For Donald Trump, evangelicals represent a crucial electorate — one which he cannot afford to affront.
Now in the final year of his first — or only? — presidential term, Donald Trump is in trouble. Haunted time and again by new revelations of shady, if not criminal, behavior, and ridiculed by his political peers, even including UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Trump is universally loathed — with few exceptions, Israel’s increasingly far-right government among them. In the United States, Trump is unpopular as few presidents before him, a fact which even Fox News cannot deny.
In October last year, a Fox News poll found 55% of respondents disapproving of the job he was doing. There were naturally some exceptions, for instance rural white men. The most significant exception, however, were white evangelicals. More than 70% approved of his performance as president.
Trump won a large majority of the white evangelical vote in 2016, and their allegiance to the president has not faltered — scandals, corruption, and a litany of blatant and often ludicrous lies notwithstanding. In fact, white evangelicals are virtually “the only voter segment that he is holding onto.” For many, myself included, this smacks of idolatrous hypocrisy. Evangelicals love to take the moral high ground, as they did in Bill Clinton’s impeachment only a generation ago.
In recent decades, more often than not, this has meant exchanging traditional Christian notions of empathy and compassion for dogmatic zealotry and condemnation. The latter obviously does not extend to an individual who boasted that it was perfectly OK to grab women by their private parts — so long as you were rich and famous. Frankly, this behavior cannot be reconciled with Christian and, for that matter, any other morals. Then again, this alone might be asking too much from those who proclaim themselves Christians in today’s world.
The Evangelical Heart
Over the past few years, much intellectual energy has been expended to explain the rationale — if indeed this is the right word — behind American evangelicals’ infatuation with, and devotion to, Trump. After all, evangelicals make up about 25% of the American population (16% of these are white), and for Trump, they represent a crucial electorate — one which he cannot afford to affront. Keeping them happy is critical if Trump wants to win a second term later this year.
Evangelicals and their fellow travelers have advanced a cultural concerns dear to the evangelical heart. The most prominent is the argument that Trump, although hardly qualifying as an evangelical Christian, holds many of the beliefs and principles that the religion espouses. These include, most prominently, the belief that abortion is morally wrong and should be outlawed. The fact that Trump has appointed a number of judges who hold that conviction is potentially paradigm-changing. Secondly, there is Trump’s loathing of sexual minorities, reflected in his staunch opposition to according them equal rights, particularly same-sex marriage, which, for evangelicals, go against their scriptural beliefs.
Then there are Trump’s policy initiatives designed to cut benefits for the poor in order to force them to seek gainful employment. For evangelicals, this is in line with the Bible that “teaches it is best for a citizen to work for a living.” Finally, there is Trump’s promotion of “religious freedom” by providing “faith-based” organizations privileged access to the White House and the federal government in general. Under these circumstances, it is perhaps not entirely surprising if, in early 2019, many believed that God had put Trump into the White House through miraculous means.
These are indeed understandable reasons for supporting Trump, even if it means holding one’s nose. I suspect, however, that the main reason why white evangelicals have attached themselves so tenaciously to Donald Trump lies elsewhere. In reality, their support for surely the worst president in American history reflects a deep cultural malaise and profound moral panic pervading large parts of the white, conservative Christian community.
Strangers in Their Own Land
A few years ago, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild published a book entitled “Strangers in their Own Land,” which explored the sentiments of Tea Party supporters in Louisiana. What she found was widespread frustration born of a sense of unfairness and lack of respect, provoked by the “rise of cultural pressure politics of formerly marginalised groups — women, ethnic minorities, the LGTBQ community — that demand recognition in law and political practice,” which they saw as “cutting in line.”
At the same time, there was simmering anger over scorn for their non-politically correct views and beliefs by the “liberal” media, which made them feel like “strangers in their own land.” This made for an ideal breeding ground for the type of right-wing populism espoused by Trump.
Political scientists Pippa Norris from Harvard and Ronald Inglehart from the University of Michigan have made a similar point with respect to the radical populist right in Western Europe. In a recent joint paper, they propose that the success of these parties is largely owed to their “ideological appeals to traditional values” prevalent among older native-born men, the religious and the less educated. These are the groups, in their judgement, “most likely to feel that they have become strangers from the predominant values in their own country, left behind by progressive tides of cultural change which they do not share.”
Voting for Trump, Marine Le Pen, Pauline Hanson and the like, in this view, is part of a “cultural backlash” much discussed by pundits. Yet at the same time, it is also an act of political payback — the revenge of those dismissed as ploucs — French pejorative term for rural simpletons — rednecks and yokels, who feel left behind and abandoned, their views and opinions ridiculed and discredited.
White evangelicals are a prime example of this “strangers in their own land” syndrome informing so much of the emotion-driven politics prevalent in Western democracies today. Recent surveys suggest that their anger and resentment are not entirely unfounded. The results come from the Barna Group, which has tracked the intersection of faith and culture for a number of decades.
A few years ago, Barna published a report under the alarmist title “Five Ways Christianity Is Increasingly Viewed as Extremist.” One of the most striking findings was that a growing number of Americans not only considered Christianity “irrelevant” but, worse, that it is “bad for society.” In fact, “millions of Americans” considered Christianity “to be extremist.” Among the non-religious (atheists, agnostics and religiously unaffiliated), 45% agreed with that sentiment. While the report speaks about Christians in general, it is quite obvious that it speaks primarily about conservative Christians, especially Protestant evangelicals.
The report emphasizes how far from the mainstream the latter have moved, particularly on questions of sexual diversity. Cases of Christian businesses refusing to provide their services to gay couples — such as cakes for same-sex weddings — are but the tip of the iceberg. By contrast, for more than 80% of Americans this constitutes extreme behavior.
More recent surveys suggest that, Trump notwithstanding, things have not improved for white evangelicals. In fact, due to Trump, evangelicals are increasingly seen through a political rather than a religious lens, with potentially devastating consequences in the longer term. Reflecting the intense polarization of the American population, large numbers of liberals associate evangelicals with narrow-mindedness and homophobia, and associate a significant minority with racism and misogyny.
More importantly, perhaps, is the finding that most Americans are ever more indifferent to evangelicals. For Christians in the US — and internationally — this poses a major problem. As the authors of the report note, the perceptions of evangelicals represent a growing barrier to what American Christians “hold most dear: persuading others to put their faith in Christ.”
Alliance With Trump
The evangelical alliance with Donald Trump has not gone unchallenged. A recent editorial in Christianity Today, the leading evangelical magazine founded by the late Billy Graham, the iconic spiritual reference of the evangelical movement, made this point quite clearly:
“Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come? Can we say with a straight face that abortion is a great evil that cannot be tolerated and, with the same straight face, say that the bent and broken character of our nation’s leader doesn’t really matter in the end?”
An open letter to the two senators from North Carolina with respect to Trump’s impeachment makes the same point. The author, a self-proclaimed conservative evangelical Republican, charges that everything Trump says or does “is in direct conflict with Rev. Graham’s description of scripturally sound Christian attitudes. By ignoring Trump’s actions, we appear as hypocrites to the world. We are failing in our primary mission and getting essentially nothing tangible in return.”
Doubtless these pleas will fall on deaf ears — but they shouldn’t, for the consequences really are with potentially catastrophic. Christianity Today’s editorial provoked shrill condemnation from many evangelical leaders. Rather than listening, they went on the counterattack, charging that the editorial “offensively questioned the spiritual integrity and Christian witness of tens-of-millions of believers who take seriously their civic and moral obligations.”
Joining the attack, Jenna Ellis, the senior legal adviser to Trump’s 2020 campaign, came out in defense of all those evangelicals who “support Trump and rightly believe he is reflecting the moral values our country was founded upon in a Judeo-Christian ethic. Christianity Today does not, in this instance, speak for most of us.”
The evangelical community can carry a weighty impact. Take the issue of climate change. Within the scientific community, there is no doubt that climate change is, to a large extent, the result of human behavior and emissions. Not so among American conservative Christians. The reason is not primarily skepticism with regard to science — after all, in 2017, more than a third of the American population believed God created the world some 10,000 years ago — but the fact that environmentalism is largely viewed as a “liberal” issue designed to destroy the foundations of American civilization.
In 2014, in North Carolina, the candidate for the Senate publicly denied that human activity was responsible for climate change. He won, with 63% of his voters “identifying as evangelicals or born-again Christians. Ninety-five percent of them were white.”
The unwavering support of a large majority of white evangelicals is perhaps the most egregious example of the moral corruption and rot that has become the hallmark of the Trump administration. At the same time, it reflects the broader malaise that has gripped significant parts of America’s white population in the face of profound demographic change.
Numbers don’t lie: In the middle of the 1970s, 81% of white Americans identified as Christian, 55% as Protestants. Forty years later, white Christians account for less than half of the population, with a mere 30% Protestants. In the meantime, Christians are growing older, while an increasing number among the younger generations turn their backs on the Church. In 2012, an unprecedented 30% of American young adults declared themselves religiously unaffiliated. The result has been a kind of moral panic, particularly among conservative Protestants, which appears to have made them desperate — always an ominous sign. In 2011, less than a third of evangelicals agreed that a politician who commits immoral acts in their private lives can still govern ethically.
Five years later, more than 70% agreed. For Robert Jones, author of “The End of White Christian America,” this reflected a dramatic “sea change” among conservative white Christians, a shift away from their “traditional self-understanding as ‘values voters’ to a sort of ‘nostalgia voters’ attracted by Trump’s promise to restore their churches and faith to power” — or, as John Fea, author of “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?” has noted, “to ‘reclaim’ or ‘restore’ America to its supposedly Christian roots in order to win the favor of God.”
There is a strong affinity between this reactionary vision of returning to greatness and Trump’s main campaign slogan, both evoking images of a past where Christianity was central to American life — that is, a time before free and equal African Americans, women, sexual minorities and an increasingly other of “others.”
Dr Hans-Georg Betz is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Adjunct Professor of Political Science, University of Zurich. See his profile here.
© Hans-Georg Betz. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
This post is also hosted by our partner organisation, Fair Observer. See the original post here.