Evangelicals and Donald J. Trump

 

 I am afraid, [it] is painfully obvious and simultaneously painful to utter:  evangelicals support Donald J. Trump, in spite of his immorality and venality, because he is white and a male. 

By Jim West
Ming Hua Theological College
January 2019

Why do evangelicals in America seem unalterably aligned with Donald Trump?  That question has occupied many thinkers since the announcement by Trump that he would run for the office of the Presidency of the United States of America and was immediately surrounded, it seemed, by a cadre of high profile evangelical leaders like Robert Jeffress, Jerry Falwell Jr., Paula White, and Franklin Graham among many others.  What is it about both evangelicals and Trump that finds them attracted to one another?

The usual answers are 1) Trump is pro-Israel and evangelicals are staunchly supportive of Israel.  Indeed, many Christian Zionists are also evangelicals and evangelical Trump supporters.  2) Trump is ‘conservative’ and will appoint conservative Justices to the Supreme Court and those conservative Justices will overturn Roe v. Wade, the law permitting abortion.  3) Trump is on ‘our side’ in regard to the question of social issues like Gay marriage.  Unfortunately for evangelicals, Trump has never given any evidence that he is at all concerned with moral questions.  Quite the contrary, he seems averse to morality.  Even his attempt to bar transgendered persons from military service was a mere pandering after conservative approval.  No evidence exists to suggest that Mr Trump shares evangelical attitudes towards LGBTQ persons.

But are those reasons the actual reason that evangelicals support Trump?  It seems very unlikely.  As to Trump’s putative pro-Israel stance; while he has had rather a lot to say that seems supportive of Israel his recent actions have placed Israel in incredible peril.[1]  And everyone who has followed the career of Donald Trump knows that he is not a true Conservative in any sense of the word.  His position on abortion has, until lately, been thoroughly left leaning.  His position on ‘family values’ and morality is patently liberal.  In short, there is nothing Conservative about the man except his pandering rhetoric.

So what are the real reasons that evangelicals support Trump?  To answer that question we will first need to discover precisely what we mean when we use the term ‘Evangelical.’  Then we will need to What is an evangelical ask the important question: Who is Donald J. Trump?  Only then will we be in a position to address our central question: ‘Why Do Evangelicals Support Donald J. Trump?’  And, having done that, we will briefly pursue an answer to the question: ‘What is the Future of Evangelicalism?’

What is an Evangelical?

The word ‘Evangelische’ was used originally in Germany in the 16th century as the theology of Luther took hold and his followers were described by the word that means ‘gospelers’.  Persons called ‘Evangelische’ were persons who had left the Catholic Church and adhered to the teaching of the upstart theologian from Wittenberg who, all knew, focused his concern on the ‘Gospel’ instead of on the traditions of the Roman Church.  Over time the word came to be used interchangeably with ‘Protestant’ and these two terms became the predominate descriptors of Lutheranism.  Reformed Christians, followers of Zwingli and Calvin, were not called Protestants nor evangelicals, but instead simply Reformed or Calvinists.

Over the course of time the terms naturally blurred and in rather loose usage came to be used without any concern for their original status.  Protestant came to be applied to Lutheran and Reformed and Evangelical slowly found itself displaced in the European context (though some Lutherans preferred it to the more anthropocentric ‘Lutheran’ label).

In America, the term wasn’t widely used before the rise of Fundamentalism in the nineteenth century, when members of that sect turned to the past to find roots for their views.  ‘Evangelical’ was the more positive sounding term whereas ‘Fundamentalist’ soon took on a negative hue.  When Fundamentalism coalesced into an actual theological movement, with the publication of a series of pamphlets in the 1900’s called The Fundamentals, it did so as a reaction against the encroachment of Modernism and Historical Criticism (as practiced by the likes of Duhm and Wellhausen).  More than a movement forward it was, and remains, a retreat to the past, to a pre-critical pre-scientific reality which simply no longer exists.  And yet Fundamentalism then and now continues to fight for its very existence against the insurmountable tide of time.

Moving swiftly forward in time, ‘evangelicalism’ really became a force in American Christianity in the era of Billy Graham and his widely attended widely admired Crusades.  News media referred to Graham as an evangelical and his many millions of followers, conservative Christians especially, with roots in Fundamentalism (like some of the Baptists and some of the Methodists), adopted the term for themselves.  Now, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and others who were Fundamentalists at heart could denominate themselves underneath a positive umbrella term which transcended denominational lines and identified them as members of a specific movement: evangelicals.

Evangelicalism, in its American context, in the 70’s and 80’s, was simply Fundamentalism with better publicity.  These very conservative Christians, with roots firmly planted in the dirt of Fundamentalism and with their nourishment drawn from the remnants of racism and misogyny so much a part of Fundamentalism, flourished during the Revivalism of Graham and the Reaganism of the 80’s. 

Planted in the same patch of ground as American Political Conservatism (with its barely concealed racism and misogyny), evangelicalism and Political Conservativism were plants sprung from the same fearful seed:  a longing for the era of white male authoritarianism and the subservience of women and people of color.

Who is Donald J. Trump?

The biography of Trump is fairly well known and easily discoverable.  Here I will simply sketch the briefest of outlines.  Trump was born to a wealthy family in New York and rose to public notice as a self promoting advocate of self aggrandizement.  He understood better than most the usefulness of being on the cover of magazines and newspapers and of being on television at any and every opportunity.  Having received a substantial inheritance from his father, he managed to expand his holdings through a series of deals which left many poorer in his wake.  Well known for stiffing his suppliers and not paying many to whom he owed money, he endured a number of bankruptcies and he also experienced a number of marriages and extramarital affairs.

He rose to political prominence in the Republican Party in spite of the fact that he was only (at that time) a member of it for a very short time, in the early months of 2016.  Having managed to successfully and against all odds and all the pundits predictions receiving the nomination of his recently adopted party, became the President of the United States in 2016.

His administration has been a twitter driven hellscape.  And yet through all of it, from crude and vile remarks about women to racist overtones to immoral scandals, his evangelical supporters have remained steadfast.  Why?

Why Do Evangelicals Support Donald J. Trump?

As intimated above, the usual suggestions made in answer to this question are not really the actual reason that evangelicals supported and continue to support a man whose life and lifestyle they would decry in any Democratic President.  Recall, for instance, the outcry from evangelicals when Bill Clinton entered into his illicit and ill conceived tryst with Monica Lewinsky and other women.  It is, coincidentally, the rank hypocrisy related to the way Conservatives have given Trump a pass whilst demonizing Bill Clinton that has led many young self-identified evangelical people to leave evangelical churches and adopt a more progressive politics and expression of faith.  Furthermore, If Barack Obama had been the man Donald Trump is (in terms of ethics and morality, or actually in terms of the absolute absence of those attributes), evangelicals would have staged protest marches and demanded his impeachment.  So then, again, why do so many white, middle aged and older, evangelicals support Trump?

The answer, I am afraid, is painfully obvious and simultaneously painful to utter:  evangelicals support Donald J. Trump, in spite of his immorality and venality, because he is white and a male.  Evangelical supporters of Donald J. Trump support him because they are racists and misogynists.  Trump is not a Black man like Barack Obama and Trump is not a woman like Hillary Clinton.

To be sure, some will see that explanation as far too simplistic.  And at one level it is.  Voters make choices on a whole range of issues from motives known and unknown.  Yet it is painfully obvious to any impartial observer that evangelicals were never supportive of Obama and they have never cared for either Bill or Hillary Clinton.  But why?  Why do evangelicals find themselves willing to hitch their wagon to a man as immoral as Donald Trump; a man who is nothing like them in either lifestyle nor testimony nor behavior?  Because he is like them.  He is white.  And he is a male.

When it comes to racism, it is well known that there is a long history of racism among White evangelicals.  The Southern Baptist Convention was literally founded on the premise that White Southerners had the right to own slaves whilst Northern Baptists disagreed and believed slavery to be immoral.  Southern Methodists and other (then) relatively conservative religious groups across the South held the same views.  Evangelical believers (using the word a bit anachronistically now) were supporters of Jim Crow laws across the South after the Civil War and to this day many evangelicals in the South continue to support laws and behaviors which deny civil rights to people of color, as evidenced in their rejection of Lyndon Johnson’s legislative efforts in the 60’s.

Evangelicals long for the return of a time when white males were in positions of unchallenged power.  A time when men ruled home and office and church and state.  This because, again, at heart, they are Fundamentalists.  Donald Trump represents, to them, that time.

Had Joe Biden run for the Democratic nomination, he would be President right now.  Because he is white.  And he is a male.  Had any other leading Democrat white male run, he too would have won.  But because the Democratic Party nominated a woman; and a Clinton woman at that, the evangelical Fundamentalists would not follow and so they chose the lesser of two evils (in their minds): Trump.  Because at the end of the day it’s better, so far as the evangelical Fundamentalists are concerned, to support and vote for a womanizing reprobate who happens to be a white male than it is to support and vote for a woman.

What is the Future of Evangelicalism?

America is a country undergoing incredible systemic and racial change.  White people are slowly becoming the minority and people of color are on the ascendency.  To White Fundamentalist evangelicals the fact that America will be predominantly populated by non-Whites in 2045 is a terrifying prospect.[2]  Power must be maintained at any cost.  No matter what.  And if that means grabbing on to the coattails of a man who is morally inferior, then that is what American evangelicalism will do.  It’s what it has done.

American evangelicalism’s days are numbered.  Unless and until evangelicals abandon and renounce their racist and misogynistic roots, they will continue to be both a dwindling religious force and a dwindling political force.  As people of color rise to power, those clinging to the, as they suppose, halcyon days of white men in business suits running the country and the church while women stayed home barefoot and pregnant and the coloreds knew their place and stayed in it will slowly die out, along with their religion.

Lord, hasten the day.

From the Editors. The views reflected here are those of the author and its appearance is not a statement of support.

[1] I have in mind here particularly his order to withdraw American troops from Syria and Afghanistan.  This, according to military specialists, leaves Israel perilously exposed by an expanding Iran.

Article Comments

Submitted by Jesse Hornok on Fri, 01/04/2019 - 23:51

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Do you not think it's possible for Evangelicals to support Trump because of his policies and not just because he is a white male?

Submitted by Jim West on Sun, 03/24/2019 - 12:44

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Actually it does. They found in Trump the spokesman for their views. They didn’t find that in the others.

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