David Tigabu is a producer and writer based in Washington, DC. In this post, he explores how and why the white American evangelical movement rejects core Christian teachings and embraces Donald Trump.
In the wake of the 2016 presidential cycle, readers have been treated to a barrage of think pieces focused on factors that led to the November outcome. Seemingly every publication worth its salt has featured an analysis zeroed in on one demographic in particular—the white working class. This has set off a debate, particularly within the Left, on issues of race and class, how they intersect, and the complex dynamic that is identity. However, the spotlight on the white working class has also overshadowed a much-needed look at a more decisively Trumpian constituency—white evangelicals.
Exit polls reveal that just over 80 percent of white evangelical voters pulled the lever for Donald Trump. 80 percent. Trump cheerleader and neo-nazi rag Breitbart gleefully celebrated this occurrence, pointing out that the President received more votes from this faction than any Republican presidential candidate since 2000. To put it more starkly, this means that shameless Bible thumper George W. Bush received fewer votes from this group than a guy who says his favorite book in the Bible is “Two Corinthians.”
So how did this happen? How could white evangelicals vote for a candidate who mocks the disabled, promises to ban adherents of an entire religion from entering the country (a promise he is already acting upon), brags about not “giving unto caesar,” and speaks of groping women by their vagina? How could family values dogmatists and reputed practitioners of morality support the thrice-married candidate with a penchant for lies and a bloated sense of vanity? The answer can be found in two basic truths about white evangelical Christianity—its current state of decline, and its moral and political commitment to maintaining white American hegemony.
The first revelation can be found in the institution’s demographic problem. Simply put, Christianity ain’t the only game in town anymore. According to the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), in 1974, sixty-three percent of Americans identified as protestant, but by 2014, that percentage had fallen to forty-three percent. Most of this religious decline has been concentrated in white protestant communities. In that same PRRI study, 51 percent of Americans identified as white protestants in 1993, but that number dropped to 32 percent over roughly two decades. Black and Hispanic religious identification has held steady during the same period.
A quick scan of the white protestant blogosphere reflects deep anxiety over this predicament. Attempting to address this issue, a subculture of think-pieces, denominational meetings and conferences have sprouted, devoted primarily to understanding why young people are leaving the church. Some younger protestant groups point to conservative stances on social issues taken by church leaders, while the evangelical wing maintains that the exodus stems from what they perceive to be an increasingly liberal church. Where there is consensus, however, is the idea that the church is currently in a state of crisis.
Former Republican and rigorous evangelical Michelle Bachman echoed this sentiment during an interview on Christian Broadcasting Network’s (CBN) program Brody File, claiming that she believed “without a shadow of a doubt this is the last election. This is it. This is the last election.”
Trump cleverly tapped into this conviction while appearing on the same CBN show. “I think it’s going to be the last election that the Republicans can win. If we don’t win this election, you’ll never see another Republican and you’ll have a whole different church structure. You’ll have a whole different Supreme Court structure,” he said. The group with the most fatalistic view of American cultural change are white evangelical Protestants, three quarters of whom (74 percent) say that American culture has changed for the worse since 1950.
It’s within this context that voting for Trump came to be an act of desperation, a last gasp of sorts. For many white evangelicals, the 2016 election represented a last-ditch effort at preserving a way of life that seemed to be coming to an end. “It’s a math problem of demographics and a changing United States,” Bachmann pointed out. This was in many ways an attempt to cling on to some notion of Christian America
Interestingly enough, today’s concept of a Christian America is a relatively recent development in American political life. Contrary to conventional wisdom, its history does not go back to the country’s founding, and it did not come out of debates over abortion and school prayer. As Kevin Kruse points out in One Nation Under God, the modern evangelical Right was actually formed out of opposition to the New Deal, a series of major public investment initiatives put forward by President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s.
These policies were developed to address the Great Depression that had hit the country only several years prior, and through programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the creation of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), provided millions of people with employment, retirement income, and housing assistance. To be sure, these programs were far from perfect. For instance, the exclusion of African Americans from many of these wealth building programs played a major role in the racial wealth gap that we see today.
However, a different kind of opposition emerged, one that did not take issue with exclusionary elements of the New Deal as much as they found its programs too generous. Fearing the immense popularity of the New Deal and a nation they thought was heading towards socialism, groups like the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) attempted to undermine public support for Roosevelt’s legislation and the broader virus of “collectivism.” Understanding the clout that ministers had, NAM leaders began pushing preachers and religious influencers like James Fifield and Billy Graham, ministers that could peddle a brand of theology more palatable to the interests of big business. Over the ensuing decades, these leaders pushed ideas like the synonymy between Christianity and capitalism, God’s preoccupation with the salvation of the individual, and the broader notion of a Christian America. Once capitalism and individualism were situated under the Christian banner, the fusion of religion and state could be rendered complete.
Issues like abortion, public prayer, gay marriage, and school vouchers would eventually join Christian Libertarianism in shaping white evangelical politics, becoming the most potent political force in the country over the last 40 years. The focus on these issues is ostensibly Bible-based, as Ben Carson and many other evangelicals often like to point out.
Which is all well and good, provided one doesn’t pick up a Bible and read what’s in it. The Sermon on the Mount, perhaps Christianity’s fundamental ethical decree, makes no mention of homosexuality or abortion, issues that most certainly existed at the time. The passage contains no celebration of entrepreneurship or family values. What is found, however, is a concern for the poor, an embrace of pacifism, a condemnation of judging others, and a rebuke of false prophets masquerading as true teachers. What’s also found is a repudiation of public prayer in which Jesus commands that people “not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others,” a point that does not fit too squarely with school prayer advocates.
Both testaments emphasize a commitment to social justice and liberation, ideals that are nowhere to be found in the white evangelical ethos. Concern for the indigent, the sick, and the immigrant are a constant theme throughout the Old Testament, especially in the prophetic books like Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel. In Luke 4:18, Jesus says “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”
While it may be tempting (read: easier on the conscience) to believe that Jesus was speaking directly to the need to develop more first-century Jewish philanthropic institutions, a more honest reading of that passage indicates that Jesus cared about systems that oppress marginalized people. Yet seeking to confront such systems in an effort to create a more just world is jettisoned by the white evangelical in the name of personal responsibility. These problems are better left to charity. The issue at hand, to paraphrase U2 singer Bono, is that many white evangelicals are more interested in modes of charity than the presence of justice.
At the end of the day, what’s happened in evangelical America is simple: the language and iconography of Christianity has been co-opted to serve a set of narrow political interests, none of which have anything to do with Christianity. The outcome of such a project is the transformation of a social revolutionary murdered by the state into an abstract proponent of American imperialism, greed, patriarchy, and bigotry.
In her book All About Love, feminist bell hooks refers to this dynamic when she writes: “Fundamentalists, be they Christian, Muslim, or any faith, shape and interpret religious thought to make it conform to and legitimize a conservative status quo.” The fundamental truth about the white American evangelical movement is that its real ethical commitment lies more towards its white American prefix than its evangelical appendage. Donald Trump, with a Republican Congress behind him, is now set on destroying an already meager U.S. social safety net and facilitating environmental disaster, and already appears to be signaling violence towards the country’s most vulnerable communities, all with major support from this particular group.
It’s up to all of us who give a damn about living in a world not governed by white supremacy, corporate rule, theocracy, and environmental destruction to expose these false prophets for who they really are, and how far removed they are from the truly radical message of Christianity.