White Evangelicals Stand By Their Man

Lakewood Church, where Pastor Joel Osteen offers a weekly reminder that life is really all about you.

Messiah College historian John Fea asks, “Where are the Trump Evangelicals?”

The last time I checked, Christians believe that lying is a sinful practice. The last time I checked, Christians stood for things that are true. With this in mind, why don’t I hear a massive chorus of evangelical Christians–especially the 81% of Christians who voted for Trump–calling the POTUS to task?

Where indeed. Why do people who believe that Jesus Christ is truth react so casually to pathological dishonesty?  There are thousands of plausible answers to this question, but it draws my mind to two books in particular. One is Todd Brenneman’s Homespun Gospel. In their religious communities, evangelicals have learned to feel more than to think. Feeling a personal connection with God is characteristically evangelical. But the notion that one would think through the implications of the gospel for all areas of life is foreign to many evangelical communities.

In this anti-intellectual climate, perhaps Trump’s verbal expressions of support for Christianity outweigh the substance of his anti-Christ politics. After all, many evangelicals attend churches that serve as weekly emotional pick-me-ups rather than sites of Christian community formation. If you attend a prosperity gospel church, or a more insidious self-focused church, you’re accustomed to lies from spiritual authority figures. What’s the big deal if the president is a liar too?

The point here is not that ordinary evangelicals are consciously weighing whether or not to support an alternative reality made of lies. (“Christian” Right political leaders are doing that, but that’s another story). Instead, ordinary evangelicals are living in religious and social contexts that make it very hard for them to discern facts. They are desperately confused about what is true and who (and what) to believe.

This brings to mind Molly Worthen’s book, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. Evangelicals claim the Bible as their final authority, but who gets to interpret it? In the end, is it not the individual, alone before God? Who is in charge? And what role does reason play? Are science and faith compatible? Should evangelicals lacking traditional qualifications in a field be trusted over credentialed experts who are not evangelicals? Worthen writes,

It is evangelicals’ ongoing crisis of authority—their struggle to reconcile reason with revelation, heart with head, and private piety with the public square—that best explains their anxiety and their animosity toward intellectual life.

Anxiety really is the right word. In the face of these confusing questions, I’ve seen many ordinary evangelicals throw up their hands in frustration. While they hold fast to their basic faith claims, in broader questions of public life they effectively become postmodernists, insisting that it is too difficult to know what is true. I’m not talking here about the idea that we’re all culturally located and bring our own biases to a text. This evangelical postmodernism is a debilitating confusion that makes it difficult to understand or trust the very processes of knowledge-production in the contemporary world.

So they rely on trusted evangelical gatekeepers to guide them. But to an extent that is not clear to ordinary evangelicals, these gatekeepers are often semi-closeted political activists whose primary allegiance is to Republican politics rather than Christian faith.

During the campaign, ordinary evangelicals learned that it was ok to vote for Donald Trump because he had recently had a conversion experience. He had, in other words, become an evangelical. Many evangelicals probably didn’t know from where the story came. It was simply too good to be false. Trump met with the heretical prosperity gospel televangelist Paula White, and she declared that he had become a believer. (By the way, I’m sure he is a believer in her gospel.) The political activist and family guru James Dobson not-so-subtly passed this story along, and soon it was common knowledge in evangelical circles. And after all, if the grandfatherly Dobson, who had dispensed so much wisdom to evangelical families over the decades, believed Trump’s conversion was real, wasn’t that evidence enough?

This all sounds rather condescending, but the alternative interpretation—that ordinary evangelicals know full well what they are doing—implies something far worse.

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