Jessica Johnson has an insightful article at Religion Dispatches that dovetails nicely with my explanation for why Donald Trump is getting strong support from many evangelical Christians even while they recognize that he isn’t really one of them. She uses Mark Driscoll as an example of the specific evangelical mindset that makes that happen.
While many “Trumpvangelicals” justify their allegiance by stating that they are electing a president not a pastor, it is in fact to a celebrity pastor such as Driscoll that we should look to understand how, rather than why, evangelicals would choose a man who bullies people then refuses to repent and who equates entrepreneurial success with perpetual expansion at all cost, among other behaviors and beliefs shared by Trump and Driscoll that appear to be incompatible with evangelical Christianity. The emotions stoked by Trump’s campaign, such as fear and intimidation, were also exploited and amplified by Driscoll in his vision to create an empire at Mars Hill.
Yet, as is the case with Trump, Driscoll’s capacity to provoke impassioned responses from his audience can’t be accurately summarized in such ugly terms. For example, Driscoll’s diatribe under the pseudonym William Wallace II against a “pussified nation” in a discussion forum on the Mars Hill website wasn’t simply an attack on those he considered “pussified James Dobson knock-off crying Promise Keeping homoerotic worship loving mama’s boy sensitive emasculated neutered exact male replica evangellyfish.” The forum also provided a platform for attracting publicity and followers. Driscoll’s pugnacious public performances online and in the pulpit weren’t only politically incorrect but generated glee, conviction and hope—the same infectious embodied affects contagiously passed along via the rally cries, raised fists and laughing faces at Trump campaign events.
Best to consider Trump and Driscoll’s seemingly paradoxical ascendance in popularity among U.S. evangelicals not as anomaly but as trend—one that signals the tenuousness of ideology or theology as moral guides. When the successful branding of authenticity is achieved by performing shamelessness, such that overt affective responses do not register as fear or anger, but as laughter, it’s time to take humor’s capacity to collectively move and politically mobilize audiences much more seriously. The laughter elicited among audiences during Trump and Driscoll’s performances garner more political pull and spiritual authority than appeals to either virtue or morality. Trump and Driscoll do not simply capitalize on people’s fears or insecurities; they also excite, agitate, and exploit a desire to believe.
Jerry Falwell Jr.’s support of Trump becomes far more understandable if you accept that moral values issues are no longer the political emphasis of some evangelical leaders—at least among those appealing to younger demographics. It isn’t that evangelicals are any less concerned with debates pertaining to the legality of gay marriage and abortion, but rather that the political clout of groups like Falwell Sr.’s Moral Majority or Jerry Dobson’s Focus on the Family—the equivalent of the center-right flank of the evangelical political establishment—has faded…
The long-term cultural, social and spiritual effects of Driscoll’s legacy are signaled in Trump’s surprising success among evangelical voters. Like Driscoll, Trump’s entrepreneurial drive, bullying tactics, and shameless humor primes conviction in his authenticity as followers participate in agitating fear out of hope.
My explanation a few weeks ago for this is similar. What many evangelical Christians crave is not theological correctness, it’s a strong, authoritarian leader to quell their fears and make them feel more secure. They want a president who reflects the qualities they most like in their conception of God — vengeance, violence, authoritarianism. Machismo, in short. Their support is driven not by theological purity but by toxic masculinity.