Why Many Conservative Evangelicals Have Lined Up Behind Trump

(Mark Wallheiser / Getty)
(Mark Wallheiser / Getty)

Donald Trump has never been known for displays of Christian humility. The first few minutes of his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast in February were no exception. He thanked the creator of Celebrity Apprentice and, pronouncing Arnold Schwarzenegger a “total disaster,” asked the audience to pray for the show’s ratings. Trump went on to remind everyone that he is a billionaire, “somebody that has had material success and knows tremendous numbers of people with great material success—the most material success.” Later he acknowledged that his mission to stop terrorism “may not be pretty for a little while,” and promised that his administration would confront threats “viciously, if we have to.” Trump’s signature swagger makes many Christians wince, but it has deterred few white evangelicals. Eighty-one percent of those who voted last year cast their ballot for him.

That figure has become one of the most discussed statistics of the 2016 election. How could so many conservative Christians have voted for a thrice-married casino mogul who has bragged about assaulting women and rarely goes to church? Some commentators have speculated that perhaps these voters weren’t all that “evangelical” to begin with. “Many cultural Christians who never go to church identify as ‘evangelical’ or ‘born-again,’ ” suggested one conservative Christian blogger. A writer in The Nation emphasized evangelicals’ concern about future nominations to the Supreme Court: “If you can rally voters around abortion, few other issues matter.” Other observers credited plain old party loyalty or wondered whether this election proved that religion doesn’t matter very much anymore. So many voters seemed motivated by economic and racial grievances and resentment of Washington elites, not faith.

At the end of The Evangelicals, her nearly 700-page history of white evangelical Americans from colonial times to the present, Frances FitzGerald settles on the last of these assessments. “The simplest explanation was that those evangelicals who voted for Trump had affinities with the Tea Party,” she writes. They seemed to care more about shrinking the government, creating jobs, and deporting illegal immigrants than about enforcing Christian morals. “The Trump victory had shown,” she goes on, “that the Christian right had lost its power.” Yet FitzGerald’s careful account offers grist for a much richer exploration of evangelicals’ affinity with Trump.

Fitzgerald begins with the great revivals of the early 18th century, which brought forth evangelicalism as we know it today, more or less. The emphasis on the literal truth of the Bible, the focus on the born-again experience, and the swarm of entrepreneurial evangelists whom no Old World church hierarchy could control—the basics of evangelical culture were in place 300 years ago.

She follows this story through the rise of the Christian right in the 1970s and ’80s, and evangelicals’ role in politics today. Synthesizing a wide range of scholarship, FitzGerald offers no major argument of her own, but she reveals long-standing patterns in evangelical politics and leadership. Her overview, in tandem with an array of more pointed books on the subject, suggests that evangelical support for Trump is not a deviation at all—not a sign of hypocrisy or declining influence. On the contrary, that 81 percent figure makes perfect sense.

Late in her book, as FitzGerald recounts evangelical activists’ embrace of the Tea Party movement during the Obama years, she deems the alliance “unlikely,” at least “from a historical perspective.” In fact, the partnership between white Protestants and libertarians dates back at least to the American Revolution. In the 18th century, evangelical Christians had plenty of company among their fellow colonists in decrying the king’s abuse of power. But evangelical preachers fused their commitment to freedom from “civil tyranny” with a demand for the spiritual freedom to decide, without political coercion, to accept Christ. “There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost and religious liberty preserved entire,” preached John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister with evangelical sympathies who signed the Declaration of Independence. “If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage.”

Evangelicals in the early republic nurtured a deep suspicion of an encroaching federal government, and many were happy to collaborate with heterodox politicians who felt the same way. Thomas Jefferson may have taken a razor to his personal copy of the Gospels, excising the tales of miracles, but he had friends among the Baptists, who supported his campaign to enshrine religious freedom into law. Trump is not the first politically useful infidel to find allies in the evangelical world.

Simon & Schuster
Simon & Schuster

The point is that American evangelical religion was born in a revolutionary state. This founding moment of rebellion against big government left evangelicals keenly aware of the fragility of personal liberty—and the capacity of centralized power to snuff it out. Over time, the conservative evangelical vision of spiritual liberty fused with free-market ideology. Recent research has called attention to the collaborative efforts of capitalists and evangelical ministers to convince Americans that the free market is sacred. In the late 19th century, Darren E. Grem notes in The Blessings of Business (2016), businessmen recruited evangelical organizations to help them pacify a restive labor force. “Either these people are to be evangelized, or the leaven of communism and infidelity will assume such enormous proportions that it will break out in a reign of terror such as this country has never known,” warned the evangelist Dwight L. Moody in 1886.

The labor unrest of the turn of the 20th century, the Great Depression, and the New Deal hardly appear in FitzGerald’s book, but those decades of economic disaster and reform are crucial to explaining conservative white evangelical politics through the rest of the century, as well as the embrace of Trump. By the time the Roosevelt administration began to transform the federal government’s relationship to American capitalism, millions of Catholic, Jewish, and Eastern European immigrants had settled in the United States. Large numbers of African Americans began migrating north and agitating for civil rights. Many white evangelicals feared they were losing control over the nation’s culture. By redistributing wealth to the poor—including so many foreign-born arrivals and African Americans—the New Deal threatened to undermine that authority even further. Opposition to Soviet Russia provided a perfect rallying cry: The country represented the godless, totalitarian end toward which the New Deal might lead.

In One Nation Under God (2015), Kevin M. Kruse probes the alliance between leading industrialists and the Los Angeles preacher James W. Fifield Jr. In 1935, Fifield co-founded an organization called Spiritual Mobilization to battle the New Deal’s “encroachment upon our American freedoms.” His propaganda campaign, funded by donations from tycoons like the tire magnate Harvey Firestone and J. Howard Pew Jr. of Sun Oil, dazzled Americans with radio spots and Independence Day media blitzes celebrating “freedom under God.” Mailings encouraged ministers to warn their flocks of the “anti-Christian and anti-American trends toward pagan stateism in America.”

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SOURCE: The Atlantic
Molly Worthen

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