Trump at church

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, center, accompanied with wife, Melania, second from right, pauses for a selfie while visiting Saint Francis of Assisi Church in West Des Moines, Iowa.

RIPON — Religion continues to be an important factor in the race for president. But Republican and Democratic Christians have different views of who Jesus would support.

Most Christians already identify with candidates, but their belief of what Jesus supports varies greatly. Seventy-eight percent of evangelical Christians support Trump, and 52 percent believe he would make a good or great president. Thirty-nine percent of Catholics support Trump, and 54 percent of Catholic Republicans agree he would be a good or great president.

Evangelicals are solidly behind him despite some criticisms of him by prominent Christian leaders, including Max Lucado, Erick Erickson and Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention. Moore reminded Trump that the “man on the throne in heaven is a dark-skinned Aramaic-speaking ‘foreigner’ who is probably not all that impressed by chants of ‘Make America great again’.”

Catholic lay leaders have publicly denounced Trump’s “vulgarity, oafishness, shocking ignorance and — demagoguery.” Pope Francis has made it clear someone who proposes building a wall to keep immigrants out is “not a Christian.”

Criticisms of Trump by Christian leaders have not had a major effect on Christian political preferences so far, despite Trump’s decline in popularity in the general electorate.

Research by social psychologists Lee Ross, Yphtach Lelkes and Alexandra Russell at Stanford University on the political and religious views of Christians helps explain this contrast. When a gap exists between church moral teachings and one’s political preferences, both Christian conservatives and Christian liberals resolve this “cognitive dissonance” by projecting onto Jesus political values they have already chosen.

Christian conservatives in surveys choose a “morally muscular” Jesus who punishes evildoers breaking laws — preferring the image of Jesus whipping the merchants from the temple and riding a white horse leading an army against Satan in Revelations. They believe this Jesus would support a strong national defense to fight evil and restrictions on immigration to protect America. While Trump does not fit all the values their churches profess (he has flip-flopped on abortion and gay marriage), Christian conservatives believe he exudes strength and would be an ally for what they consider to be Jesus’ priorities now — making America a great Christian nation again.

A corresponding image of Jesus to fit political preference also occurs among Christian liberals.

A minority of evangelicals (17 percent) support Hilary Clinton, but 56 percent of Catholics do and 69 percent of Catholic Democrats believe Hillary would be a good or great president. They prefer the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount and compassion for the poor. They believe Jesus would support higher taxes on the rich to help the poor and policies allowing illegal immigrants to gain citizenship — priorities of the Democratic Party. Jesus in their minds, despite the teachings of both evangelical and Catholic churches, would not make an issue of abortion or traditional marriage in face of what they consider more pressing injustices.

Both Christian conservatives and Christian liberals are doing the same thing — narrowing Jesus and church teachings to fit their political preferences. It is not religion influencing politics. It is politics interpreting religion. Jesus becomes for many politically committed Christians “religious Rorschach,” rather than appreciated as a nuanced moral teacher who does not fit comfortably in any political party.

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Smith is a professor of religion at Ripon College: smithb@ripon.edu.