The Most Devout White Evangelicals Might Be the Most Committed Trump Supporters

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Ever since Trump’s emergence in 2015, pollsters and pundits and white evangelicals themselves have been debating how wide and deep his white evangelical support really is. As I’ve written before, some progressive white evangelicals claimed that Trump’s core “evangelical” support really came from post-Christian cultural evangelicals in the South—people who didn’t attend church but told pollsters they were evangelical.

As the chart above shows, that argument is harder than ever to sustain. Though people can and do exaggerate their church attendance (who has studied this? I’d like to see the numbers), Pew’s surveys show that more faithful churchgoers are more enthusiastic about Trump than less frequent attenders. Or, if you want to be extra cautious about it, we can say that the kind of people who claim to be regular churchgoers are more enthusiastic about Trump. In other words, the progressive evangelical argument may have had it exactly backwards. The data indicates that the most committed white evangelicals are also the most committed Trump supporters.*

Many progressive white evangelicals have not wanted to face the possibility that white evangelicals might support a politics of racism and oppression not in spite of the teachings of their churches but because of them.

I happened to be visiting at a white evangelical church on the Sunday after the riots in Ferguson in the fall of 2014. To his credit, the pastor asked his congregation to try to understand the pain of black Americans and to pray for peace. Unfortunately, his prayer did not name any of the injustices that make peace impossible. The pastor asked his congregation to listen to black Christians, but he did not call on them to do their part to remove the injustice. So while asking for understanding and sympathy, the pastor allowed his white congregation to imagine themselves as mature Christians patiently dealing with the apparently inexplicable emotions of weak black Christians.

It gets worse. The pastor’s prayer was resolutely vague about why all this conflict might have been happening. I don’t recall any mention of the justice system, police brutality, or economic oppression. While avoiding phrases like that, the pastor did manage to name one specific problem. He prayed against the problem of “black crime.” I wish I had a transcript of the prayer. I don’t recall all the details. But that phrase—“black crime”—amid a vague prayer that did not name white racism, is seared into my memory.

People no doubt left the church that day thinking they were enlightened and compassionate. A few mentioned to me how nice the prayer was, thinking I would be happy that such a prayer had been offered in a white evangelical church. On the contrary, I was struck by the yawning chasm between the pastor’s good intentions and the action that moment actually required. A bunch of white Christians—people who benefit from America’s racist society—had gathered to worship God in a moment of racial crisis and had not been moved out of their comfort zone at all. Indeed, their supposed spiritual maturity had been affirmed.

It’s hard to describe how racism is transmitted in white evangelical churches, but once you see it, it’s hard to unsee. This is the point where people interject and say I’m being unfair and that it’s complicated. Yes, it’s complicated! Racism takes all kinds of things in its maw; it is, as George Frederickson memorably put it, a scavenger ideology. What does this scavenger quality look like in white evangelical churches? It often looks like narratives of Christian nationalism.

For many white evangelicals, a story of national decline—from Christian foundations to secular liberal disintegration—is the basic framework through which they interpret events. It’s axiomatic. For this story to have any coherence, the totality of Native Americans’ and African Americans’ experiences must be written out of it. Some of the history curriculums popular among Christian homeschoolers and private Christian schools do exactly that.

If the experiences of people of color are true, this country isn’t what many white evangelicals thought it was. For many of us, that is too shattering to contemplate. So telling white evangelicals to stop being racist kind of misses the point. To actually see and believe the experiences of people of color involves a radical rupturing of their view of reality. C’mon, do you want your grip on reality shaken?

In ordinary white evangelical church services, there are more subtle clues. A prayer might be offered in thanks for the great freedoms we enjoy in this country. The subtext of many of these prayers is that these freedoms are a blessing from God that can be taken away if the nation doesn’t turn back to him. Not only do such prayers echo the Christian nation declension narrative, they don’t speak to the experiences of people who are oppressed in this country right now. Thankfulness is of course a good thing. But prayers of thanks for what we have—combined with a note of worry for what might be taken away—are often the satisfied prayers of the comfortable. While we’re over here worrying about losing our rights, other Americans are trying to get them in the first place.

The mixing of God and country takes place against a backdrop of material entitlement and individual self-absorption. Anecdotally, I can attest that white evangelicals routinely speak about the hard material realities of life—homes, schools, jobs—with the anti-Christian rhetoric of the general American public. Safety first, family first, comfort first. Take specific concrete actions in your own life against the American Dream and watch white evangelicals be the first to criticize you. It’s an amazing phenomenon.

To wrap this up, let’s return to the Trump phenomenon. When Trump says Make America Great Again many white evangelicals hear a religious message. And it’s so enthralling that they are often unable to see that outside their bubble their support for him appears hateful. Much of white evangelicalism has become a religion of incumbency. We have and we hoard and we lament what we’ve lost and we fear what we might yet lose. We so easily identify with the powers of this age—the police, the military, the American Empire—over the oppressed people to whom God has given the gift of faith. We’re a religious movement that loves Donald Trump and hates Black Lives Matter. Despite all the good white evangelicals do in their local communities, as a collective political force white evangelicalism is hateful and oppressive.

I don’t stand outside this religious movement. I am implicated in it, a contributor to it. I must account for all the ways in which I promote racism and injustice in my actions and inaction, including my political behavior. I continue to hope that white evangelicals will repent broadly and deeply. I hope we will realize that the principles we claim to believe apply to racism just as well as to any other human problem.

The truth is not to be feared; it sets free. Those who hide their sins do not prosper, but the repentant find mercy. In other words, Jesus is powerful enough and good enough to save even white evangelicals like me.

 


*I’d still like to see a lot more data on this though. This is a preliminary observation. I would really like to see a larger survey that could break down church attendance in more granular detail. Do weekly churchgoers exhibit the same pattern?

White Evangelicalism’s Politics of Nostalgia

Assuming enrollment holds up, next semester I’ll be teaching a GenEd history class called “The Making of American Society.” It’s vague enough for me to turn it into almost whatever I want. I’m going to organize the class around three or four thematic units. One of them will be evangelicalism.

One lecture I already have on the calendar is, “Make America Christian Again: The Evangelical Politics of Nostalgia.” I know exactly how I want to start this class: with the music video to Carman’s 1993 song, “America Again” (embedded below).

In my last post I mentioned the prevalence of national declension narratives in white evangelicalism. This song captures that sensibility with eerie precision. Some of you are going to be gobsmacked by this video, so let me insist at the outset: I didn’t go out and find an obscure example of evangelical nostalgia. This is mainstream. Carman was one of the most popular Christian artists of the 1990s, and this song was a chart-topper (I can’t seem to find the exact numbers anywhere).

Though the video contains no explicit reference to partisanship, an evangelical who imbibed its message would have no trouble knowing for whom to vote come election time. The overlap between the song’s title and Trump’s campaign slogan a generation later is more than just a suggestive coincidence.

The Heresy of Nationalist Christianity

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Is it time to think of Trumpism as heresy? Catholic scholar Charles Camosey believes so:

Though it seems to be waning a bit now, Catholic support for Donald Trump in the 2016 election was disturbingly high. It was disturbing on multiple levels, but especially because the primary vision for Trump’s campaign was to “make America great again” by putting “America first.”

If accepted and supported by Christians, this is a classic example of heresy – which historically has taken something true and pushed it well beyond its proper place…

In addition to heresy, “Trumpism” is a classic form of idolatry. Stanley Hauerwas, perhaps the most important Protestant thinker of the last two generations, pulled no punches in calling out Trump’s deep faith in Americanism.

For an orthodox Christian, Hauerwas insisted, America cannot be first. The Gospel of Jesus Christ must be first.

Hauerwas was right to describe Trump’s inaugural address as a “stunning example of idolatry.” When the president said, “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America and, through our loyalty to our country, we will recover loyalty to each other,” this was, using the words of Hauerwas, “a theological claim that offers a kind of salvation.”

Just one problem, though. When made by a Christian, it is an idolatrous and heretical claim.

Christ knew we would come to know people “by their fruits,” and the fruits of a Trump administration are already quite clear. The heresy of “America first” overshadows the Gospel…

It is one thing to vote for Trump as the lesser of two evils. I strongly disagreed with this strategy, but it is defensible from a Catholic point of view. And I fully understand the views of those who did so in defense of prenatal children.

What is not defensible, however, is positive, formal support for “America First.” That so many Catholics have expressed such support, however, may indicate that the time has come to name “Trumpism” a heresy.

Though Camosey is writing from a Catholic perspective, his words are even more relevant for all the “God and country” Christians of white evangelicalism. Their intense investment in the American national project recalls the heretical 19th century liberals who conflated the Kingdom of God with the progress of the American nation. It also brings to mind the 20th century German liberals whose belief in German exceptionalism prepared them to glorify war and endorse an anti-Christ.

What we’re seeing from many Trump-supporting Christians is not just a political disagreement, but a different gospel altogether.