More Evidence that Churchgoing White Evangelicals Are Trump’s Base

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In and around white evangelicalism there’s a long debate about exactly how popular Donald Trump is and who the self-described white evangelicals are in all those polls. Some white evangelicals have continued to insist that polls are capturing the opinions of Trumpist “cultural evangelicals” who aren’t actually connected to local churches. Others say that the polling largely captures the reality of what white evangelicalism has become.

Reuters has a large ongoing rolling poll average that gives us another data point in this debate. It allows you to filter the data by a lot of different attributes. It shows some fascinating results.*

Let’s combine the polling from the last month and progressively narrow it down to smaller populations:

Trump approval/disapproval among:

Public: 38.3% / 57.0%

Ok, the public is not happy with the President.

Whites: 47.9% / 47.9%

White Americans are evenly split.

White born again Christians: 65.4% / 30.5%

Two-thirds of self-described “white born again Christians” favor Trump. Now here’s where it gets interesting. If the “cultural evangelical” thesis is correct, self-described white born again Christians who rarely attend church will be more supportive of Trump than self-described white born again Christians who frequently attend church. Let’s see:

White born again Christians who attend church several times a year: 61% / 36%

Hmmm. Less favorable toward Trump than white born again Christians overall. What about more faithful church attenders?

White born again Christians who attend church every week: 70% / 27%

White born again Christians who attend church more than once a week: 80% / 17.6%

For what it’s worth, there you have it. Reuters thinks it’s the people in church every time the doors are open that are most supportive of Trump. Assuming for a moment that the data points to something real, it raises questions about what’s driving the correlation. Obviously it’s multi-causal, but it’s worth asking whether there is something about these church environments themselves that make faithfully engaged people more likely to support oppression.


I’m not good with statistics so tell me if I’m getting something wrong here. Obviously the more filters you add the smaller the sample size and the larger the margin of error. But these results align with other polling data that seems to refute the talking point that “cultural” evangelicals are more supportive of Trump than faithful churchgoing white evangelicals.

 

Notes from the Classroom: First Day

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I never know quite how to start a new semester. I’m teaching the second half of the U.S. history survey (since 1877) and decided to do a little group activity to get students thinking about change over time in this crazy 140 year period we will be studying.

I divided them into five groups and assigned to each group a roughly 30 year period (the contemporary group got a shorter time) and asked them to come up with the three biggest changes/events/transformations they could think of during those 30 years. Here’s what the first class came up with:

Group 1 to 1906: Plessy v ferguson; New states in the west; Gilded age (industrialization)

Group 2 to 1936: World war 1; Great Depression; Prohibition

Group 3 to 1966: World War Two (holocaust); Civil rights movement; Cold War (space race, second red scare)

Group 4 to 1996: Watergate, Clinton’s election; End of Vietnam war

Group 5 to 2018: 9/11-> Afghanistan; Election of Obama; Tech (smartphones)

An interesting list, heavy on politics and war. I’m extremely skeptical that Clinton’s election was one of the three most important events between 1967 and 1996, but hey, make the argument!

And here’s what the second class came up with:

Group 1 to 1906: Ellis Island opened; Plessy v ferguson; Wright brothers

Group 2 to 1936: Great Depression; World War One; White Women’s suffrage

Group 3 to 1966: World War Two; Civil rights movement; Cold War

Group 4 to 1996: Watergate; Moon landing; Clinton impeachment

Group 5 to 2018: 9/11; Internet/social media; Increasing social acceptance (lgbt, first black president)

Another list heavy on war and politics. Clinton’s impeachment as historically significant seems more on the mark than his election, but on the other hand, he had to get elected to get impeached. Causality! Group 2 initially said “women’s suffrage” and then a black student pointed out that we’re effectively talking about white women’s suffrage. Sharp thinking.

I was very surprised these lists were not more tech heavy. I thought technology would be an easy thing for students to grab onto when they thought about change: lights, cars, planes, radio, tv, atomic energy, etc. But we had few mentions of it.

I asked students to remark on what they found interesting or surprising about the lists, and then I asked them to think about what kinds of change we didn’t put on our lists. They were pretty quick to identify that we were missing cultural changes (especially in the sense of popular culture). Other changes students mentioned were environmental, commercialization, and religion. In both classes I added my own suggestion because no one mentioned it: intellectual change. Students could readily identify large events in the realm of politics and war, but the lists did not directly include changes in the realm of the mind.

I used these discussions to make a few fairly obvious points. First, there’s been a lot of change! The way we understand ourselves and the world around us is bizarre and unusual; it’s different from the way Americans thought 140 years ago. I don’t think students understand that in a deep way, which is why our lists were heavy on outward events rather than more formative but harder to define changes in thought and culture. Second, our lists were not right or wrong as much as they were peculiar. I emphasized that our lists reflected our time and place and identities. They’re not good or bad, they’re just ours. Might they tell us something about what we believe is important in both the past and the present? Do they say something about what we think we ought to study when we study history? (Or maybe they just tell us what’s easiest to look up on a smartphone when you’re in a hurry).

After thinking so much about change over time, it was a natural transition into discussion of Flannery and Burke’s 5 C’s of historical thinking. All in all the class was probably more blah than scintillating, but I thought the exercise was fun.

Cartoon of the Day

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Kenyan political cartoonist Victor Ndula provides a geographically precise depiction of Trump’s imagined Africa.

Remarks like the ones President Trump made yesterday are viscerally upsetting and are damaging in their own right. We’re correct to respond to them. But we should also try to keep our focus on policy and respond just as forcefully to cruel and inhumane actions, such as the end of Temporary Protected Status for immigrants from El Salvador and Haiti. Trump’s negative comments about these places are drawing more outrage than his oppressive actions toward them.

This kind of behavior is yet another occasion to publicly lay down the marker we must keep laying down in our Christian circles: every day a Christian wakes up supporting Trump is a day they wake up engaging in wilful and open sin. They are mocking the gospel of Jesus Christ and have broken fellowship with the church.

Event: The Letter from Birmingham Jail at Eastern State Penitentiary

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This Martin Luther King Day weekend, come out to Eastern State Penitentiary for reading and discussion of the Letter from Birmingham Jail, a defining document of the civil rights movement.

Readings will take place throughout the day Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. See the Eastern State site for details.

The great Dax Richardson will be voicing Dr. King. Temple’s Minju Bae and I will facilitate the discussions and provide historical context. Monday’s sessions will also feature readers from the community.

In past years, these readings and discussions have been powerful times of reflection and dialogue. I’ve been privileged to participate in this event during a whirlwind of change over the past few years. In 2015 and 2016, the black lives matter movement made the discussion of the letter feel extremely urgent. In 2017, after the election of Donald Trump and the palpable turn in the national mood away from attention to racial injustice, the letter took on a different hue. Who knows what this year will bring!

Whether you’re able to come to a reading or not, if you’ve never been to Eastern State, you should go! It is an astonishing historic site. In recent years Eastern State has won major national awards for its top-notch exhibits and programming. Their exhibit on mass incarceration is sobering and deeply relevant.

The Story the Terrorists Told

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Our Mississippi was the main history textbook used by Mississippi public schools during the 1950s and 1960s. I encountered this book a number of years ago while working on my thesis and had forgotten all about it. While doing lecture prep today I discovered it again. Here’s what Mississippi high schoolers in the civil rights era were learning about the Ku Klux Klan:

In 1866, a secret organization, the Ku Klux Klan, was founded in Tennessee. It quickly spread throughout the South. The purpose of the Klan was the protection of weak, innocent, and defenseless people, especially the widows and orphans of the Confederate soldiers. Besides this worthy aim, the Klan had another purpose – that of restoring the political power in the South to the educated and responsible white men who formerly had held it…The Ku Klux Klan did its work effectively and well. One after another, unfit and corrupt people were removed from office. Not only the Negroes but also the carpetbaggers and scalawags were visited, and little by little these people became afraid to use their influence.”

People nurtured on these stories would find it very difficult to act humanely in the present. Folks, historiography matters a lot!

Notes from the Classroom: Oops, I asked A Bad Question

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Huh?

On the final exam I gave students several essay question options. Here is one of them:

“Why did the civil rights movement succeed in some ways and fail in others?”

A couple dozen students responded to this prompt, and it turned out to be a bad question. There was a huge gap between what I thought I was asking and what I actually asked. I know this because not a single student out of dozens gave me an answer I was looking for.

I thought I was asking a why question about the key variables that played into success and failure during the civil rights movement. Students could argue that the movement succeeded when it managed to combine powerful symbolic action with a clearly defined end goal (as in the Montgomery Bus Boycott). They could argue that media publicity was the decisive factor, as in Birmingham. Or that divisions within black communities in places like Albany, Georgia were crucial causes of failure. They might argue that whichever side was perceived as the initiator of violence lost, leading to sympathy for the movement in the early 60s and backlash in the later 60s.

After talking about all these factors in lectures, these are the kinds of arguments I was imagining in response to my question. Instead, students treated it as an opportunity to list a series of successes and failures: Brown v Board, success! Lack of enforcement, failure! Voting Rights Act, success! Police brutality, failure!

The consistency of this form of response across dozens of essays clearly shows that my question was hazy. Yes, I did have the word why in it, but as I read it now, I’m all but inviting students to list successes and failures, and that’s what they did.

Put another way, I wanted students to make an historical argument in response to this question, and none of them did. That’s not a sign of lazy students. That’s a sign of a professor who failed to to provide clear instructions and the tools to implement them. So, how could I have asked the question more clearly?

More broadly, what kinds of questions have you found do a good job provoking historical thinking and argument? Are students conditioned to use exams to regurgitate information rather than making arguments?

White and Black Are Not Innocent Metaphors

In Winthrop Jordan’s classic 1968 book, White Over Black, he describes the cultural and religious associations English people gave to the colors white and black in the late medieval and early modern period:

In England perhaps more than in southern Europe, the concept of blackness was loaded with intense meaning. Long before they found that some men were black, Englishmen found in the idea of blackness a way of expressing some of their most ingrained values. No other color except white conveyed so much emotional impact. As described by the Oxford English Dictionary, the meaning of black before the sixteenth century included, “Deeply stained with dirt; soiled, dirty, foul…Having dark or deadly purposes, malignant; pertaining to or involving death, deadly; baneful, disastrous, sinister…Foul, iniquitous, atrocious, horrible, wicked…Indicating disgrace, censure, liability to punishment, etc.” Black was an emotionally partisan color, the handmaid and symbol of baseness and evil, a sign of danger and repulsion.

Embedded in the concept of blackness was its direct opposite—whiteness. No other colors so clearly implied opposition, “beinge coloures utterlye contrary”; no others were so frequently used to denote polarization…

White and black connoted purity and filthiness, virginity and sin, virtue and baseness, beauty and ugliness, beneficence and evil, God and the devil.

There’s a longstanding debate about how exactly these associations mattered in the development of modern racial thinking. In any case, we do know that for much of American history many white Christians believed that blackness was literally a curse from God.

These attitudes have receded slowly and stubbornly. Their endurance is suggested by the frequency with which white evangelicals use whiteness and blackness as metaphor in the context of religion, without consciously realizing that they may be forming their racial imagination in the process.

In the fall of 1972, a white student at California Baptist College published a poem in the student newspaper. It’s a doozy:

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These descriptions are not commonsense. They’re not the least bit natural. They’re informed by this young woman’s cultural, racial, and religious inheritance. Composing this poem was no doubt an act of sincere worship on the part of this student. That’s precisely what makes it chilling.

This is why African Americans in the civil rights era had to say “black is beautiful.”

Stop Worrying about the Evangelical Brand

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This is the brand.

This week there has been a rash of stories describing white evangelicals’ conflicted feelings about the term “evangelical.” Many are fretting that the label is hopelessly politicized in the age of Trump.

On Tuesday the editor of Christianity Today wrote:

No matter the outcome of today’s special election in Alabama for a coveted US Senate seat, there is already one loser: Christian faith. When it comes to either matters of life and death or personal commitments of the human heart, no one will believe a word we say, perhaps for a generation. Christianity’s integrity is severely tarnished.

The New York Times:

Will Hinton, a web developer in Atlanta, said he knew hundreds of politically conservative evangelicals who had grown increasingly repulsed by the religious right’s leaders, the tone they take and some of the causes and candidates they promote.

Mr. Hinton grew up in the movement as a politically active high school student who spoke at conferences and worked on Pat Robertson’s presidential campaign. Now, at 45, he said he was still an evangelical, still a conservative, but without a political party or movement.

“I have dozens of conservative evangelical friends who were so happy that Roy Moore did not win,” he said, “because the evangelical support for Trump and Roy Moore is ruining the witness for Christ for generations in this country.”

The Washington Post:

Jen Hatmaker, a Texas-based author with a large evangelical following, sees “a mass exodus” from the label in her community. “The term feels irreversibly tainted, and those of us who don’t align with the currently understood description are distancing ourselves to preserve our consciences,” she said…

“I think when we start throwing around terms like ‘evangelical’ to the outside, it can be really ostracizing,” said Peter Heilman, a 29-year-old pastor-to-be leaning his tattooed elbows on his ripped blue jeans. He grew up labeling himself lots of ways: conservative, Republican, evangelical. But interning in a more politically and racially diverse church has convinced him to drop those words — he’s concerned people won’t listen to him preach if they disagree with his politics.

“You have to understand the people you’re speaking to and what’s going to allow them to keep open ears,” he said. “When it comes down to it, labels can be a dangerous thing.” …

“Shorthands have always been helpful,” said Ed Stetzer, the executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton, in Illinois. “The question is, ‘Do I want to be affiliated with that?’ when terms have been redefined, either when it’s been hijacked or misunderstood.”

If you are on the inside of evangelicalism and take it for granted that Christianity is a force for good in the world and evangelicalism in particular is lifegiving, then it matters a great deal if our “Christian witness” is being harmed. If Jesus really does rescue people and the tarnished evangelical brand turns people off from Jesus, then this is a disaster. I understand these concerns and in many ways I share them.

But the preoccupation with the evangelical brand fails to seriously account for the lived experience of the people evangelicalism harms. Too many white evangelicals seem more bothered by the toxicity of the brand than the underlying reality of what evangelicalism does to real human beings.

The problem with mainstream white evangelicalism is not that it’s misunderstood or has some unsavory connotations. The problem is that it’s a movement determined to oppress people. It’s allied with political forces of unusual cruelty and nihilism. Yes, that hurts Christian credibility, but more importantly, it hurts people!

The white evangelical mainstream is crouched in a defensive posture of fear and grievance. Evangelical leaders counseling love and hope and winsome engagement with society are generally ignored. Instead, most ordinary white evangelicals embrace the politics of Trumpism and refuse to admit what that politics actually does.

They oppress immigrants and drive them from their homes; they load new burdens on the poor and withdraw care for the sick; they single out LGBT people for scapegoating and special forms of discrimination; they cast Muslims as religious enemies; they support racism, sexism, police brutality and voter suppression. In their reckless pursuit of power, they reject what is best in the American tradition: liberal democracy, religious freedom, and freedom of the press.

The vast majority of white evangelicals do not recognize this description. They don’t feel like they are oppressing people. They feel like they are an embattled minority struggling to hold their own in a hostile culture. This isn’t exculpatory, however. It only means that white evangelicalism shares a common feature of oppressive political mobilizations, where oppression is driven not so much by hatred of the other but by the insecurities and tensions within the community. Indeed, a politics of grievance and fear is characteristic of genocidal movements.

The point here is not that white evangelicalism is genocidal (it’s not!) but that white evangelicals’ lived experience as embattled minority and their political mobilization as oppressors are not contradictory. The two are linked; it is precisely white evangelicals’ preoccupation with their own lost power that makes them so indifferent toward human suffering outside their community.

Trying to rebrand evangelicalism or disassociate from it is an insufficient response because it doesn’t address the underlying reality of oppression. The Post talked to a black evangelical who gets it:

Emmett Price, a professor who focuses on African American studies at the prominent evangelical seminary Gordon-Conwell in Massachusetts, said he worries that white Christians who are abandoning the term are only looking to avoid the negative associations, not to reform their communities. If they’re concerned that politics have tarred evangelicals as racist, he said, they ought to be focused on making evangelical churches less racist — not on calling themselves something else.

“There’s a desire to detach from the political landscape right now. If one wanted to go and essentially fight somewhere for inclusivity, one would stay in that space and invite others in,” he said. “Ditching a term is simply ditching a term.”

For those of us who are heartsick over the state of evangelicalism, rejecting the label or discarding difficult relationships with evangelicals may actually be a selfish choice.* The harder task is to take ownership of what our communities have become and seek reformation from the inside.


*I’m not speaking here of people who have suffered spiritual or other forms of abuse in evangelical settings. By all means, get out! And I’m not speaking of Christians of color who find their very identities assaulted in evangelical spaces. I’m referring specifically to people like me!

The Sense of Loss Fueling Christian Right Politics

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Last night some remarks Roy Moore made several months ago resurfaced. Back in September, the LA Times reported:

In response to a question from one of the only African Americans in the audience — who asked when Moore thought America was last “great” — Moore acknowledged the nation’s history of racial divisions, but said: “I think it was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery — they cared for one another…. Our families were strong, our country had a direction.”

I want to hear from the reporter about what might have been contained in the ellipsis, but it’s hard to imagine a context that makes this ok. There are two main ways to read this. One is that the united families he speaks of were white and he is ignoring the existence of black people. The other is that he is resurrecting the old saw that says while slavery wasn’t good, at least black families were together.

Either way you read it, the statement is hateful and dehumanizing. For the record, historians of slavery estimate that around a third of enslaved families in the antebellum period were broken up by sale. In any case, these families were not legally constituted and had no legal recourse in the face of every imaginable assault on the family: sale, assault, rape, child abuse, and so on.

Though Moore’s words reveal the mind of a racist extremist, they also reflect a sensibility that is quite common in the Christian Right. The movement’s politics are fueled by an extraordinary sense of loss and nostalgia.

Christian Right activists are forever trying to recover a lost golden age. They look to that nineteenth century moment when evangelicalism was at the center of American life. From public schools to universities, religion was honored. The nation’s foundation was secure. Then came the inroads of Darwinism, mass migration, urbanization and industrialization, then the sweeping cultural changes of the 1920s. Suddenly the country seemed so much more complicated.

The 1950s were an echo of that nineteenth century golden age. Never had the American public been so faithful in church attendance, and in the battle against communism America’s leaders publicly called for divine aid. Faith was once again honored in the public square. Hierarchies of sex, gender, and race were intact.

Then it all came crashing down in the 1960s. Sexual revolution, youth rebellion, Supreme Court decisions taking God out of schools. For the white nationalist evangelicals, the oppression of black people in these supposed golden ages is a feature. Others in the Christian Right are simply not thinking about black people at all. Because black people are not a part of their imagination, not a part of the community of full human beings, it is possible to read American history as a story of unmitigated decline.

Most people fueled by this politics of loss say that of course they think slavery was bad. Of course they don’t want a return to Jim Crow. But they fail to see how even such basic claims—“slavery is bad”—if taken seriously, challenge their politics of loss.

What’s most striking about the Christian Right’s nostalgia is its extraordinarily narrow scope. The narrative of loss speaks to the historical experience and memory of a minority of Americans, but they insist that it defines the national story. For Roy Moore and his supporters, the idea that there are people in the world who aren’t white middle-class Christians, and they matter too, is a disorienting shock.