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With Cruz Out, Will Donald Trump Be Able To Capture Republican Evangelical Vote?


One of the groups that helped push Trump over the top in Indiana was white evangelicals. The question is now that Kasich and Cruz are out of the race, will Republican evangelical voters coalesce around Trump in the general election? We're joined by Russell Moore. He's the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Thanks so much for joining us.

RUSSELL MOORE: Good to be with you.

NEARY: Now, in many ways, Ted Cruz really, I think, bet his campaign on the evangelical vote. He was hoping to capture the vote in many of the early primary states. He certainly was banking on it in Indiana - didn't happen for him. Why wasn't he able to?

MOORE: Well, I think there are a number of reasons. I think one of the reasons is evangelicals are just as susceptible to trends in the country as the rest of the population. And if you look at the exit polling on evangelicals, you'll find that churchgoing evangelicals, people who actually attend worship services, were much less likely to support Donald Trump than were people who just nominally affiliate themselves with evangelical Christianity.

I think another reason is because evangelicalism is far more diverse politically than some people assume. And so I think that Ted Cruz really appealed to an older guard, sort of moral majority political activist wing within evangelicalism but wasn't able to mobilize the whole movement together.

NEARY: You wrote in The Washington Post that this election year, I guess, is so crazy for you that you've actually stopped describing yourself as an evangelical. And I found that pretty surprising for one of the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention. Explain that please.

MOORE: Well, I think evangelical is a good word, and it's a word that we need to reclaim. But when I use it, I find that I have to define it when I'm talking to people because evangelical has become so confused in our media discourse. And that's especially true when you have some evangelical leaders who have been - who've been doing things along the lines of claiming Donald Trump as a Christian.

Now, I don't have any problem with people standing up and saying who they're supporting and who they're for. But when you have someone who has said that he has nothing for which to seek forgiveness from God, which is the very antithesis of even the most minimal evangelical definition of what it means to be a Christian, I think that's a problem for the Gospel.

NEARY: You've also criticized some of these leaders for overlooking character flaws in Donald Trump, whereas in past elections they might've really been concerned about the character flaws of another candidate. You said here they're overlooking flaws. And I'm wondering, what are the flaws you're most concerned about?

MOORE: I think character matters for the entire spectrum of the political world in the United States of America. And so people have every right to wonder are you hypocrites when you say very strongly that personal virtue and character matters when it applies to, say, Bill Clinton? And I think it does. But you won't say that when it applies to Donald Trump. I think that's a real crisis of credibility and legitimacy for some leaders who have told us for years that they're for family values.

NEARY: Do you raise these questions when you're with these other evangelical leaders or even with your own constituents? I mean, what are you hearing from people?

MOORE: What I'm hearing from evangelicals across the country as they face this really dispiriting election season in front of us is there's a difference between those who are over 50, in my experience, and those who are under 50. Those who are over 50, many of them don't like Donald Trump at all. I heard one older evangelical say, I think he's a moral reprobate. I think he's someone who's very dangerous to the country. But I'm going to vote for him anyway because of Supreme Court nominations. And I'd rather have him than Hillary Clinton.

What - the more typical word that I hear from younger evangelicals is a sense of not knowing what to do. Many of them can't in good conscience vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. And I think that it's going to take several months before we even know what the answer to that is going to be.

NEARY: Can you explain what part of Donald Trump's message is working with religious voters so that they would overlook maybe even some of their basic Christian beliefs to support him?

MOORE: Well, I think it is the fact that many religious conservatives believe that the Republican Party has not only taken them for granted but made fun of them behind closed doors. And so I've heard from those who are supporting Trump their vote for Trump is really a vote to kind of shut the entire system down and start all over again. I think that's a very common sentiment.

NEARY: Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, thanks so much for joining us.

MOORE: Good to be with you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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