intentionally or not) much of his platform and rhetoric.
My hope for the 2016 election was to see a conservative candidate who would help heal our many racial, religious, and class divisions; work to defend the dignity of all people; and promote community-based politics, rather than sovereign individualism and the impersonal state. My experience in the Presbyterian Church in America has taught me that "I am not my own, but belong — body and soul, in life and death — to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ," as it says in the opening to the Heidelberg Catechism.
My doctoral research at Baylor University on secularism and modernity only reinforced my belief that the concept of sovereign individualism, which dramatically shapes so much of our consumer and political culture, is a threat to human flourishing.
And while no GOP primary candidate came close to advocating these principles as fully as I held them, I was happy to support Marco Rubio's run as someone who appeared to have a fairly strong respect for human dignity and, relatively speaking, eschewed the apocalyptic and reactionary rhetoric of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. But that was not meant to be.
I have heard evangelicals speak about choosing to vote for the "least of two evils" during past presidential elections, but in retrospect, such hand-wringing feels quaint. For conservative evangelicals like me, the 2016 election really is a choice between two evils.
From the Democrats we have a candidate who radically supports abortion by ending the Hyde Amendment and who most suspect will advocate for LGBTQ laws that put religious institutions in conflict with the law or their conscience.
Clinton's handling of her email scandal also shows an indifference or even distain for the rule of law and the tremendous responsibility of her position. In short, she appears untrustworthy as a politician and indifferent or hostile to the concerns of many evangelicals.
And from the Republicans we have a deceptive, infantile, racist demagogue with no political principles aside from his own self-interest.
What options do we have if we value traditional conservatism and Christian values?
Conservative evangelicals must not concede to Trump simply to stop Clinton from being elected. In fact, the best way forward for conservative evangelicals is to refuse to submit to a Trump nomination and to focus on down-ticket elections, local government, and community flourishing.
At the same time, we must begin the long process of rebuilding the conservative political imagination through institutions that work from conservative principles but appeal honestly, winsomely, and inclusively to both the current conservative voter base and voters who have traditionally supported Democratic candidates.
Why not Trump
While many conservative evangelicals have resigned themselves to Donald Trump as the only choice in this election, a discerning evaluation of his candidacy reveals that we should not support him regardless of how bad a Clinton presidency might be.
Two of the most basic prerequisites for leading our country must be a respect and love of your neighbor and an adherence to moral and political principles of some kind. Yet Trump has consistently demonstrated a callous disregard for nearly every group of people, including the oppressed and vulnerable. And the only lasting political principle he has stood by is "winning" for himself.
Certainly Trump would not be the first president with moral failings and weak principles, but what sets him apart is that he boasts in these faults.
Trump has boasted of infidelities, profited off gambling, mocked the handicapped, cheered and offered financial assistance for his supporters who fight protestors, supported abortion (until his fortuitous change of heart before the election), called for war crimes against innocent people, demonized minorities and immigrants, knowingly played upon racist fears, promoted open racists through social media, promoted conspiracy theories, and crudely treated women. And the list grows every single day.
Even when Trump pretends to recognize the importance of minorities and groups, he very openly uses them and their culture as pawns: I love Hispanics, because I'm eating a taco bowl! I love Christians, because, look, I own a Bible! I love black people, because look at my African American over there!
At every turn, instead of appealing to various demographics as real people whose concerns and needs he has an obligation to consider as a potential future leader, Trump views them as props in his grand marketing campaign. Except it's not even good marketing. Trump is the late-night infomercial: "I'll even throw in a token minority!"
In response to these profound violations of human decency, he scoffs, changes the subject, denies he even said it, or doubles down. As he has said, he does not ask God for forgiveness, because he doesn't believe he needs it.
That insight into Trump's perception of his own soul should tell evangelicals all they need to know about him as a leader. Any man who is so unaware of his own depravity that he cannot recognize his need for forgiveness is incapable of justly leading any country. There simply is no way around this fact for evangelicals.
Perhaps even worse, Trump lacks the principles necessary to lead and represent America. His politics are not driven by carefully considered values and principles of justice and governance. Every position he takes is chosen based on the need of the moment and therefore can change rapidly. He swears he will destroy ISIS but calls for a smaller global footprint. He will build a wall but make Mexico pay for it. He will prevent jobs from leaving the US but has argued for outsourcing.
But most often, Trump doesn't even bother to make specific promises, let alone explain how he will fulfill them. Instead, he tells us that he will give us "everything," and that he is the only one who can do so.
Such brazen disregard for the truth and reality shows the character of a man who is driven by one principle: to win this election and gain more power. Under such a principle, any deception, any exaggeration, and any ridiculous policy proposal can be justified.
A man who is so unaware of his own depravity that he cannot recognize his need for forgiveness is incapable of justly leading any country. There simply is no way around this for evangelicals.
For conservative Christians who are (rightfully) concerned about the appointment of several new Supreme Court justices, Trump's lack of integrity (except to his own aggrandizement) means we have no reason to believe he will follow through with his promises. Likewise, his recent pro-life stance cannot be taken as a serious moral and political position, but rather is the blatantly empty promise of a con man.
To vote for Donald Trump is to betray the values of both conservatism and Christianity, and the results may do serious harm to our nation and our souls.
There are more pragmatic reasons to oppose Trump. Supporting him now will undermine the ability of conservative evangelicals to speak prophetically against corruption, infidelity, oppression, and deception in government later. If we excuse these flaws in Trump, we have no right to criticize other politicians for the same ones. This would go against decades of the religious right's insistence that character matters in politicians.
It is also true that it will be much easier for a Republican Congress to oppose a Democratic president than a Republican one. The election of Hillary Clinton will provide a rallying point for conservatives, making it easy for them to unify in opposing unconstitutional or harmful policies. But if Trump becomes president, Republicans in Congress will feel a substantial obligation to fall in line with their party leader's platform, and we have already seen how effective Trump is at bullying otherwise principled politicians into submission.
If we know that both candidates will require considerable restraints in order to protect our rights and promote flourishing, then we should prefer the enemy outside the gates to the one inside.
For proof that a President Trump would be difficult for conservatives to oppose, look no further than Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan. Rubio has announced his support of the man he repeatedly called a con artist unfit for office — a hurtful and disappointing turn of events for Rubio's substantial evangelical following. Paul Ryan's endorsement last week was no less distressing.
Both of these men understand Trump's threat to our nation and the party, but whether out of fear or self-delusion or political pressure, they have submitted to a bully. Ryan's announcement insisted that he would vote for Trump because the nominee has promised to work with the House to pass various Republican agendas, but this explanation is patently absurd. If GOP leaders cannot control Trump before he is elected, how on earth will they do so once he has even more power?
If Not Trump or Clinton, then what?
What remains for conservative evangelicals to do? A subset of evangelicals believes it would be wiser to vote for Hillary Clinton because a Trump presidency would be far too damaging to our nation and the safety of minorities.
But most conservative evangelicals cannot in good conscience vote for Clinton, and voting for Trump is harmful for our country, conservatism, and our witness to the world — so we must choose to either support a third-party candidate or abstain from voting for president.
So far, the closest we've come to a conservative third-party candidate has been David French, whom Bill Kristol asked to run. But on Sunday night the National Review writer and attorney announced that he was unwilling to take on the task, believing that he simply was not a strong enough candidate. He lacked the capital and name recognition.
And while I was ready to support a run by French, many of his views on race and the culture wars would have made him a weak candidate to draw supporters from the dissatisfied right and left.
I had heard several minority evangelicals express dissatisfaction over French because of his treatment of issues of race in his National Review column. But since French is an honest and intelligent man, I believe he could have moderated on those critical issues. As it is, he has left us with yet another call for a third-party candidate:
Indeed, the path is there. I spent the last several days with some of the best minds in politics. I learned that the ballot-access challenge can be met with modest effort (by an existing network ready to activate), that the polling for a true outsider independent was better than most people know, and that there are many, many Americans — including outstanding political talents — who are willing to quit their jobs — today — to help provide the American people with an alternative.
Alternatively, we can write in candidates, vote for Gary Johnson in a symbolic act (though Johnson's support for nearly unrestrained personal freedoms will be acceptable to few evangelicals who view community and limits as social and moral goods), or abstain from voting for president altogether.
But unless a third-party candidate with broad appeal emerges, evangelical Christians would be better served by abstaining from that vote and shifting their energy toward electing people to Congress and local and state governments who have the opportunity to restrain whichever candidate is elected as needed. Our success here will be limited but still far more effective and virtuous than folding to Trump's coercion and losing our political voice.
Toward a future conservatism
Whomever we vote for this November, this election has taught us that we have much more basic and long-term work to do in order to have a robust, effective, principled, and influential conservative movement again.
Donald Trump happened in no small part because a loose network of right-wing alternative media sites, pundits, and personalities spent eight years promoting skepticism of the "establishment," paranoia over immigration and Muslims, exaggerating the dangers of political correctness, peddling conspiracy theories about President Obama, and raising fears of race wars.
While conservative think tanks may have scholarly and effective solutions to many problems facing middle- and lower-class Americans, the GOP base has largely only heard the answers given in right-wing media—answers designed to retain listeners, viewers, and readers, not to actually solve problems.
Therefore, in order to see the kind of change needed to prevent someone like Trump from rising to power in the future, it is essential for conservative donors to focus their investments on institutions. They should target institutions designed to reach the voter base not with hyperbole and half-truths, and not to whip up the base into faux-outrage with reactionary viral hot takes, but to clearly, compassionately, and engagingly communicate conservative values and ideals.
These institutions should be inspired by traditional conservative philosophy, guided by virtues, and focused intensely on outreach to minority communities — not primarily because these communities are necessary for the continued existence of the GOP (although that is true) but because any national politics that does not represent the concerns and needs of all its citizens is not with its name.
There are no good political options for evangelical Christians in 2016, but we have a critical opportunity to stand by the convictions we have proclaimed and to do so in a way that offers other Americans an alternative political imagination, one committed to principled pluralism, to the flourishing of local communities, and to the common good.
None of these viable options will be easy, cheap, or quick, but the mess that we are witnessing right now cannot be seen as merely "politics as usual." If we delude ourselves into voting Trump because "it's just politics," we will end up with unjust politics.
How much do conservatives hate Trump?