by William Trollinger
If you want to understand why 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, schools are a very good place to start.
Here at the University of Dayton (UD) approximately 60 people – faculty and students from UD as well as from local evangelical colleges – gathered in Sears Recital Hall this past Wednesday afternoon to hear Adam Laats present on “Making College Great Again: Evangelical Higher Education from Darwin to Trump.” Borrowing from his newly-published Fundamentalist U, Adam traced the long-standing tradition in white evangelical higher education of combining conservative evangelical faith with a particularly intense form of American nationalism. Using Biola University, Bob Jones, Gordon College, Liberty University, Moody Bible Institute, and Wheaton College as his examples, Adam clearly and energetically traced the history of white evangelical commitment to making America great again from the early 20th century to the present.
It was a tour de force. One sign of this was the very good questions that emerged in the Q and A period. Here are a few:
- Is there a difference between fundamentalism and evangelicalism, and is the fundamentalist movement losing steam?
- How do Pentecostals and Pentecostals fit into this story?
- Are white evangelicals thinking for themselves and consciously choosing the Republican Party, or is this attachment so deep that it is simply assumed – a matter of conforming with other evangelicals?
- When in his presidential campaign Trump, a la Nixon, called out to the “silent majority” to support his campaign, were white evangelicals this silent majority?
- How have evangelical colleges viewed and influenced Catholic higher education? (Note to reader: Keep in mind that UD is a Catholic university!)
- As regards the linking of evangelical faith and American nationalism, what about the fact that during the Cold War conservative evangelicals were obsessed with the idea that the United States was the force of Light in a battle with Satan and the Communist menace? (For Adam’s response to this question, see his blog post, The Devil Made Them Do It.)
Perhaps the most challenging and important question was asked, in different ways, by a couple of people in attendance:
- How could any Christian of any denominational background ever mix up their priorities so badly? How could any Christian confuse his/her (primary) devotion to religion with his/her (secondary) devotion to country?
After the presentation Adam and Bill continued to discuss this question, the focus being the great organizational mastermind of 1920s fundamentalism, William Bell Riley. Riley was a Baptist, and as a Baptist of that time he claimed that he was committed to the separation of church and state. And yet, when one reads what Riley wrote, it is very clear that the government and schools he wanted and expected was government and schools in line with his own conservative Protestant commitments.
What gives? The simple story is that in many ways evangelicals ran the show in nineteenth century America. But with the immigration of Catholics and Jews (and others) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and with the advance of “unchristian” ideas such as Darwinism and higher biblical criticism (historicism), conservative Protestants felt as if they were losing “their” country. This sense of loss has only deepened over the past century, with the increasing religious pluralism, and with increasing percentages of Americans who are people of color. And this sense that America and its schools have been stripped from white evangelicals, that America has been taken from its rightful proprietors, animates much of politicized fundamentalism today.
It wasn’t much of a leap . . . to mix together a patriotic faith in the United States with a religious devotion to evangelical Christian values. Defending traditional Americanism was entirely equal to defending true evangelical religion, and vice versa. When the eternal mixed so profoundly with the national, it was not at all difficult or unusual for white fundamentalists to mash together their religious faiths with their patriotic fervor.
And so we get the Christian Right, and President Trump.