In the staggering aftermath of this improbable presidential election, one statistic that has jumped out as surprising is this: Of evangelicals who voted in this election, 81 percent went to Donald Trump, thus securing his election.
For those who find this perplexing if not even appalling, I offer a single word that comes to my mind to explain it: Zacchaeus. He is an unassuming character in a short but revealing narrative that appears in the Gospel of Luke:
“Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”
“Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short, he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’ So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.'”(Luke 19:1-7)
Before pondering why the story of Zacchaeus explains the behavior of evangelicals, it is important to understand the situation evangelicals confronted as a faith community as this election season unfolded.
They faced two intractable realities: one candidate who stood forcefully and unapologetically against an issue that they deem non-negotiable — the sanctity of life — and another candidate who had a regrettable, lascivious history but who, in any case, was showing signs of malleability and growth.
There was plenty about the Clinton candidacy that raised alarm among evangelicals. But her stance on late-term abortion stood out as untenable. And if there is anything that ought not to be underestimated, it is the evangelical conviction about late-term abortion.
Clinton has said on the record, as recently as the final presidential debate, that late-term abortions ought to be available and legal up to the point of birth. Months prior to this, on “Meet the Press,” she said that “the unborn person doesn’t have constitutional rights.” Before that, at the Women in the World Summit in April 2015, she had asserted that when it comes to abortion, “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs, and structural biases have to be changed.” Her stance on abortion alone was sufficient to rally formidable evangelical resistance, apart from the other unsavory aspects of her flawed candidacy.
Now picture Zaccheaus, a little man, who is huddled high in a tree — half-searching, half-hiding — trying to get a glimpse of the man called the Nazarene as he walked by.
This picture, to my way of seeing it, is the only image that explains the otherwise inexplicable fact that evangelicals carried such sway in determining the outcome of this election to favor Donald Trump.
No, evangelicals do not approve of or gloss over the banalities of Trump’s earlier years; no, they do not turn a blind eye to the regrettable twice-divorced/thrice-married reality of his adult life; no, they do not celebrate or approve of his bravado and its attendant indiscretions and egotism that defined the years of his preening celebrity. No, no, and no! They reject it all.
Yet what they are compelled not to reject is the simple fact that Jesus, as he walked amid a crowd of clamoring people, left his path to go to a tree, turn his face upward, and call Zacchaeus by name. Come down from that tree! Jesus further insisted that He must visit Zaccaeus in his home that day. And the onlookers were appalled.
They wagged their fingers. They muttered all manner of moral indignation. Why? Because Jesus was going to the home of a sinner — or, put another way, He was visiting Donald Trump. Trump’s inglorious history of questionable behavior differs somewhat from that of Zacchaeus and his choices, but the abhorrence they respectively evinced is equal in its ferocity. Zaccheaus, being a tax collector, had lived selfishly, greedily, indifferently stealing from the poor in order to line his own pockets. He was despised and deemed the lowest of the low on the moral grid of human society.
“Today salvation has come to this house.”
So in this election season, when evangelicals confronted a clear line of demarcation between two flawed candidates, they inclined themselves to the only candidate who seemed willing to climb a tree – half-hiding, half-searching – to get a better look and take on a vista of new possibility.
It is altogether consistent that evangelicals would meet Trump with the same gesture they learned from the Lord Himself when Jesus approached Zacchaeaus, called him by name, and told him to come down from that tree.
In that gesture, Jesus laid claim to Zacchaeus — and Zacchaeus responded accordingly. “Look, Lord!” he said, “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Jesus, in turn, proclaimed, “Today, salvation has come to this house,” and Zacchaeus’s life was never the same. Bringing salvation to the houses of sinners, even sinners like Donald Trump, lies at the heart of evangelicals’ identity.
Wendy Murray served as regional correspondent for Time magazine in Honduras in the early 1990s and later as associate editor and senior writer at Christianity Today magazine. A seasoned journalist, she is the author of 10 nonfiction books and a novel.