Nonreligious folks still scratch their heads when trying to suss out why white Christian evangelicals slavishly support President Donald Trump, who appears to embody practically everything the faithful have long insisted they abhor, including amorality, debauchery, impiety and cruelty.
Yet these previously holier-than-thou Puritan descendants can’t seem to get enough of this very scripturally flawed guy.
A new Washington Post op-ed titled “Why do white evangelicals still staunchly support Donald Trump?” offers some plausible hypotheses. The writer of the piece, John Fea, is a history instructor at Messiah College in Mechanicsville, Pennsylvania, and the author of author of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.
President’s popularity ‘sky-high’
Citing a new Pew Research Center survey, the piece notes that the president’s current approval rating among evangelicals is 69 percent, which is less than his previous 78 percent apex but still “sky-high overall.”
The drop is a mystery, but whatever caused it, it’s not enough apparently to greatly diminish evangelical fervor for Trump, despite his history of cheating on his wives; paying hush money for said cheating to a porn star and a Playboy Playmate of the Year, to hide it from his current wife; callously separating alien children from their asylum-seeking parents at our southern border; gratuitously insulting just about anybody anytime; lying to psychotic excess; showing zero personal interest in God; gluttony; blasphemy; pride, etc.
His evangelical serfs say “no problem,” because “The Donald” delivers them hard-right, conservative jurists to the U.S. Supreme Court (Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, so far) and federal courts. According to the Fea’s article:
“Today, the Christian right remains focused on the Supreme Court, which many evangelicals see as the chief impediment to their agenda on issues ranging from school prayer to LGBTQ rights to abortion. Their political playbook requires evangelicals to elect an attentive president who, in turn, will appoint socially conservative federal judges. Once these judges are in place, evangelicals believe they will be better positioned to win the battles over these key issues; saving the nation would avoid divine punishment for its sins.”
Like a ‘call to share the Gospel with unbelievers’
If it means evangelicals must hold their noses to tolerate the president’s, shall we say, sometimes impious behavior, so be it, apparently.
“Many white evangelical churchgoers now see the fight to overturn Roe v. Wade as equivalent to their call to share the Gospel with unbelievers. They subscribe to the message that the only way to live out evangelical faith in public is to vote for the candidates who will most effectively execute the 40-year-old Christian right playbook.”
So if that seems to be being accomplished, it’s all good.
The anxious ’60sFea’s theory is that Trump’s popularity stems from how he seems to speak to the fears of evangelicals who came of age politically and spiritually in the 1980s when seismic shifts in the prior two decades in U.S. law and culture — more secular, less traditional — began to really worry traditionalist American Christians. Their anxiety spawned the Christian Right.
Some of the most worrisome changes, Fea notes, were in the early ’60s when the Supreme Court ruled that required prayer and mandatory Bible reading in public schools was unconstitutional, and in 1965 when the Hart-Cellar Act increased ethnic diversity by opening immigration to large numbers of non-Western aliens, who brought their non-Christian beliefs.
Then, in 1971, the Supreme Court in Green v. Connolly removed tax exemptions for institutions that established racist admissions policies, which penalized a lot of Southern Christian schools and academies. These schools viewed the change as “big government” assaulting their religious liberty. The believed the Bible authorized discrimination.
Finally, in 1973, the high court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion throughout the land, cementing the Christian Right’s existential apprehension.
The rise of televangelists
Enter Baptist minister Jerry Falwell of Lynchburg, Virginia, who formed the Christian Right’s flagship organization: the Moral Majority in preparation, Shea says, for a “holy war” — to “train, mobilize, and electrify the Religious Right” — to recapture the “moral soul of America.” Falwell’s group played a big role in electing Ronald Reagan in 1980, and “shaped a vision for white conservative evangelical political activity that remains strong today,” Fea wrote.
Fellow televangelist Pat Robertson and a 1988 presidential candidate, preached that electing Republicans was the only path to blunt the growing secularization and diversity in American life.
More GOP, less church
The Religious Right failed to recapture the nation’s “moral soul,” but the political organization it established has had legs. Wrote Shea:
“The result has been that, even as the GOP has achieved remarkably little for the Christian right over the past four decades, the ironclad relationship between white evangelical churchgoers and Republicans has, if anything, grown stronger.”
And Donald Trump is now the standard bearer for the Christian soldiers moving onward.
Evangelicals today, Fea notes, “filter what they hear during weekly sermons through Fox News and conservative talk radio, producing an approach to political engagement that looks more like the Republican Party than the Kingdom of God.”
While hardly novel in the Trumpian era, Shea laments,
“This strange but long-standing mix of biblical Christianity and conservative talking points empowers an incompetent and immoral president.”
The sad news is that the alarming status quo shows no sign of changing.