Election 2016

Voting their conscience

Why some evangelical women voted for Trump — and why some didn’t

Why some evangelical women voted for Trump and why some didn’t

Sure, Emily Urban, a 22-year-old graphic designer from Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, voted for Donald Trump, but she wasn’t thrilled about it. “I can honestly say I voted for a terrible candidate,” she said in an interview Thursday. But her religious beliefs give her comfort in his victory.

“I voted with my conscience,” Urban, who is an evangelical Christian, said. “I was very torn, since to me there wasn’t even a lesser of two evils. I voted with who I felt would be more likely to honor God in their presidency and that I could sleep at night knowing I hadn’t gone against my gut.”

Urban belongs to the 81 percent of evangelical Christians who cast ballots for Trump on Tuesday, a recent high-water mark among Republican presidential candidates in what was seen as a high-stakes election for the religious right. She is also one of the 53 percent of white women who chose to support Trump over Hillary Clinton in what was seen as a high-stakes election for women overall. Exit polls don’t give a breakdown of voters by race, gender, and religion, but something interesting happened at the intersection of these identities — nationally and in Urban’s home state, where 22 percent of the adult population is affiliated with an evangelical protestant church.

Robert Jones, author of “The End of White Christian America” and the CEO of the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute, said polls showed a sizable gender gap among evangelical voters in the weeks leading up to the election, mirroring the polling trend that showed waning support for Trump among female voters across the board. A PRRI poll in late October showed Trump was ahead by 11 points among white evangelical men compared to women, 71 percent to 60 percent.

“Here’s the catch,” Jones said. “In that survey we had 17 percent of white evangelicals undecided. Three weeks out they still didn’t know which candidate they were going to vote for. That gender gap closed as uncertain people came into vote.”

Urban said she made her decision at the last moment and described it as a “sort of a moment of surrendering my divided thoughts.”

Analysts had wondered whether conservative religious women might be put off by the multiple claims of sexual assault against Trump and the leaked hot-mic conversation from 2005 in which he claimed his celebrity status entitled him to grab women “by the pussy.”

Those comments were certainly a deal-breaker for prominent evangelical women including Beth Moore, 59, an author and a powerful voice in the movement, who took a stand against Trump by calling on male evangelical leaders to denounce his candidacy. “I’m one among many women sexually abused, misused, stared down, heckled, talked naughty to. Like we liked it. We didn’t. We’re tired of it,” Moore tweeted on Oct. 9. Julie Roys, an evangelical author and talk-radio host also spoke out forcefully against Trump. “I honestly don’t know what makes me more sick,” Roys wrote on her blog. “Listening to Trump brag about groping women or listening to my fellow evangelicals defend him.”

Jones argues that Trump’s appeal among white evangelicals — a development early in the campaign that befuddled political analysts — was about “nostalgia” rather than issues, which is why the Republican candidate’s on-air discussions of anal sex, his past support for abortion, and his appearance in a soft-core Playboy film didn’t really matter to those voters.

“Trump has been activating these voters not as values voters, in the way we’ve been accustomed, but as nostalgia voters. ‘Make America Great Again’ is backward-looking, a 1950s image of America before we had waves of immigration, before gay marriage, before the civil rights movement,” Jones said. “It’s that appeal that has really rallied people around Trump more than any arguments around religion.”

But 26-year-old Becky Smiltneek said values were exactly why she voted for Trump — and it wasn’t an easy choice.

Smiltneek, from Sheboygan Falls, has been active in the Evangelical church since she was 12 and works for a local anti-sex trafficking nonprofit. She said she found herself conflicted when weighing her religious values, including opposition to abortion, with her disdain for Trump’s denigrating remarks about women — made more complicated by divisions within the Christian community and media over Trump.

“So here I faced a difficult choice. What was more important to me? Ensuring a more pro-life Supreme Court or blocking a man who I saw as careless in his words about women and minorities?” she said.

Smiltneek struggled with her choice down to Election Day. “Ultimately, at the last second, what I believe to be murder of innocent babies had to come before even my disdain for Trump’s remarks about women and other groups.”

Smiltneek said she was surprised when she learned that Trump had won. “As soon as I found out at 4 a.m. that Trump was elected, I wasn’t jumping for joy,” she said. “I was surprised — I wasn’t gleeful. The first thing I did was pray that we can heal and that he’ll be guided by some people who are Christians and that he will try to treat everyone with respect.”

Smiltneek’s best friend, Elizabeth Geier, felt differently. For her, voting against Trump was a no-brainer. Greier is a 28-year-old graduate student studying clinical mental health in the greater Milwaukee area and has been an evangelical all her life. She voted Democrat, as she and her parents always have. She said she was troubled to learn how many people in her congregation voted for Trump.

“Trump is awful,” Geier said. “The comments he makes about women, and ethnic minorities? He’s the antithesis of what Jesus would say about good character.”

Geier is anti-abortion and believes Democrats do a better job keeping abortion rates down. “They make it easier for women to have kids by providing more child support, more options, better overall support,” she said.

Geier said she wasn’t looking forward to attending church on Sunday. “I know this is hypocritical, because the bible teaches unity … so I know I’m not right, necessarily. For now, I’m just angry. I need to give myself time to be angry before I can come out of it and face my Christian peers again.”

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