by William Trollinger
One of the few benefits of the Donald Trump presidency that many smart journalists and scholars are now writing about white evangelicals in an effort to understand these Christians who make up his most loyal constituency.
The challenge is that so many great articles are appearing that it is difficult to keep up. We had originally planned to emulate what we did in the last post, and provide links to and brief comments about two of the best articles that have appeared in just the last three weeks. But two more excellent articles have just appeared, and thus we also include them here, but with briefer commentary.
- Sarah Jones, “The Invisible Free Speech Crisis,” The New Republic.
In this article Sarah Jones cogently argues that, while the mainstream press has highlighted the alleged suppression of free speech by leftists at secular universities, it has completely ignored the ways in which the Christian Right routinely suppresses free speech at evangelical institutions such as Liberty University, Cedarville University, and Wheaton College, as well as at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, the headquarters of what some refer to as Catholic fundamentalism. Jones knows whereof she speaks. A Cedarville graduate, she provided (and we quote her in Righting America) some of the best commentary on the school’s 2012-2014 “purge” of insufficiently fundamentalist faculty and staff. But while many students and professors at evangelical schools find the restrictions on speech to be oppressive (even dangerous, when it comes to fears about reporting sexual abuse), the folks running these schools and donating to these schools do not see restrictions on free speech as a problem. As Adam Laats observes, the point of establishing these institutions “was to police faculty belief and student thought. Evangelical colleges that restrict speech these days don’t face a crisis. They fulfill a promise.”
- Rodney Hessinger and Kristen Tobey, “President Trump Gets a Stormy Daniels Bump with Evangelicals,” cleveland.com
These two John Carroll University professors address a very interesting question: why has white evangelical support of Donald Trump grown dramatically (61% to 78%) in the wake of the Stormy Daniels revelations? For Hessinger and Tobey, there is nothing surprising about this. As they provocatively argue, sexual scandal has always been part of evangelicalism, to the point that “forbidden sex” is “essential” to the evangelical enterprise. Put another way, sexual sin is eminently forgivable, while challenges to patriarchy – the true “family value,” as the authors note and as we note in Righting America – are not. This is a fascinating and well-argued piece. But while the authors suggest that we should stop charging white evangelicals with hypocrisy – given that it simply feeds their sense of persecution – they leave out the salient point that the white evangelicals have routinely lambasted the sexual sins of “others.” And this hypocrisy may be a factor in the declining numbers of white evangelicals, particularly evangelical youth.
- Alec MacGillis, “How Liberty University Built a Billion Dollar Empire Online,” The New York Times
This wonderfully written and powerfully documented article provides a fascinating and horrifying peek into the Liberty University Online. LUO is a gigantic money-making operation that – with its combination of astonishingly low spending on instruction combined with a relentless recruiting of students who default on their loans at an alarming rate – seems much more of a scam than an educational enterprise. MacGillis quotes a Liberty senior at the end of the article: while the residential campus is “’beautiful,” the truth is that “it’s funded by the online program that’s sold to people who can’t really afford college.’”
- Michael Massing, “How Martin Luther Paved the Way for Donald Trump,” The Nation.
While the article’s title is a stretch, Massing’s argument is convincing. Despite all those (the authors of Righting America included) who argue that the theology and practices of the Christian Right are very much at odds with the teachings of Jesus, there are real parallels between Martin Luther, on the one hand, and politicized fundamentalists and the president they enthusiastically support, on the other. To quote Massing: “Trump’s insults, invective, and mocking tweets against enemies real and perceived seem a long way from the Sermon on the Mount, but they very much mirror the pugnacity, asperity, and inflammatory language of the first Protestant.”
We hope you, our readers, share your thoughts on these pieces or any other reporting on evangelicals that folks might find informative. Feel free to leave a comment below.