Next week’s Iowa Republican caucuses formally launch the 2024 primary race that will almost certainly end with a third GOP nomination for former president Donald Trump. When Iowans caucus on Monday, recent polling suggests Trump will easily claim the state’s 40 delegates, with rivals Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis jostling for second place.
Whatever the exact results, the decisions of Iowa’s white evangelical caucus-goers will be much scrutinized in the days to come. But for most of them, I suspect, those decisions have been long since made. American evangelicals’ conversation around Trump has changed dramatically since 2020, splitting along a kind of class line and all but disappearing as an active consideration for the average voter.
In most evangelical circles, the Trump debate is dead.
Let’s start with the exception: Among what some call the “evangelical elite,” this is still a live question. Whether it’s permissible (or required) to support (or oppose) Trump for president is still actively discussed among evangelicals who write books and articles like this one, who attract followings online, who know what “Big Eva” means and how they feel about it, who attend seminary (but probably not for pastoral ministry), and who otherwise participate in The Discourse—wherever they land politically or theologically.
Trump support is a live question for self-proclaimed Christian nationalists on X (formerly Twitter). And it’s a live question for “never Trump” evangelicals at The Atlantic or The New York Times. In Iowa, it’s a live question for Republican kingmaker Bob Vander Plaats, who told CT he’s holding out hope for a DeSantis win.
But for the average white evangelical Republican, my strong impression is that this debate is basically finished. Very few evangelicals will vote or caucus this year having freshly agonized over whether to back Donald Trump.
That’s so for several reasons, none of them especially unique to evangelicals. One is the reality of how millions of Americans routinely vote: by partisan default and after relatively little research into the policy and personal history of the candidates on offer.
The raging politico who can’t seem to log off, touch grass, and love his neighbor has become a stock character in American politics. But there’s another character better represented in our democracy: the party-line voter (and sometimes nonvoter) who really does intend to do her civic duty but just has so much else to do first. There’s dinner to cook, laundry to sort, that email to answer, the dog to wash.
Low-information voters get a bad rap, and the part of me fascinated by politics is sometimes tempted to join in that denigration. But another part of me recognizes that this mode of political engagement makes sense for many people. After all, my job means I can spend a whole day researching a candidate’s record—and get paid for it. Probably 99.9 percent of America can’t do the same. People have limited time and energy, and they can’t spare much for distant political dramas, so they vote the party line.
That includes many evangelicals. Much has been made of “the 81 percent” of white evangelicals who voted for Trump in 2016. But, depending on exactly which data set you use, that figure is statistically identical to the proportion of white evangelical votes for the Republican nominees of 2020, 2012, 2008, and 2004. As difficult as it is for those of us in the chattering class to fathom, a lot of this story is simply Republicans voting Republican.
And for all the same reasons that people cast low-information votes, relatively few voters have comprehensive political ideologies to uphold. Default partisan voting doesn’t rest on an exhaustive policy platform undergirded by mutually reinforcing theses about the purpose of the state, the grounding of human rights, the nature of the common good, and so on. It rests on a few high-profile issues (right now: abortion, education, immigration, inflation, Israel, Ukraine) and, well, vibes.
In that sense, the evangelical decision to back Trump was at once a very big deal and a comparatively small one. It was big when done by evangelical elites—the kind of people who are still talking about this, who do have a political ideology supposedly informed by Scripture, who spent the 1990s putting out statements about the importance of character in politics and then forgot all about it when Trump came on the scene.
The Book of James warns us that those “who teach will be judged more strictly” (3:1), and high-profile Trump supporters knew better.
Yet many ordinary voters knew rather less. I’ll never forget mentioning Trump’s Access Hollywood tape to an older relative—a white evangelical Republican—shortly before the 2016 election. I said I couldn’t believe people still supported him after hearing what he’d said. She said she hadn’t heard of it at all. That was the first time I’d have an exchange about Trump along those lines. It wasn’t the last.
Political division feels worst when it’s close, when it comes between us and loved ones who taught us the very ethics that make enthusiasm for Trump inconceivable. But the “servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows,” as Jesus taught, while “the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows” (Luke 12:47–48).
Error is judged in proportion to knowledge, that is. And almost a decade into this saga, I’ve come to hold in tension a big-picture dismay over American evangelicalism’s embrace of Trump and a recognition that the rationale behind any one evangelical Trump vote may be complicated, surprising, and even sympathetic.
The final factor bringing the Trump debate to its close is sympathetic too, if only because it reflects a common human failing—one I too often find in myself: We don’t like to admit we’ve been wrong.
This factor isn’t about making the decision to back Trump, then, but about what happens after that decision has been made. It’s something of an ethical sunk cost fallacy: If you’ve voted for him once, why not again? If supporting him puts you in the wrong, you’re already there.
The tricky thing about sunk cost is that it doesn’t feel like a fallacy, and that’s especially true when we’re talking not business but politics, ethics, and their implications for personal identity. To refuse to vote for Trump in 2024 after voting for him in 2016 or 2020 is to admit error—and that’s uncomfortable.
Indeed, in the political realm, perhaps even more than elsewhere, the human instinct is to justify ourselves (Luke 10:29), to reassure ourselves and each other that we got it right the first time, to recommit even when we would do better to repent. Trump’s on the ballot anew for 2024. But who wants to keep debating a decision already made?
Bonnie Kristian is the editorial director of ideas and books at Christianity Today.