The White Supremacist Roots of Evangelicalism

LittleRockIntegrationProtest

I came across an anguished essay by Amy Gannett, a millennial evangelical writer, that’s titled “How Evangelicals are Losing an Entire Generation“. With a teaser like that, I just had to read on, and I wasn’t disappointed. In the post, she explains how Donald Trump’s nomination is resulting in her “losing faith in Evangelicals”:

This morning, I had no more than opened the app on my phone and there it was: Wayne Gruedem’s endorsement of Donald Trump.

Maybe you’re unfamiliar with Grudem, but most church leaders and many Christians are not. He wrote the basic systemic theology that has not only been touted among evangelicals as the primary source of Christian systematic theology for the modern day, but it is the 1200-page book that I was required to read in Bible school and seminary – not once, not twice, but three times. Grudem is the head of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, a gathering of Christian leaders that believe in a particular model of gender roles that we call conservative Complementarianism, and work to see that vision come to life in homes, churches, and society. A leader among leaders, he is the Evangelical trump card (pun intended).

Wayne Grudem, like the other evangelical heavyweights in Trump’s corner, says that Christians have a “moral imperative” to vote for the alleged billionaire. Like most old-school evangelicals, he sees Christianity as identical with doctrinaire conservatism – he lists cutting taxes and rolling back Obamacare as Christian priorities equal in importance to banning abortion and same-sex marriage – and is willing to bet that Trump would give him at least some of what he wants, whereas he’s sure Hillary Clinton would give him nothing.

Gannett, meanwhile, describes herself as “somewhere in between” politically. She says she’s pro-life and raised by Republican parents, but also supports human rights for black people, women, immigrants and other marginalized groups, and is suspicious of the Christian-nationalist rhetoric that casts America as God’s kingdom in the world. Like other millennials, she witnessed Trump’s meteoric rise with disbelief:

We thought Trump was a bit of a harmless joke at first. With “you’re fired” still ringing in our ears, we thought his presence on the screen would be much shorter lived than his show, The Apprentice. I kept waiting for him to trail off, but he didn’t. In fact, he somehow, mysteriously to me, gained momentum and endorsements. Despite his racial generalizations and telling women they look good on their knees, he only grew in popularity. I moved from disappointed to shocked to disgusted as he garnered the approval of Republican and Evangelical leaders.

She warns that younger Americans overwhelmingly reject Trump’s toxic ideology and all it represents. She pleads with her fellow evangelicals to “reevaluate the stakes they have put in the ground”, because if they insist on following this path, they’ll decimate themselves in the next generation and forfeit whatever’s left of their moral standing.

So far, so good. I don’t disagree with any of that. But I want to call attention to the most revealing line in Gannett’s piece. Here it is:

In fact, he somehow, mysteriously to me, gained momentum and endorsements.

Somehow, mysteriously to me.

Gannett is revolted and appalled by her fellow evangelicals’ embrace of Trump in spite of his undisguised racism, his casual misogyny, his roaring xenophobia, his know-nothing arrogance, and all his other disqualifying flaws. That’s how any principled voter ought to feel, so I give her credit for that. But what I want to focus on is that she thinks Trump’s victory is mysterious. She sees his emergence as inexplicable, out of nowhere – as if he were some rogue orange planet, careening into the solar system and hurling all the other celestial bodies out of their orbits.


Fig. 1: Not Donald Trump

However well-intentioned she may be, this shows that Gannett, like many evangelicals, is in denial about the history of her own faith. Trump’s rise to prominence isn’t mysterious at all. It makes perfect sense as the culmination of the political program that evangelicals have been promoting for decades.

Resistance to racial equality and other forms of civil equality was the reason that the Christian right as we know it today came into being. It’s not some recent aberration, but a founding principle of the movement.

As historian Randall Balmer writes, white evangelicals were largely apolitical until the Supreme Court upheld an IRS decision to deny tax exemptions to segregated private schools. The outrage over that ruling was the spark for religious-right powerhouses like Jerry Falwell to launch a massive political movement. It’s only after overt racism became unacceptable that abortion was chosen – basically, picked out of a hat – as the new cause for religious conservatives to focus their ire on (you may have seen Samantha Bee’s ferociously funny segment about this).

Evangelicalism has always been the tool of choice for propping up racial hierarchies. For instance, Christianity Today was founded by a segregationist and promoted segregation. It’s plausible that the “otherworldly” emphasis on heaven and salvation was invented as a means to justify slavery and other earthly evils.

Donald Trump fits into this pattern perfectly. His embrace of white supremacy is just a more explicit statement of what his white evangelical audience has believed all along. His campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” in their ears, is a deliberate evocation of the days when they were in charge and those uppity women and minorities knew their place. Despite not being religious himself, he’s become their standard-bearer because he speaks to their sense of entitlement and their fear that they’re losing the world they thought they were owed.

What’s ironic is how close Gannett comes to grasping this. Here’s the key paragraph:

Evangelicals are endorsing Trump by and large because he promises to return our nation to the “good old days.”

…There were many “benefits” of that by-gone era for those supporting a traditionalist view. Women were in the home raising the children without complaint, the Christian feminist movement hadn’t yet touched the churches and immensely inconvenienced pastors who had not had to grapple with these issues in a long time, and the notion of being politically correct wasn’t as demanding on conference speakers, writers, and preachers as it is today. When some Evangelicals look back, they see more tranquil days simply because these things were absent.

Again, this tiptoes past the answer, but then averts its gaze at the crucial moment. Evangelicals pine for the past not because the world was “more tranquil” before movements for social reform, but because it was a world of rigid hierarchies and that’s exactly what they wanted. It’s still what they want.

For all these reasons, Donald Trump and Trumpism are unlikely to go away even if they lose the election. The diverse, broad-minded, multicultural evangelicalism that believers like Amy Gannett dream of doesn’t exist. The faith they have such high aspirations for is and always was a vehicle for white supremacy and tribalism. I’m not saying that evangelical Christianity could never outgrow its checkered past and become tolerant – but I am saying that it won’t happen until more evangelicals are willing to face up to their own dark and unsavory history.

Header image: A 1959 protest against school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas. One of the signs reads, “Stop the Race Mixing March of the Anti-Christ”. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Image of Titan: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

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