“Trump didn’t just fall from the sky to become the nominee, he got (by far) the most votes in a contest in which evangelical voters provided a significant portion of voters and an even larger share of activism. Many are loath to admit Trump’s appeal to evangelicals or attribute their support to a ‘lesser-of-two-evils’ mentality, because, frankly, Trump is an ugly character that make him a less-than-ideal messenger for the cause. But whether they want to admit it or not, evangelicals have an enormous amount in common with Donald Trump and it is no accident he wound up as the standard-bearer in the evangelical-dominated party…”
…So writes Paul Fiorilla, a journalist for 25 years and who now works as a research analyst in finance.
Paul sent me this essay a few days ago. It seems to me to be the best explanation I’ve read so far of the oddly disturbing fact that a huge portion (according to poll numbers over 70 percent) of white American evangelicals say they are voting for Trump.
How can this be? In this article (published here as guest blog with the author’s permission) I found a very complete answer to what might be expressed as this question: How do you follow Jesus and Trump at the same time?
Trump and Evangelicals
By Paul Fiorilla
The 2016 election has produced an almost unlimited series of surprises, unusual events and alliances. Among the seeming abnormalities is the popularity among evangelical Christians of Donald Trump, a proudly philandering, New York City-based casino owner who over the course of his well-publicized life has been, at best, indifferent to religion.
Trump easily defeated a field of 17 Republican candidates, some of whom have developed identities around their Christian bona-fides (Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, et al). Now that he is the GOP nominee, Trump has the support of an overwhelming percentage of self-described white evangelicals, as much as 94% in one recent Pew poll.
On the surface it appears that Trump’s appeal to evangelicals is unusual, given his background. I know evangelicals who express shock and dismay at Trump’s bluster and policies (or lack thereof). However, rather than supporting Trump in spite of who he is, I would argue that the rise of Trump is precisely because of what he represents to evangelicals. In other words, Trump is the logical extension of the growing evangelical control over the Republican party at the expense of the so-called establishment wing.
Start with the big picture. Trump’s central theme – Make America Great Again – is based on the idea that the U.S. was a much better place in times past, when the country was overwhelmingly white and more homogenous in terms of religion and culture. Can anyone seriously deny that this is not the central tenet of evangelical cultural critique over the last generation?
I have attended conservative Bible-believing churches since the early 1970s, and the message has been overwhelmingly similar: The country was great until the 1960s, when the hippies, egghead college professors and moral relativists became ascendant and ushered in an era of free love and atheism. Evangelical pulpits and media have featured a steady stream of attacks on communists, secular humanists, welfare queens, abortionists, gays, liberals, intellectuals, Muslims, the transgendered and so on. The “enemy” in these constructions constantly change, but what does not change is the fact that evangelicals are always in need of a target on which to focus their ire. Nobody creates enemies better than Trump, plus his enemies are many of the same ones targeted in churches.
Cultural critiques and common enemies are far from all that connects Trump to evangelicals. There are varying levels of form and substance that are similar between Trump and evangelicals:
- Antipathy toward others. Trump’s rallies are not welcoming places, which is odd considering that to win an election you need a majority of voters and Trump seems bent on insulting potential allies. Trump has disdain not only for Muslims, Mexicans, illegal aliens and the “politically correct,” but even previously untouchable military heroes such as John McCain have not diminished much or any of his support from his base.
That antipathy is very similar to the dualistic evangelical belief system that has a divide between the Christian and “secular” worlds. Christians are those who believe a very specific set of theological points (the specific elements vary among denominations), while the “secular” world consists of everyone with a different theology, different values, different lifestyles, the list is quite long. Those others are routinely denigrated in the Christian world. What’s more, since God is going to subject those secular people in eternal torture, this disdain for others is, in effect, taking a cue from God himself.
- Paranoid style. Trump says the system is rigged, and the only way he can lose is if he is cheated. He makes a steady stream of incorrect factual claims that come from conspiracy-mongers such as Alex Jones and Glenn Beck. Again, evangelical Christians have long been prone to believe wild conspiracies that have no basis in reality. Years ago, it was the Satanic worship scare and the influence of rock & roll or Proctor and Gamble’s moon logo, among today’s list are the global warming conspiracy, the fear that the right to worship is being eroded or even the popularity of the Rapture theology. The “Left Behind” series, which has sold tens of millions of books and spawned movies, features a Satanic figure who controls the world via a liberal world order.
Last Christmas Eve, I attended a service at which the pastor warned that it might soon be illegal to celebrate Christmas. More recently, he warned that he and his pastor friends were all convinced that “secular progressives” were trying to take away the tax exempt status of churches. Now I’m fairly liberal politically and I read a lot of news, but I have yet to hear of any suicidal political movement by Democrats outlaw Christmas celebrations or to tax churches. It could be that these pastors want to explicitly endorse Republicans (implicit endorsements happen every election season) and worry that might cause a problem. But if so, it is telling that they want to align their churches with a political faction. Not only is it sadly common to hear messages so paranoid in evangelical churches, but it is a sad commentary on the nature of the gospel being preached.
- Reliance on feelings rather than facts. I write about the economy and commercial real estate for a living. My analysis of the economy is based to a large degree on tangible metrics: jobs, economic growth, consumer spending, interest rates and so on. Right now, by historical measures, the positives about the economy far outweigh the negatives. Job growth has been positive for a record 78 consecutive months of growth, with 15 million jobs added, the stock market has gained 170% in seven years and the budget deficit has shrunk sharply and more. But Trump and his followers are convinced that the economy is terrible. Polls show that most Trump supporters believe that unemployment is higher and the stock market lower than when President Obama took office. Many talk as if we are approaching some type of apocalyptic recession, which has no basis in facts, as noted by even many conservative-leaning economists.
Now, there are rational arguments to be made that growth could be faster or some other policy would improve growth. But Trump and his followers base their policy, to the extent there is one, on their feelings rather than hard data. Again, evangelicals have a long history of disregard for intellectual pursuits, as Mark A. Noll wrote in his definitive book, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” nearly two decades ago. The hallmark of an evangelical is the belief that the Bible is inspired and contains no errors. Centuries of scholarship and debate are swept under the rug or even denied to exist.
Take the creation accounts, global flood or virgin birth of Jesus, stories that were clearly not meant to be scientific explanations or history in the way a modern thinker would define it – in many evangelical churches (not all) they must be believed without question. The story of Noah, for example, is a Hebrew borrowing of a flood story developed by an older culture. Scholars have long recognized that Genesis merges two different creation stories that don’t entirely mesh. Archaeologists know that Jericho was long abandoned when the Israelites supposedly blew the walls down and murdered everyone inside. Or take the genocide stories of cultures that reappear a chapter later. To question any of this in evangelical churches is anathema.
- Up-is-down thinking. Despite his insults of various groups, Trump insists they – be they African Americans, Latinos, whomever – love him. To his anti-politically correct followers, the racists are those who point out racism. That’s very much in line with the views of Evangelicals, who have convinced themselves that their crusade against gays is not bigotry because it is a correct interpretation of the Bible, and the real bigots are those who advocate tolerance.
The pastor of a Baptist church in New Jersey I was attending in 2004 gave an impassioned anti-gay marriage sermon, citing all sorts of potential horrors that he had gotten from Focus on the Family’s Jim Dobson. Gays would ruin the health care system, the economy itself, and they would demand the right to marry turtles and enter into all sorts of wicked arrangements. What was most striking to me, however, was at the end he mentioned how someone in an earlier service had become upset and left, and he wanted to assure that person that he loved gay people, even if he didn’t approve of their lifestyle. There is a staggering amount of mental disconnect needed to convince oneself that you love the people you denigrate in such fashion.
Or take the aforementioned Left Behind books, in which the anti-Christ is the leader of a United Nations-type organization that advocates for global peace. The unmistakable message is that “peace” is a trick foisted by liberals. Polls showed that evangelicals were the biggest supporters of torture and the war in Iraq. What’s really tragic about this type of thinking (aside from the question of how followers of a man who taught to “love your enemies” and “the meek shall inherit the earth” could be so supportive of war and torture) is that it frees evangelicals from views based on any type of critical thinking. When your belief system is untethered from logic and empathy for others, there is no limit to where the results can go.
- Disdain for the media. Trump has made distrust of the media a hallmark of his campaign. He has called them “the lowest form of life.” This is, of course, nothing new. Conservatives and evangelicals have longed long given up on mainstream media, believing that it did not present them fairly. As Nobel Prize economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman likes to remark, “facts have a liberal bias.”
When “working the refs” didn’t work well enough, the result was to create their own media empires. One could listen to Fox News and Christian media all the time and never hear a single thing that doesn’t comport with the conservative evangelical world view. The result is a generation of people who never have to hear anything that isn’t blessed by select gatekeepers, which in turn feeds the paranoia, antipathy and disdain noted above.
To be sure, generalizing about any group of voters, or Christians, is just that: generalizing. Obviously there are many evangelicals who don’t act or believe as described, and principled evangelicals who have taken a stance against Trump. And in their defense, many evangelical Trump supporters would argue (fairly) that they are voting for Trump because they want Republicans to pick the next set of Supreme Court justices, which represents a logical policy outcome (banning abortion, rolling back gay marriage, etc.) Still, Trump represents such a stew of odious personal behavior, business corruption, abuse of the contractors and other people he has dealt with in his life, and outlandish foreign policy views (critical of European allies while supportive of a Russian dictator), that it will be very difficult for evangelicals to ever again argue that personal integrity has any place in politics.
What’s more, with his overt backing from the pro-white “alt-right,” rise to political fame as a birther and history of housing discrimination, Trump is all-but openly racist, while many Christians would argue that they are not. And personally that may be true. But let’s face it, the appeal to the “good old days” has always had an element of racism to it. Before the Civil Rights era, America was rife with racism (slavery, the Klan, Jim Crow, exclusionary housing, etc.), while bigotry against gays and other classes of different people was tolerated, if not encouraged. Consequently, appeals to pre-1960s as a better time encompasses at the very least an un-Christian lack of empathy for the victims of our country’s flawed past. A case in point was Clint Eastwood’s admonishment about political correctness that we should “get over it.” Eastwood is probably not a racist, but it’s easy for a wealthy white male to casually dismiss real harm that didn’t befall one of his kind.
My point here isn’t to argue about who would be a better president or the correct way to interpret the Bible. My central point is that, as evangelicals take over the Republican party, the party becomes more like them. Trump didn’t just fall from the sky to become the nominee, he got (by far) the most votes in a contest in which evangelical voters provided a significant portion of voters and an even larger share of activism.
Many are loath to admit Trump’s appeal to evangelicals or attribute their support to a “lesser-of-two-evils” mentality, because, frankly, Trump is an ugly character that make him a less-than-ideal messenger for the cause. But whether they want to admit it or not, evangelicals have an enormous amount in common with Donald Trump and it is no accident he wound up as the standard-bearer in the evangelical-dominated party.
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Frank Schaeffer is a writer. His latest book —WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD: How to give love, create beauty and find peace
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Please read about my journey through then out of the religious right and Republican Party.