The 2016 POTUS Election: A View From the Christian College Classroom


John Haas is Associate Professor of History at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. Bethel is a member of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU).

Haas has commented on Adam Laats’s response to my critique of his History News Network piece suggesting that Christian colleges had something to do with the evangelical support for Donald Trump in November.  His thoughts originally appeared in the comments section of my post here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but I thought his remarks were worth turning into a separate post.

Here it is:

Prof. Laats is certainly correct that evangelical institutions, strapped as they are for cash, competing with each other for students, fearful of any bad publicity (especially the kind that leads to folk inside the community doubting your soundness), and etc., leads these institutions (schools, and local churches, too) to be very skittish about political mind-fields. And he’s also right that the communities connected to these institutions (parents, donors, etc.) lean largely right: nostalgic, pro-business, militarist, with some degree of ambivalent tolerance for prejudiced individuals associated with the community (while sincerely officially condemning such attitudes), and so forth.

What that means is, as schools, and as faculty (usually), you’re not going to hear strident condemnations of Donald Trump even from those who personally are appalled by him, whereas more latitude would be granted the (usually rare) crotchety professor who might use their classroom to launch into an anti-Hillary rant. There would be a wide range of personal or small group conversations, of course.

More, I suspect a lot of evangelical faculty who personally find Trump and his politics unacceptable, are nevertheless sympathetic to some evangelical motives for voting Trump, just as they can sympathize with more consistently leftist evangelicals who deplore Hillary’s militarism and neo-liberalism, but who felt conscience-bound to vote for her.

I know, for myself that while I mentioned the contest several times before and after the election, in class, I restricted myself to 1) general discussions of recent developments that might throw light on the election; 2) explanations of the electoral college; 3) brief recommendations of books and articles explaining Trump supporters and their motives; 4) a discussion of how tight a connection there is between Supreme Court appointments, the party affiliation of the justices, and their decisions on hot questions; and 5) a quick look at the map and the electoral statistics right after the election. These were very brief–5 to 10 minutes, at most. Almost always, these were student-initiated mini-discussions that led to brief departures from the task of the day.

I certainly did not advocate voting for any candidate or offer arguments for why voting for a candidate was unacceptable. I marveled at trump’s success at times, but my only extended meditation came in conjunction with a discussion of the rise of Andrew Jackson and populism, which was on the syllabus for that day.

My reasons for all this have more to do with my job description (historian) and the time constraints of the semester which militate against off-topic discussions. I also don’t want my students thinking of me in political terms. I have my thoughts, but my role in their life is as a fair and unbiased conduit of things out of the past. I don’t want them to even suspect I may have an agenda, less because I’m afraid of a backlash than because it would undermine my effectiveness as a teacher. That said, if a student asked, I would honestly answer any question about my commitments or political behavior (though i might ask that we defer the answer till post-class, so as not to get off-topic).

So, my sense, for my school, at least, was that if we had any impact on the election, it was by not making our college an inhospitable place for your typical garden-variety white evangelical student. I suspect if we had tried to do that, we would have alienated rather than converted many of them. Election seasons aren’t always the best times for those kinds of polemics–minds are usually closing as polling day approaches. The fact is, evangelicalism is what it is, and faculty at evangelical schools have a hard enough time getting students to think about just war theory, appreciate Dickenson, and know what was in Hamilton’s reports, and so forth. We can help them understand their world, we can encourage certain perspectives that follow from bringing the Bible to bear on that understanding, but we cannot–and, I believe, should not–be demanding people vote one way or another, or condemning them for voting as they do, or creating atmospheres of one kind or another directed at their political beliefs.

What I want, from my liberal and conservative students both, is that they become more aware of the roots and effects of their choices, their parallels and precedents, and have some awareness, perhaps, of the paradoxes, problems, unintended consequences and such that will attend the various choices they make in life–political and otherwise. Most of them are not mature enough nor have they nuanced enough worldviews yet to really do that, but I hope I’m planting questions, hints and suggestions they can dredge up later, when it seems more relevant to them.

3 thoughts on “The 2016 POTUS Election: A View From the Christian College Classroom

  1. Dr. Fea, as a graduate student at an evangelical institute, this conversation has fascinated me. I have a smattering of thoughts on a number of themes that have emerged. I hope these will further the discussion.

    Neutral or merely restrained?
    What Professor John Haas described in his piece (originally a comment on another post) accurately describes several of my teachers at an evangelical institute in the South. During and especially after the primary, the teachers who commented on the race primarily commented along the same lines and used the same neutrality-preserving techniques. Of course I could sympathize with their sentiments, but it was clear to me that they refused to say anything good about Trump but generously doused him with thinly veiled criticism. Despite the honest attempt by evangelical professors to maintain neutrality, I suspect that their students knew very well what their opinion of Trump was even if they didn’t know exactly how their teacher planned to vote. I experienced something similar at my church—publicly, many took a neutral position but gave off an anti-Trump aura. This semester, I became a classroom instructor and used neutrality-preserving techniques similar to the ones Haas described, but I didn’t manage to thoroughly mask my opinions. I don’t blame teachers for talking about the race or even for talking in such a way as to make their views discernable as long as they did not attempt to pressure their students to vote one way or another.
    What in the hoo-hah!
    A comment in Haas’ piece struck me—“I suspect a lot of evangelical faculty who personally find Trump and his politics unacceptable, are nevertheless sympathetic to some evangelical motives for voting Trump, just as they can sympathize with more consistently leftist evangelicals who deplore Hillary’s militarism and neo-liberalism, but who felt conscience-bound to vote for her.” While you have indicated that the big thing that needs is explaining is how over 80% of self-styled evangelicals voted for Trump, I believe that the real question to answer is why did 16% of evangelicals vote for Hillary. She openly embraces positions that even Christendom in general (not to mention Protestantism and more strictly, evangelicalism) violently abhorred until the last several decades. She not only openly advocates things that are not merely morally wrong and heinously so, she advocates things that will destroy our civil society—let’s face it, a society that doesn’t respect life (old and helpless or young and helpless) can’t expect to survive, especially when it endorses as marriage a relationship that cannot even replenish the population and encourages a selfish mentality of reducing the number of kids you have to bother raising.

    I’m trying to make that argument that while Trump’s personal character is as bad as the worst we’ve seen before in the presidency (e.g. JFK, FDR, etc.), and keeping in mind the fact that the white evangelicals we’re attempting to figure out believed that the media was distorting Trump’s comments to claim they were racist, misogynistic, and homophobic (any by the way, also remember that Trump has moved to the right on some key social issues such as abortion and gay rights), evangelicals believed that Hillary would ruin the economy and help take our country down a path they believe ends in societal disarray and God’s judgment.

    I want to make it clear here that I’m not arguing for Trump at all, even as the lesser of two evils—I’m saying that as bad as Trump’s mouth was (most evangelicals probably dismissed the allegations against Trump, especially after former Arkansas Governor and one-time political opponent of the Clintons Mike Huckabee testified that they manufactured the same kinds of allegations against him), Hillary’s hands are stained with blood. She had the audacity, on national TV in the last debate, to support late-term abortions. Additionally, her stance on marriage undermines the societally foundational institution modeled on Christ’s relationship to the Church and defies God’s created order. I’m tempted to believe that the reason why self-styled evangelicals voted for such a person is that Fundamentalists are right—the meaning of the term has been largely lost and many who use the term are a far cry, theologically and otherwise, from those who previously used the term.

    So only whites can be evangelicals?
    A piece on the Gospel Coalition pointed this out: “It turns out the actual question on the form is, ‘Would you describe yourself as a born-again for evangelical Christian?’ Race is not included on that question. And yet in every media to report I’ve found…they all imply the question is only about ‘white born-again or evangelical Christians.’ If the media has data on how black and Latino evangelicals voted, why aren’t they releasing that info?” The NYT exit poll results page shows separate categories for “Religion” (data broken into: Protestant or other Christian, Catholic, Jewish, Something else, and None) and “White evangelical or white born-again Christians” (Yes, No). Nothing about black or Latino or Asian evangelicals—why?

    My radar has been catching this repeatedly
    I’m interested in the recurring references to uneducated white evangelicals who voted for Trump. Most of them appear to me to be rather condescending. Usually, the author seems to be implying that these uneducated white folks are semi-rabid ethnocentrists and racists—but isn’t it racist/condescending to assume that someone of a particular race/education is probably racist? I know I couldn’t prove this in court, but this is what my radar has been reading. Maybe they assume that anybody who would vote for Trump must be a semi-rabid ethnocentrist and racist. In which case, see below.

    Do minorities support a racist?
    Although you have been trying to explain how so many white evangelicals voted for Trump, nobody has explained why he “perform[ed] better than Romney among blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans, making it more difficult to claim that racial resentment was the dominant factor explaining Trump’s support nationally.” Among Latinos and Asian Americans, this is a reversal of the trend from 2008 to 2012. So my question is, how does the left explain so many minorities voting for a racist? There might be a good one, but I have not yet heard it.

    You have talked a lot about empathy. Could you talk more about who you think needs to be empathetic to what degree and in what ways? And are their limits on who we can empathize with or how much? It seems to me like few conservatives were empathetic with the hard-core liberals and no liberals empathized with Trump or his supporters. Given their stances, can they empathize with each other and should they even try?


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