Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
Salvation is Not Forthcoming Any Time Soon: Trumpism and the Soul-Destroying Corruption of White Evangelicalism | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Evangelical leaders pray over Trump in the Oval Office. Photo via The Chicago Tribune (2017).

“What does it profit a faith to gain a whole country and then lose it, along with its own soul?” (Sarah Jones)

Four years ago, just after the presidential election, I wrote a post entitled, “A Gift from White Evangelicals: President Trump,” which highlighted the fact that 81% of white evangelicals had voted for the reality show star and failed real estate magnate. 

Now, in the fall of 2020 – after a year of presidential malfeasance regarding the coronavirus pandemic, after four years of epic corruption in the administration, after so many children at the border blithely separated from their parents and placed in cages, after a parade of women reporting on their experiences of Trump’s sexual assaults, after stories of Trump mocking both veterans and his evangelical supporters – the numbers are in. And the needle hasn’t moved, as approximately 80% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. 

Notwithstanding Trump’s epic immorality and incompetence, there is nothing surprising in white evangelical support of Trump at the ballot box. In fact, I would have been stunned if white evangelical support for Trump had dropped more than a few percentage points. And that is because the reality is that for the past half century white evangelicalism has been wedded to a Far Right politics that, in the end, has little or nothing to do with morality, character, or the teachings of Jesus.

One way to understand evangelical support for right-wing politics is to look closely at the network of institutions that buttress the Christian Right. These churches, megachurches, denominations, schools, media outlets, and more are – as I argue in a forthcoming article, “Religious Non-Affiliation: Expelled by the Right” (Empty Churches: Non-Affiliation in America, Oxford University Press, 2021) – firmly committed to the following:

  • a virulent opposition to same-sex marriage and transgender accommodations, which is combined with a devotion to patriarchy; 
  • a fear of and antipathy toward all “others,” most particularly immigrants;
  • a commitment to the hegemony of White America in the face of changing demographic realities;
  • a deep-seated Christian nationalism;
  • and, a culture-war mentality that sees all who disagree with their agenda and their commitments as the unChristian or antiChristian enemy.

All of this is on vivid display at the Creation Museum and in the various publications and media productions of Answers in Genesis. But as we also document in Righting America at the Creation Museum, these Christian Right commitments are fervently promoted by the “Creation Colleges” that support and are promoted by the museum. One of those schools is Cedarville University, about which we have written much this year (for two examples, see here and here).  

In our book we discuss the fundamentalist takeover of Cedarville in 2012-2013, in which a large number of faculty and administrators were removed for insufficient theological and political conservatism, and for “having too much compassion for those ‘people struggling with gender identification’ (i.e., LGBTQ students)” (213). One result of the fundamentalist takeover at Cedarville was the implementation of a policy that, “in line with the ‘complementarian’ position that women are not to teach men in theological/biblical matters,” required that all theology and Bible classes taught by women were not to include any male students. 

As we quote in the book, alumna Sarah Jones blogged in response to this new policy:

If this is the path Cedarville chooses to take, it won’t be a college any longer, it’ll be a glorified Sunday School. That’s fine if you want to produce graduates who can only function in fundamentalist echo chambers, but it certainly doesn’t prepare them for the real world. It doesn’t even encourage them to empathize with their fellow Christians. Here’s what it does do: train half the student body to disregard the other half and treat them as if they’re incapable of holding worthwhile opinions on the religious tradition that defines their entire lives. (213-214)

Jones has long since exited fundamentalism, and is now a staff writer at New York magazine. And yesterday she published one of the most insightful pieces I have read on Trump and white evangelicalism: White Evangelicals Made a Deal with the Devil. Now What? In this brilliant article Jones makes clear that Trumpism will continue after Trump, that white evangelicals will continue to support the worst excesses of the Right, and that the evangelical subculture (which includes Cedarville, Answers in Genesis, and more) will continue to produce “new acolytes, who embrace the worst elements of the [evangelical] tradition.” One example she gives is Madison Cawthorn, a newly-elected representative from North Carolina whose congressional campaign was blatantly racist, and who was condemned by a number of his former classmates at Patrick Henry College for his sexual predations while attending the school. 

Sarah Jones is right: there will be more Cawthorns in our future. And that is very bad for America, but – as Jones argues – it is very bad for white evangelicalism (as I also argue in my aforementioned essay). To end with a quote from Jones:

Evangelicals bought power, and the bill is coming due. The price is their Christian witness, the credibility of their redemption by God. Evangelicalism won’t disappear after Trump, but its alliance with an unpopular and brutal president could alienate all but the most zealous.