The Truth About Trump’s Evangelical Support

The Truth About Trump’s Evangelical Support thumbnail

Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation

by Kristin Kobes Du Mez

Liveright Publishing Corporation, 386 pp., $28.95

Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump

by Sarah Posner

Random House, 368 pp., $28.00

Donald Trump has never pretended to practice traditional
Christian virtues. Yet in 2016 he earned 81 percent of the white evangelical
vote—a higher percentage than George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, or John McCain.
Trump’s success surprised a lot of us: How could a group of staunchly moral
religious voters give their support to a man with a long track record of lying,
cheating, using profanity, and grabbing women “by the pussy”?

If this seemed jarring, it may be because evangelical leaders
have projected a whitewashed vision of their movement to the rest of the
country so successfully for so long. To be an evangelical, leaders of the
movement and the scholars who follow them insisted for several decades, is to
commit to the authority of the Bible, the centrality of Jesus, the necessity of
individual conversion, and evangelism. With this move, they separated
evangelicalism from its existence in the world. Evangelicals might try to
influence politics and culture, but politics and culture, they implied, had no
impact on the untainted core of evangelicalism. Billy Graham might be sleeping
in the Lincoln bedroom, and Jerry Falwell might be advising GOP platform
committees, but the evangelical gospel was timeless, unaffected by the forces
of history and the world around it. The sexists, racists, and xenophobes who
regularly appeared in their ranks, they argued, did not reflect the true
movement, only its distortions.

For the most part, this image of evangelicalism won the day.
Historians and journalists swallowed the idea that evangelicalism was a system
of theological beliefs independent from culture and politics. In the 2010s, a
few scholars offered more accurate histories. But when it came time for
elections, most Americans assumed that evangelicals would hold a presidential
candidate to their own supposedly exacting standards of conduct.

Trump shattered those myths. As a presidential candidate, he
masterfully stoked evangelicals’ terror of state power and brought their
deep-seated racism and sexism to the surface. He demonstrated that fear, anger,
and anxiety remained as central to the lives of evangelicals as any practices
of forgiveness, love, understanding, or compassion. As three new books show,
Trump connected with impulses that are central to the evangelical movement,
from an insistence on patriarchy that Kristin Kobes Du Mez traces in Jesus and John Wayne, to the racism that Sarah Posner examines in Unholy, to the Christian nationalism
that Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry study in Taking America Back for God

For these authors, evangelicalism is about more than
theological talking points. The Trump era has confirmed that we cannot separate
evangelicalism from the racism, sexism, and xenophobia that gave rise to the
movement over a century ago. What is more, the evidence has always been there
for those willing to see it.


Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States

by Samuel L Perry and Andrew L Whitehead

Oxford University Press, 288 pp., $29.95

The modern evangelical movement was born in the late
nineteenth century at a moment of tremendous turmoil. Americans were recovering
from the horrors of the Civil War and the conflicts over Reconstruction, struggling
through turbulent economic contractions, wrestling with the impact of massive
immigration, and confronting novel ideas about the evolution of humans from monkeys.
At that time a handful of white men crafted a new version of Christianity. Billy
Sunday, whom Du Mez credits for championing a “muscular” style of
Christianity, became their most popular spokesman.
 

Sunday gained fame in the 1880s as a gutsy base runner for
the Chicago White Stockings. A few years later, he converted to evangelicalism
and abandoned the ballpark for the revival tent. By the early twentieth
century, his meetings filled the largest auditoriums in the country. His shows
were raucous and entertaining. He had graduated, he boasted, “from the
University of Poverty and Hard Knocks.”He
paced as he preached, jumped around, waved his arms, and screamed at the devil.
Although he claimed to be a common man from the “corn rows of Iowa,” he gained
the backing of wealthy business leaders, including the Rockefellers. They loved how
he blended theology, patriotism, and a defense of Gilded Age capitalism. 

Sunday demanded that Americans make the United States a Christian
nation, an effort that remains central to evangelicalism, as Whitehead and
Perry illustrate. To Sunday and his followers, this meant reducing immigration,
maintaining Jim Crow segregation, and pushing back against the women’s movement.
“The black man is entitled to civic equality,” he acknowledged, but not “social
equality,” and certainly not interracial marriage. He worried that foreigners
with their strange religions were contaminating the country. “They call us the
‘melting pot,’” Sunday harangued. “Then it’s up to us to skim off the slag that
won’t melt into Americanism and throw it into hell.” He also fought against a
rising feminism. The future depended on teaching the “frizzle-headed,
fudge-eating, ragtime flapper” to conform to Victorian gender roles.

In the 1930s, Sunday and his allies faced a new threat. The
Roosevelt administration was expanding the power of the state and extending civil
liberties to racial and ethnic minorities. Sunday fumed that if Americans
allowed New Deal liberalism to flourish, “the rugged individualism of
Americanism must go.” These changes convinced the evangelist that he was living
in the end times and that the apocalypse was imminent. Jesus was coming back
in judgment, and the United States would have to account for its actions.

If Billy Sunday were still the face of the evangelical
movement, the results of the 2016 election might not seem so surprising. But in
the wake of World War II, a new generation of leaders led by Billy Graham took charge of evangelicalism,
and they distanced themselves from the overt bigotry of an earlier era. Aiming
to grow their influence and power, they worked to make their movement more mainstream
and respectable. They earned advanced degrees from prestigious universities,
launched new centrist magazines, including Christianity
Today,
and opened academically rigorous seminaries for training ministers. Rather
than take on civil rights legislation directly, they emphasized transforming
hearts. Rather than treat women as inferior, they stressed that women were
equal before God, just different in function. They encoded racism and sexism
into their movement but made it appear more benign. They knew that in order to
expand evangelicalism, they needed to muzzle the most extreme racists and
nativists. They also kept up the fight against New Deal liberalism, linking
faith with free-market capitalism.


For the next half-century, evangelicals claimed allegiance to
a timeless, biblical morality, while battling to spread their ideas by
penetrating the nation’s major centers of power—including politics, media, and
education. Du Mez’s brilliant and
engaging Jesus and John Wayne traces how
evangelicals used their power to protect patriarchy over the last few
generations. Trump’s victory, she writes, was “the culmination of evangelicals’
embrace of militant masculinity, an ideology that enshrines patriarchal
authority and condones the callous display of power, at home and abroad.” By
this account, the Jesus at the center of their lives is not the peacemaker of
the gospels but a vengeful warrior Christ.

Across chapters ranging from “John Wayne Will Save Your Ass”
to “Holy Balls,” Du Mez peppers her text with entertaining (and sometimes
horrifying) examples. In 1973, Marabel Morgan published The Total Woman, giving Christians an alternative vision of
womanhood to that trumpeted by Betty Friedan and the new feminism. Wives, she insisted,
should be docile, submissive, and beautiful. The book inspired one Christian
woman to greet her husband at the front door wearing only Saran Wrap. A few
years later, evangelicals concerned about the sexual revolution began
publishing their own P.G.-rated sex manuals. They all agreed that God wanted
married Christians to have good sex, but they varied in their approach—some
authors believed oral sex was acceptable, others thought it was always an abomination.

During this era, evangelicals cared little about abortion.
Most believed that the use of birth control was appropriate within marriage,
and early-term abortions were just another form of birth control. But as
feminists made expanding reproductive rights a fundamental part of their
agenda, evangelicals starting framing the procedure as “an assault on women’s
God-given role, on the family, and on Christian America itself.” Seeking a
president who would advocate for their understanding of gender roles, they
rallied behind the divorced Ronald Reagan over the “masculinity challenged”
Sunday School teacher Jimmy Carter. The former governor, who dressed like a
cowboy, was “perfectly cast for his role as hero of the Religious Right.”

In the 1990s, evangelicals shifted from simply denouncing
feminism to articulating a new vision of the ideal male. Promise Keepers, a
ministry founded by college football coach Bill McCartney, organized male-only
stadium rallies around the country. McCartney and his allies called for a
renewal of Christian manhood defined by a “soft” patriarchy. They instructed
men to reclaim authority in their families, express their feelings and emotions,
love their wives, and invest in their children’s lives. Their rallies included
lots of bro-hugs and tears, as well as a focus on individual racial
reconciliation. 

Promise Keepers did not last. The 9/11 terrorist attacks inspired
another pivot among evangelicals. The “soft” patriarch ideal gave way to a
resurrected militant warrior akin to Billy Sunday’s muscular Christian leaders.
The faithful cheered George W. Bush, another cowboy president, as he launched a
new, religiously tinged global crusade on behalf of a pro-war God. And after
the Obama years, when pundits began talking about the end of white Christian
America, evangelicals sought out another tough guy in Donald Trump. “For nearly
fifty years,” Du Mez writes, “evangelicals were looking for a protector, an
aggressive, heroic, manly man, someone who wasn’t restrained by political
correctness or feminine virtues, someone who would break the rules for the
right cause.” Trump satisfied their lust for a new prophet by vowing to lead
them out of the secular wilderness. He became their ultimate fighting champion.

While Du Mez zeroes in on gender, journalist Posner focuses
primarily on race. In her insightful book Unholy,
Posner calls Trump “the strongman the Christian right had long been waiting for”—not
just to affirm patriarchy but also to undermine 50 years of progress on
civil rights. Evangelicals longed for a leader who “wasn’t afraid to attack,
head-on, the legal, social, and cultural changes” that followed the civil
rights movement.

The inspiration for evangelical partisan mobilization was school
integration. Southern evangelicals such as Jerry Falwell criticized Martin
Luther King Jr. during the 1960s, and hosted segregationists, including George
Wallace, in their churches. But they believed they were safe from federal
overreach until the 1970s, when the IRS began questioning the tax-exempt status
of segregated Christian academies. Institutions that discriminated, the
government argued, were by definition not “charitable.” The actions of federal agencies,
supported by federal courts, encouraged the faithful to court new political
partners.  

Posner is only partially right here. When the IRS began
cracking down on whites-only schools, many Southern evangelicals took notice. But
this does not explain evangelical mobilization in the cities of the West and
North, where most evangelicals were already staunch Republicans and were not as
directly affected by desegregation. Evangelicals’ fear that the expansion of
state power signaled the end times and coming apocalypse—something Billy Sunday
and Billy Graham repeatedly predicted—preceded their concerns over integration;
some of the very same masterminds who founded leading religious right
organizations, such as Tim LaHaye, made millions of dollars peddling books
about diabolical end-times conspiracies. They believed that the federal
government and courts were their primary enemies. Evangelicals in the North and
West, many of whom opposed mandated segregation, fretted that if the government
could force Christian schools to admit African Americans, could it also force
them to offer ministerial training to women? Where would the government’s control
over their religious liberties end? 


More than the other authors here, Whitehead and Perry still
believe that evangelicalism can be redeemed and that the old theological
definition still holds. They acknowledge the racism and sexism so prevalent in
recent evangelicalism, but they have not lost hope. If only the 81 percent who
voted for Trump understood the true faith, they imply in Taking America Back for God, evangelicals would repent of their
Trump-loving ways. 

They believe that the media and academics have conflated
those who believe in Christian nationalism with those who believe in
evangelicalism. The authors define Christian nationalism as “an ideology that
idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type
of Christian identity and culture.” Christian nationalists believe that the
U.S. was founded as an explicitly Christian nation; that the country’s
success is in part a reflection of God’s ultimate plan for the world; that
prayer should be allowed in public schools; and that the federal government
should declare the U.S. a Christian nation, advocate Christian values,
and support religious displays in public places. 

The “Christianity” of Christian nationalism “includes
assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity,
along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism. It is as
ethnic and political as it is religious.” Christian nationalists believe that
their “heritage” is under attack, and they support strong policies against
immigration, including a border wall. They claim that God has always set his
chosen people apart. “Much of the Christian nationalist rhetoric born out of
the Religious Right,” Whitehead and Perry write, “finds its roots in the desire
to create boundaries of group membership around race and the right of white
Americans to segregate themselves from minorities.” Trump’s promise to make
America great again means “making their America
again” by stopping the “Muslim terrorists” and “violent Mexican immigrants.”

Whether a person identifies as an evangelical is not
the best predictor of how she will vote, the authors argue, and it does not
indicate her views on hot button issues. The more religious a person was, the
authors discovered, the less likely he or she was to support some of Trump’s
core nationalist policies. Those who attend church the most, and pray and read
their Bibles regularly, tend to be less enthusiastic about Trump’s positions on
race, guns, immigration, and poverty. They are also less likely to fear
atheists or immigrants from the Middle East. (This does not mean, however,
that the most religious evangelicals are by any means liberal. The survey data
reenforces Du Mez’s arguments that on questions of gender, sexuality, and the
family, evangelicals and Christian nationalists align. The more committed a
person is to his faith, the more committed he is to patriarchy.) 

By contrast “Christian nationalism,” not evangelicalism,
binds together Trump supporters on such issues as immigration, gun control,
travel bans, refugees, political correctness, opioid addiction, public
education, racial injustice in policing, “family values,” transgender rights,
and secularism. Knowing a person’s position on Christian nationalism “can tell
us far more” about their “social and political views” than knowing their
denomination, record of church attendance, or even whether they identify as
Democrat or Republican.

Yet Whitehead and Perry’s attempt to rehabilitate some
portion of evangelicalism and separate it from Christian nationalism contains
an element of wishful thinking. Since World War II, evangelicals have been
Christian nationalism’s most enthusiastic promoters. Americans who attend white
evangelical churches are far more likely to encounter Christian nationalism
than those who do not. And so, while the authors make fine distinctions between
the two groups, separating evangelicalism from Christian nationalism and its
ugly historical legacies is not easily done in practice.


In 2018, Trump welcomed one hundred of the nation’s
evangelical leaders to a dinner at the White House. The guest list included
almost every one of the major leaders profiled by DuMez, Posner, and Whitehead
and Perry. “We’re here,” the president explained to his audience, “to celebrate
America’s heritage of faith, family, and freedom. As you know, in recent
years, the government tried to undermine religious freedom. But the
attacks on communities of faith are over. We’ve ended it. We’ve ended
it.” Evangelicals finally had the kind of ally in the White House
they had been longing for since the days of Billy Sunday. Trump aimed to
bolster patriarchy, roll back the power of the courts, curtail immigration, and
grant evangelicals a privileged position in the American religious landscape.

These three books help us understand how this happened. No
matter how many never-Trumper evangelicals argue that some kind of pure faith
exists independent of politics and culture, the truth is that evangelism and
Trumpism is a near-perfect partnership that grew out of a shared history and
culture. 

Du Mez ends her book by calling on her readers
to “dismantle” white evangelicalism by exposing its true history and
priorities. But evangelicals will not be easily
dispossessed of what they assume is rightfully theirs. God, they believe, has
destined them to make the United States in their image. Trump’s success demonstrates that their power is
still ascending. We can only hope that as the goals and tactics of Christian
nationalism are exposed, the rest of us—secular and Christian, agnostic and
“none”—will mobilize to bury it for good. If we don’t, then surely a different
kind of apocalypse will soon be upon us.

More on the religious right

Read More

Scroll to Top