Thanks to the fact that an overwhelming percentage of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump and continue to enthusiastically support him – hush money to porn actresses and obeisance to Vladimir Putin notwithstanding – many smart journalists and scholars have turned their attention to American evangelicalism. But while there are various explanations of evangelicals’ attachment to Trump, it is increasingly difficult to avoid the conclusion that one of the most – if not the most – important contributing factors has to do with race. That is to say, white evangelicals feel besieged, and much of this sense of threat has to do with the fact that America’s racial landscape is changing such that white dominance may no longer be a given.
The following two articles shine a light on this phenomenon.
Seth Dowland, “American Evangelicalism and the Politics of Whiteness,” Christian Century.
In this insightful article Dowland, author of Family Values and the Rise of the Christian Right, points out that historians have traditionally relied on a theological characterization of evangelicals, i.e., as Christians who emphasize conversion, salvation, evangelism, and biblical authority. But as the author argues, this definition really does not really get at what it means to be a white evangelical in 21st century America. Instead, as Dowland astutely observes, “what most distinguishes white American evangelicals from other Christians, other religious groups, and nonbelievers is not theology but politics.” As some of the best recent scholarship on evangelicalism has made clear, racism (along with patriarchy) has been central to much of white evangelicalism for the past 150 years. In the wake of the conflicts in the 1960s and 1970s over civil rights and feminism, evangelicals became even more tied to white racial identity and right-wing politics, to the point that now “they have rallied around Trump to defend a white Protestant nation,” serving as “loyal foot soldiers in the battle against undocumented immigrants and Muslims.”
Stephanie McCrummen, “Judgment Days,” Washington Post.
To be sure, over the past eighteen months national news organizations have sent out countless reporters to interview rural and small-town Trump supporters. Despite all of the attention paid to this topic, McCrummen’s article from Luverne, Alabama is very much worth the read. She focuses on the congregants of the First Baptist Church, who explained their willingness to overlook Trump’s blatant immorality because he is anti-abortion and because they are convinced that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had been sent by Satan to destroy white Christian America. Trump will protect them, from the onslaught of undocumented immigrants and from blacks who seem determined to foment a race war with protests against police brutality, with the opening of a memorial to lynching victims in nearby Montgomery (which is “promoting violence”), and with – as one church member emphasized – the never-ending obsession with the exaggerated negative effects of slavery. As one interviewee put it, “’Slaves were valued. They got housing. They got fed. They got medical care.’” Perhaps most interesting here is McCrummen’s focus on the church’s pastor, who has qualms about Trump’s character, but who – in the face of so much passionate support for the president – just can’t bring himself to say a negative word.