Amid the scattered pieces of the the Don Jr. / Russia email bombshell, a group of evangelicals gathered around Donald Trump and prayed for the embattled president.
A participant who tweeted a photo of the event, replete with the evangelical laying-on-of-hands, observed that Trump was confident and “in command”:
“He was as strong and focused as I have ever seen him. It was as if he was entirely above the fray.”
Yes, of course. Entirely.
It appears that the stalwart evangelical defenders of Trump are entirely bought-in; nothing will dissuade their affection for and commitment to the president.
It would never occur to them, I suppose, that there might reach a point when you should stop praying for someone, and start praying against them.
The unflagging commitment of many white, U.S. evangelicals for Trump, that infamous 81% that helped put him in office in the first place, made me pause and reflect on the number of reasons that so many white American evangelicals are drawn to Trump.
A quick caveat: These are broad brush strokes, but taken together they help fill out the big picture:
Consider these reasons:
1. Trump attracts authoritarians, and evangelicals are authoritarian by training
Evangelicals are trained to submit to authorities, from religious authorities on down through secular authorities: God is the ultimate authority of course, and the Bible is God’s inscribed (and inerrant, perfectly true) authority. You don’t ask too many hard questions of religious authority. Your responsibility is to submit to that authority, even when you don’t understand it. (It will all make sense someday, so don’t fret too much). Studies have shown how Trump’s authoritarian impulse and charisma captured the support and affection of his authoritarian-minded base–those who have been trained through religion to “submit” to God, the Bible, and to the leaders God puts in charge over them.
2. Evangelicals aren’t really interested in morality, they’re interested in power
This was a stunning discovery of the recent election: evangelicals (by and large) admitted to no longer caring about the personal morality of a presidential candidate. It ran against everything we thought we knew about conservative evangelicals–the so-called “family values” party. It seems that what drives many evangelicals is not a high-minded moral compass, but rather pragmatism and power–if you have the right person in office, a “friend” who promises to support your causes, your freedom, and to help you maintain social influence–that’s enough. A caveat: There are some moral issues, such as abortion, that do matter to many evangelicals–and they are willing to overlook all manner of sins so long as their prized issues are held sacred.
3. Evangelicals aren’t really interested in truth, they’re interested in power
Despite all the rhetoric of the evangelical theologians that I’ve read over the years, about the importance of truth, the necessity of believing in “absolute truth” (or rather, “Absolute Truth”), and the dangers of “postmodern relativism,” it turns out that evangelicals are just or more relativistic as anybody else. This became clear to me during my time as an evangelical theologian. The evangelical enterprise of “apologetics,” for example, often appears to be less about seeking the truth and more about preserving a perspective and winning a case. So, in a post-truth era, many evangelicals have no problem siding with “alternative facts.”
4. Evangelicals are intensely individualistic
Much modern, western culture fosters an individualist identity rather than a communal identity. The biblical authors (and original hearers and readers) were more communal in orientation than many of us are prone to be. White evangelicals, by and large (myself included) instinctively read the Bible through individualistic rather than communal eyes. We carry our readings of Scripture into our life practices and into our politics. It’s very often me and my family first and foremost, everyone else a far distant second. This impacts our ability to offer compassion, both to the neighbor and to the stranger.
5. Evangelicalism is “prosperity gospel-lite”
Consider this piece which explains the influence of the prosperity gospel movement on American evangelicalism. Many white, suburban evangelicals, might decry explicit prosperity gospel teachings as heretical. Nonetheless, they might presume that their own material wealth is a sign of God’s blessing (“Favored by the Almighty!)
6. Evangelicals haven’t come to terms with their own racism.
Prejudice and racism is deeply embedded in all of us, and the influence of structural and systemic racism makes it difficult for anyone to come to terms with their racism, and to repent of it. The recent flap at the Southern Baptist Convention over a proposed resolution to denounce the alt-right and the racism of white nationalism brought this difficulty to the fore. Ultimately, SBC members voted overwhelmingly in favor of the resolution, but the wonky process and the feelings it stirred up illustrated the challenges of dealing with systemic racism. It’s no secret that, intentionally or not, Trump’s rhetoric, particularly on the campaign trail, and some of the policies that have been pushed under his administration (e.g. the Muslim travel ban and Jeff Sessions’ return to pre-Obama reform policies regarding prison sentences and private prisons) have exhibited racial bias and perpetuated systemic racism. When white evangelicals dare to speak up, they can find themselves in hot water.
7. The Jesus of evangelicalism is not exactly the Jesus of the Gospels
When I read the Gospels, especially the synoptic Gospels, I get the sneaking suspicion that the Jesus I learned about from much of conservative evangelicalism is rather different from the Jesus found on those pages. I don’t see a Jesus who lauds the benefits of capitalism, or who preaches that the most important thing in the world is to “accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior,” or for whom abortion is a singularly important topic (he never mentions it, that I’m aware of), or whose concern is preserving individual “freedoms,” or who denounces homosexuality, or who trumpets nationalist identity. I see a Jesus, rather, who cares first and foremost about the poor and the oppressed, for whom discipleship invites a life of suffering, self-denial, and a communal orientation. This is a Jesus who doesn’t see wealth as a sign of prosperity, but an opportunity to serve others by giving of the excess–thereby exemplifying devotion to God and love for others. I can’t say this for sure, but I’m guessing the Jesus of the Gospels would favor health care for the poor and the sick over tax cuts for the rich.
8. Evangelicals are anxious about their mortality–like everyone else.
Studies have repeatedly demonstrated how our (human) awareness of mortality (the inevitability of death) impacts many aspects of our lives and behavior. Our frailty and existential fear impels us to reach our for supports–supports which will help us cope with the fragility of life and the onslaught (eventually) of death. This is true in obvious ways in our political lives. We are drawn to “strong” and charismatic leaders because we believe that they can protect us from physical harm (i.e. the threat of terrorism), but also because we sense that trusting those leaders can relieve us from existential anxiety as well. (If you want to see how this works, watch the current season of House of Cards). Ironically, though, evangelicals should have at their disposal theological resources to help assuage their death anxiety. For one thing, they could listen more closely to Jesus, who urges that we not worry, that we not be anxious (Matt. 6:25-34). Or, if they’ve given up on Jesus, Paul says some stuff about it too (Phil 4:6-7).
What did I miss?