Neil Macdonald of the CBC recently bemoaned the continuing support of white evangelicals for American president Donald Trump.
To his credit, Macdonald was careful to say that they “are utterly unlike most Christians you’ll encounter in this country”—a refreshing refusal to engage in the persistent Canadian journalistic mistake of lumping together Canadian and American evangelicals.
Macdonald was also willing to recall his experiences among American evangelicals as “remarkably welcoming.” Still, he is understandably dismayed by evangelical leaders “venerating a president who…reflects none of the qualities Jesus is believed to have embodied.” Indeed, Macdonald writes, “It has become almost banal to recite Trump’s ugly, vulgar, misogynist, racist mendacity, and yet here he is in an official White House photo…in the midst of an ecstatic laying on of hands.”
As a scholar of evangelicalism, let’s see if I can help Macdonald and his readers with this odious conundrum.
In the American Midwest, South, and Texas, lots of people casually identify with evangelicalism because of the widespread impact of revivals throughout the nineteenth century. But these folks rarely attend church and have patently little knowledge of Christian theology. They’re no more “evangelical” than the vast number of Britons who say they’re “C of E” without darkening the door of an Anglican church except for the occasional wedding or funeral.
There yet are lots of churchgoing American evangelicals who do support Trump. Why?
Macdonald himself attempts two explanations: “Trump is the white evangelicals’ version of V.I. Lenin’s useful idiot, a character who is helping achieve their apocalyptic fever dreams, but who will perish along with the rest of us as the faithful perch in the clouds. Or the white evangelical version of Christianity is a darker, uglier thing than the smiles and the welcoming hugs and the blessings would have you believe.”
Both, however, are at least partly true. Evangelicals clearly support Trump because they generally oppose abortion and hope Trump will stack the Supreme Court with justices that will do what decades of prolife activism has failed to do: roll back Roe v. Wade.
As for racism, one can count on that being a factor, too, as it seems to be in every aspect of American life. And a much-too-high tolerance of the mistreatment of women? That ugly side of evangelicalism is still coming to light, notably in almost-monthly revelations in its biggest denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention.
As I have argued elsewhere, though, it’s the “white American” part of “white American evangelical” that matters most. (Trump’s support among black and Latinx evangelicals is much lower.) This is why we don’t see among Canadian evangelicals anything like a significant wave of support for Trump-style politics.
The part of the American evangelical story most germane to understanding support for Trump has to do with the decreasing power evangelicals held over American life as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, a decline that reached a nadir in the aftermath of the famous “Scopes Trial” of 1925. (Many older Canadians will recognize “Inherit the Wind,” the highly biased dramatic account of that trial.)
Since then, many white evangelicals have been all-too-eager to embrace anyone who can help restore them to the driver’s seat. Thus Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and similar organizations supported Ronald Reagan, a divorcé who attended church less than any American president since George Washington, over the likes of the obviously more pious Jimmy Carter.
And it isn’t just political power these evangelicals crave, but cultural power of any kind. Look at how many evangelicals are falling over themselves nowadays to praise one of Donald Trump’s most conspicuous fans, Kanye West—whose grasp of Christianity is about as bad as his president’s. Never mind that: evangelicals can be both powerful and cool—just as evangelicalism enjoys a huge presence in big-time college and professional football.
Evangelicalism has always manifested a strong streak of pragmatism: what will get the job done? If advertising will do it, if radio or TV will do it, if celebrities on the podium will do it, then do it. And if a dishonest, bullying, lecherous blowhard will help more than anyone else to return power to God’s chosen—and remember that lots of evangelicals preferred the likes of Republican contenders Ted Cruz and Ben Carson before Trump became the nominee—then, okay, we’ll support Trump.
Macdonald yet says that the loyalty to Trump can run much deeper than voting for him as the better of two bad choices. “A plurality (47 per cent) of white evangelicals effectively say nothing Trump does or says would change their support for him.”
I’m not so sure about that. If Trump were to change his position on abortion, disparage Jesus or the Bible, or withdraw support for Israel, watch how fast middle American evangelicals drop him. Even the sycophantic Franklin Graham was willing to criticize God’s Own President, albeit gently, when Trump recently abandoned Christians to their enemies in Turkey and Syria.
Moreover, Macdonald’s portrait is monolithic, and white evangelicals aren’t. The National Association of Evangelicals clearly doesn’t endorse Trump. Many megachurch pastors and bestselling spiritual authors, such as Rick Warren and Max Lucado, are horrified by Trump. Jerry Falwell, Jr. keeps linking his Liberty University to Trump—to the increasing consternation of Liberty students—but one looks in vain for endorsements of Trump by evangelicalism’s elite schools: Wheaton College, Calvin College, Trinity International University, and Fuller Theological Seminary.
Still. Still. It remains deeply troubling that so many who identify with a faith tradition that opposed slavery and the exploitation of child labour while supporting the franchise for women and the education and housing of the destitute are now willing to sell out so many of evangelicalism’s basic values.
What so many white American evangelicals need, it would appear, is nothing short of conversion.