by William Trollinger
We have said it again and again, but the emergence of the Christian Right as the GOP’s most reliable constituency AND then – most dramatically – the election of Donald Trump as president has resulted in all sorts of very smart people looking closely at white Evangelicalism.
This post will take note of six of these commentators. We will start with a lively exchange that appeared on Facebook between Elesha Coffman and Rodney Kennedy in response to Rod’s recent blog post here at rightingamerica, “Jesus and the Anti-Abortion Gospel.”
EC: There might be a difference between an argument that “drives” people and a rhetorical trump card (pun intended). Abortion abolition is seen as the unassailable position for people otherwise backed into a corner, but it doesn’t seem to be the thing that drives opinions or behavior. I think that white evangelicals have decided to be Republicans, and when it’s pointed out to them how unchristian many GOP stances are, they cry “but abortion!” because no other claims are available to them. But if asked to rank priorities (as in the recent Christianity Today/Lifeway study), lots of things – taxes, immigration, “traditional” sexuality – come in above abortion or judges. The CT study is flawed in lots of ways, but I think it got that part basically right.
RK: You may be right but my conversation partners indicate that they believe God put Trump in office to abolish abortion by appointing conservative judges. At times, they bemoan his despicable behavior but always rotate back to he’s a “godly” man doing God’s will. Perhaps the conservatives do vote Republican for a variety of reasons, but I’m not convinced that taxes really drive evangelicals to the polls. What people say in response to a survey may never touch their deepest held convictions. Sometimes they just don’t admit the truth. That being said, the flaw in my argument is that my sample size is way too small. It’s sort of like asking my family and three friends to name a great preacher and I publish the results of that survey which then includes me in the list. Thanks for your response because I think this is a really important conversation as we try to unpack how Christians are responding to secular politics that are divorced from basic Christian understandings and convictions.
EC: You’re absolutely right about surveys missing deep, inarticulate, and/or shameful beliefs. Hardly anyone will tell a pollster, “I’m selfish and refuse to believe that other people are as good as I am.” But “I just want lower taxes” means basically the same thing.
RK: If that’s the reason that evangelicals are voting Republican then they are worshiping Mammon.
EC: I think I’d say they are worshiping their own security, and money is the means to that end. I’m pretty Niebuhrian in my view of human nature.
Now let’s look at an article in the latest issue of The American Historian, where four historians answer a series of questions regarding “their analysis of evangelicals’ affinity for Trump and of their commitment to the conservative movement more generally.” The four historians are: John Fea (Messiah College), Laura Jane Gifford (independent scholar), R. Marie Griffith (Washington University in St. Louis), Lerone Martin (Washington University in St. Louis). What we have below is a quote from each of them. This is a 13 page article, so these quotes are just tiny snippets of what each of them has to say. But as these quotes should make clear, the full article is worth reading, so at the end we provide a link to the full article.
JF: “I am sorry to say that we have made little headway in convincing my fellow evangelicals to think more deeply about the relationship between faith and politics and links between Christianity and American identity. . . . Evangelicals continue to gaze nostalgically into a past that is never coming back and, in the case of America’s supposedly ‘Christian roots,’ may have never existed in the first place” (33).
LG: “Pro-Trump evangelicals are willing to forgive behavior that would get one kicked out of Sunday School if the leader of their party will articulate their policy priorities – and nominate conservative candidates to the Supreme Court. What remains to be seen is whether evangelical support for Trump will cause them to ‘gain the whole world and lose [their] own soul’ (Mark 8:36)” (27).
RMG: “Analysis of the differences between the Trump-voting ‘evangelicals’ and the Clinton (or Bernie Sanders)- supporting ‘progressive Christians’ has really helped illuminate the fact that there are not just different types of Christianities in the United States today, there are actually polar opposite versions of Christianity that are warring against one another in the name of their faith” (35).
LM: “There are themes among modern white evangelicals today that harken back to yesteryear, including the utilization of the traditional jeremiad in religious and political discourse, belief in a worldwide religious conspiracy, abortion and sexuality, the courting of white supremacist ideas and support, and the overwhelming support of laissez faire/free market capitalism” (27).
To read more, visit “Evangelicalism and Politics”, The American Historian (November 2018): 23-35.