Jonathan Merritt, Donald Trump and Populist Evangelicals

Jonathan Merritt, Donald Trump and Populist Evangelicals February 1, 2016

Jonathan Merritt, The Atlantic:

This division was first popularized in Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite, by Michael Lindsay, who was a sociologist at Rice University at the time. After conducting hundreds of in-depth interviews with American evangelicals, Lindsay concluded that the movement could be divided into two classes. He now says that this rift is as relevant as it was when he first explored it.

What he termed “populist evangelicals” are the faithful masses you might see profiled on cable television. They are more likely to reside in rural or suburban areas, probably watch a fair amount of Fox News or listen to conservative talk radio. They probably don’t hold seminary degrees or know anyone who does—besides their pastor, of course. They are working-class Americans who are pragmatic in their politics.

“Evangelical populists look like most populists in that they respond well to mass movements, bumper-sticker theology, and sound bites,” Lindsay says. “They were the evangelicals that rallied behind Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and the Moral Majority in the 1980s. But they certainly don’t represent the evangelical ‘movers and shakers’ today.”

Somewhere around the end of the last century, a new class of believers coalesced within the evangelical movement. These “cosmopolitan evangelicals” are cultural elites. They hold prominent positions in business, media, academia, and politics. Their influence shows up from Harvard to Hollywood, from Washington, D.C., to Wall Street. Many of them sit atop America’s most influential Christian organizations or serve on their boards. They are well educated, well read, and more likely to live in urban centers. Their views are more nuanced, and their rhetoric is less bombastic than evangelical populists. Rather than show up in B-roll snippets on cable news, they may spread their opinions in a column for The Wall Street Journal or an interview with a prominent news outlet.

Lindsay says the evangelical cosmopolitan-populist divide is absolutely behind the dual narratives of support for and anger over Donald Trump’s candidacy, and the data seems to bolster his assertion.


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  • Dan Marvin

    ” They probably don’t hold seminary degrees or know anyone who does—besides their pastor, of course. ”

    No, no, no. Their pastor likely doesn’t have a seminary degree either.