Evangelical leaders debated the appropriateness of a vote for Donald Trump during a Sept. 16 event at the National Press Club sponsored by the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB).
National Religious Broadcasters hosted evangelical leaders – Erick Erickson, Janet Parshall, Bill Wichterman, and Harry Jackson – in a forum debating the 2016 presidential election at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Sept. 16.
Two supporters of the Republican nominee traded opinions with two of his opponents as a divisive campaign moves toward the Nov. 8 election.
Evangelicals have not escaped the discord in response to the major-party candidacies of Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton. Some have said they will vote for neither of the major candidates, while others have thrown their support to Trump, with many citing him as the “lesser of two evils” and/or arguing a refusal to vote for him is a vote for her.
NRB President and CEO Jerry A. Johnson, a veteran Southern Baptist leader who served as moderator, said in introducing the debate, “Clearly there are some strong disagreements among evangelicals, but after Nov. 8 we will still be part of the same family with common concerns about our nation and common commitments to improve our nation.”
Before citing Trump’s oft-reported character flaws, Erick Erickson – conservative editor and Atlanta radio talk show host who opposes the GOP nominee – told the audience, “If you’ve decided that you’re going to vote for Donald Trump in the privacy of a voting booth, go for it. I’m not going to ask you to violate your conscience any more than anyone should ask me to violate mine.”
If evangelicals support Trump openly, however, Erickson said, “I think you harm your witness because we may be wrapped up in the politics of the day, but there are people longing for the Lord and are looking at Christians in this country saying, ‘If they’re putting their faith in a guy like him, what’s in their church for me?’”
National radio talk-show host Janet Parshall said evangelicals should think biblically and critically, and that begins with the Supreme Court. The next president may have the opportunity to nominate three or four justices who could serve three to four decades.
“First, last and always,” she asked, “what will you do with the court?”
“A flawed candidate should not prevent us from opposing a more dangerous one, one who has a profoundly, clearly articulated worldview,” Parshall said, adding Clinton believes “in the denigration of marriage” and “the annihilation of the preborn.”
Parshall told the audience, including viewers of C-SPAN, which broadcast the debate live: “God has a habit of using flawed and broken people even when it doesn’t look right to us. For me, I choose to keep the republic and secure the system” by supporting Trump.
Bill Wichterman, former special assistant to President George W. Bush and president of the Capitol Hill ministry Faith & Law, said he has found the “lesser of two evils” argument the most compelling for supporting Trump but has concluded “this justification is insufficient.”
He is concerned Trump “may be a threat to our democratic republic” because the GOP nominee “has too often demonstrated contempt for the rule of law.”
Trump also “corrupts us,” Wichterman said. “If we support him, we become complicit in his reprobate behavior.”
“Many people who won’t vote for Clinton because they believe she is a liar are voting for Trump because they hope he is a liar and he doesn’t really mean what he says,” he said.
Trump supporter Harry Jackson, an African-American pastor in Maryland and chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition, acknowledged the challenges to Trump about racism but said Americans are “living in an interesting time where he may be the only one who is able to bring some substantive healing to the racial divide” by offering practical solutions.
Jackson will vote for Trump over Clinton for three general reasons – religious freedom, the Supreme Court, and support for Israel – and four reasons of special interest to black and Hispanic evangelicals: education reform, urban economic empowerment, restoration of non-violent offenders after their release from prison, and pro-family tax incentives.
Clinton, he said, “will simply perpetuate the status quo, and the aura of criminalization in the black community and welfare dependency will be continued.”
Wichterman said he plans to vote for Evan McMullin, a conservative, independent candidate. “It’s an honorable path for those of us who want to be able to vote for an honorable conservative,” he told the audience.
Parshall said of such an approach, “Not voting for Trump is voting for Clinton. That’s inarguable. It’s simply a matter of math.”
Erickson, however, disagreed.
“If I’m not voting for Trump, therefore I’m helping Hillary, well I’m not voting for Hillary, so therefore I’m voting for Trump,” said Erickson, who said he will write-in former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning on his presidential ballot. Refusing to vote for Trump “just takes one voter out of the vote pool,” he said.
Jackson said of the electoral dilemma, “[U]ltimately, God is allowing us to see some of our biggest cultural flaws through the flaws of these candidates.”
In introducing the debate, Johnson noted as a nonpartisan association of Christian communicators, NRB neither supports nor opposes candidates for political office.
NRB will be making available video and audio of the debate to its members by request (email [email protected]). C-SPAN has archived its broadcast of the debate on its website. NRB also will be posting the video on its YouTube channel.
The debate was the final event of the Capitol Hill Media Summit held annually in Washington, D.C., for members of NRB’s President’s Council. Other speakers included: novelist Joel Rosenberg, Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran, who received NRB’s Faith & Freedom Award. Participants also met with Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in his Capitol office and toured the Museum of the Bible, which is under construction near Washington’s National Mall, scheduled to open in November 2017.
The National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) is a nonpartisan, international association of Christian communicators whose member organizations represent millions of listeners, viewers and readers. Learn more at nrb.org.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is a writer in Fredericksburg, Va., covering news and events for the National Religious Broadcasters, Baptist Press and the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.)