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Trump Presents Dilemma For Evangelical Women, Once Reliable GOP Voters

Christian singer-songwriter Nichole Nordeman performs during the 34th Annual Dove Awards rehearsals in 2003 at the Gaylord Center in Nashville, Tenn. Nordeman has spoken out about Trump.
Frank Mullen
Christian singer-songwriter Nichole Nordeman performs during the 34th Annual Dove Awards rehearsals in 2003 at the Gaylord Center in Nashville, Tenn. Nordeman has spoken out about Trump.

White evangelicals are reliable Republican voters. They also have a long history of demanding that politicians exemplify character and morality in public life.

So for many, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump presents a moral dilemma.

Trump has apologized for what many saw as one of his most egregious moments — bragging about groping and kissing women without consent in a 2005 recording. He has denied allegations from several women accusing him of sexual assault.

But the episode has exposed another divide in the white evangelical community — a split by gender.

Several prominent male evangelical leaders were quick to accept Trump's apology for his comments. They called on voters to stay focused on defeating Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

For some evangelical women, like Charmaine Yoest with the pro-Trump group American Values, Trump's apology was a good start.

"I think in a situation like this you really can't overdo talking about how much you understand how people are feeling — that's part of being a leader," Yoest says.

For others, like Katelyn Beaty, an editor-at-large at Christianity Today, the responses from some evangelical leaders exposed a lack of understanding.

"Every church in America has women members sitting in their pews every Sunday for whom this is a deeply personal issue," Beaty says.

Beaty's magazine recently published an editorial critical of Trump. Speaking via Skype, Beaty pointed to prominent evangelical writers like Beth Moore and Jen Hatmaker who've recently called out male leaders as too quick to dismiss the whole thing.

For many rank-and-file women, sexual harassment and assault are personal issues, says Susan Fletcher of Colorado Springs.

"I have been a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace; I've had my life made a living hell by a person who was in power over me," she says.

Fletcher, in her 30s, is a staff historian with an evangelical ministry. She says the rhetoric she's hearing recently around sexual assault is disturbing to many evangelical women she knows.

"You know, the traditional, almost patriarchy of older, white, evangelical men who are supporting and endorsing him — there definitely is a huge disconnect between what they're saying and people like me, both as a historian and as a young woman, are thinking and feeling," Fletcher says.

Christian singer-songwriter Nichole Nordeman says she usually stays out of politics, but she has felt compelled to speak up this year.

Nordeman points out that some men, like Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore and Christian writer Max Lucado, have been speaking out against Trump for months. But she calls the responses of some others "devastating."

"I find it sickening that these men can face their congregations and their families and their college campuses and feel OK with trusting Donald Trump with their voice and their vote and their country — and still somehow explain it away through the lens of the teachings of Christ," Nordeman says. "It boggles my mind. It's baffling."

Nordeman says it's an "exciting time" to be an evangelical woman, and she thinks evangelicalism may be at a turning point.

"In the circles that I run in, I keep hearing the term 'Xvangelical' thrown around quite a bit — just the sense that we are trying to find new language to define us as followers of Christ, because this old term has felt unbelievably compromised by this election and by some of the old guard in evangelical leadership," Nordeman says.

Beaty says there's a lot at stake for the evangelical old guard in how they address issues of gender.

"They risk losing their authority and kind of their trust with many evangelicals in this country, especially evangelical women," Beaty says.

Beaty says some of the rifts that have been highlighted by the politics of 2016 are likely to continue long after the campaign is over.

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Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.