LINCOLN, Neb. – Pastor Gary Fuller planned a Sunday service focused on involving Christians in the political process and featuring a speech by the pastor father of Sen. Ted Cruz. But after a week in which Cruz abruptly dropped out of the race, his father scrapped his appearance here and Donald Trump became the Republican Party’s standard-bearer, a dismayed Fuller kept the political portion short.
“Vote according to your convictions,” Fuller told congregants at Gentle Shepherd Baptist Church who will cast ballots in Nebraska’s presidential primary Tuesday. “What you believe is the right thing to vote for, according to the Scriptures.”
He told congregants that the church can’t and won’t promote one candidate over another. But Fuller has a hard time stomaching Trump as the Republican nominee and plans to vote for Cruz on Tuesday, even though the senator has dropped out of the race.
“In a sense, we feel abandoned by our party,” Fuller said. “There’s nobody left.”
Fuller and other conservatives whose voting decisions are guided by their Christian faith find themselves dismayed and adrift now that Trump has wrested control of the Republican Party. It is a sentiment that reaches from the small, aluminum-sided church with a large white cross on its front that Fuller and his wife built on the Nebraska plains to the highest levels of American religious life. Even progressive Christians – evangelicals and Catholics, among others – who don’t necessarily vote Republican are alarmed that Trump is attracting many voters who call themselves religious. A coalition of nearly 60 Christian leaders – many progressive and some conservative – published an open letter last week asking voters of faith to reject Trump and his “vulgar racial and religious demagoguery,” warning that the nation faces a “moral threat” from the candidate.
“Certain kinds of political appeals and certain kinds of political developments are fundamentally antithetical to the Christian faith and must be named as such,” said David Gushee, a professor of ethics at Mercer University who signed the letter.
There is consternation about the hard line Trump takes on immigrants and about the morality of a thrice-married man who has long bragged about his sexual conquests. But another factor is at work as well: The traditional social and cultural positions that drive many religious conservative voters, including same-sex marriage and abortion, have been cast aside by a candidate who seems to have little interest in fighting the culture wars.
In the past, Trump has espoused social views to the left of his party, including a longtime acceptance of gay rights, although he has since moved right on many of them. He has praised Planned Parenthood for helping millions of women. He is running as an antiabortion candidate but had said in the past that he supported abortion rights and would not ban the procedure known as partial-birth abortion.
And while he says he is against same-sex marriage, he has attended a same-sex wedding and is opposed to a North Carolina law – aimed at transgender people – that requires people to use bathrooms that correspond with the gender on their birth certificate. He said transgender activist Caitlyn Jenner could use the women’s room at his properties.
“This year the Republican Party has not just surrendered on the culture wars, they’ve joined the other side. And that’s a unique situation,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Cruz crusaded for social issues, making opposition to the transgender bathroom law one of his biggest fights at the end of his candidacy. The gambit failed when the senator from Texas lost badly to Trump in Indiana, a state that passed a controversial religious freedom law last year that led to a heated fight few want to relitigate.
“Trying to use social issues as primary issues to define a campaign has not borne out as effective for those candidates who embraced it,” said Gregory T. Angelo, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, which advocates for conservative gays and lesbians.
But there are voters like Fuller for whom “it’s always about social issues.” He cast ballots for John McCain and Mitt Romney despite not loving their platforms, but he felt they were men of character who would do right by the country. Many at a Baptist conference he attended last week were shaking their heads, he said, unsure about how to handle the upcoming election; supporting Hillary Clinton and her liberal positions seems contrary to everything many of them stand for.
“I got the idea of ‘Who would Jesus have voted for, Herod or Pilate?’ and probably neither one, and that’s where I feel we’re at here,” Fuller said.
Fuller said some voters of faith he has spoken with in recent days simply want to stop Clinton from becoming president. His sister is one; she plans to vote not so much for Trump but against Clinton. Others in Nebraska are still holding out hope at the long-shot idea that Cruz, whose name is still on the ballot, will somehow win the state and get back in the race. Still others are intrigued by the idea of a third option, a notion one of this state’s Republican senators, Ben Sasse, has pushed for on social media.
Moore said many evangelicals are “horrified” to have to choose between Trump and Clinton. More conservative evangelicals like Moore are concerned about moral and social issues. Gushee said that progressive ones such as himself and the other letter-signers are worried about the “bigotry, xenophobia and misogyny” they see from Trump.
Despite this, many self-described evangelicals have cast ballots for the brash New Yorker. Trump has captured about a third of the vote of white born-again or evangelical Christians and tends to do well among evangelicals who don’t frequent church. He has also won the endorsement of leaders such as Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, where Trump spoke this year and where Cruz announced his candidacy in March 2015.
Trump has made overtures to conservative Christians – he often alleges that people are discouraged from saying “Merry Christmas” – but has also frequently stumbled. He misstated the name of a book in the Bible, and on another occasion struggled when asked to cite a favorite Bible verse.
The splits over Trump reflect demographic and theological differences within the evangelical community, Moore said. The debate over whether evangelical Christians can support Trump’s candidacy while keeping true to their beliefs “may be shaping the very nature of evangelicalism,” Mark Galli, editor of Christianity Today, wrote in March.
The fissure is playing out in some households, including Rich and Heather Dreesman’s in Plattsmouth, Neb.
Rich Dreesman doesn’t like Trump, calling him “not a godly man” and “kind of a lunatic.” But he will probably vote for him in November because he believes Democrats and Hillary Clinton are “evil” and “ignorant.” His antipathy toward Democrats is strong: He said he wanted to write into his will that none of his five children would receive their portion of his estate if they registered as Democrats; he fired his lawyer for saying no.
Heather Dreesman said she is diametrically opposed to Trump on a long list of issues, including transgender bathrooms and his tax and immigration policies, and believes he will not protect religious freedom. She finds Trump crass, vulgar and a misogynist.
“As a conscientious believer, I just can’t vote for someone who supports some of his philosophies,” she said. “I think he doesn’t know what it means to be a Christian.”
Heather Dreesman said thinking about the election in November makes her feel sick to her stomach. She said she now carries a sense of grief that the country is forsaking its values and feels anguish about what will happen. She would like to see a third-party candidate but doesn’t think it’s a real possibility – meaning she probably won’t vote.
“I hate to make this comparison,” she said. “I really do feel like in the future I would hate to look back and say, ‘I voted for Hitler.’ I feel like that may be what is happening if I vote for Trump.”
Fuller is finding opposition to his position in his own home: his 18-year-old son, Jeremiah, plans to cast his first-ever ballot for Trump on Tuesday. The high schooler likes that Trump is anti-establishment, takes the real estate mogul’s word that he is a Christian and respects his ability to make deals.
“Where did we go wrong?” Gary Fuller said with a laugh and smile, looking across his kitchen table at his son.