Reflections on American Evangelical Christianity after Trump, PT. 1
The results of the 2016 United States Presidential election shocked everyone. Pundits and pollsters all but declared that Hillary Clinton was statistically assured to win the election. As polling precincts around the country began to report, however, it became increasingly obvious that pollsters were wrong. In the days that followed the election, a number of think tanks and research collectives reported their findings from exit poll data. Among those reports was a surprising analysis conducted by the Pew Research Center, finding that 81% of voters who identified themselves as Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump (NB. the second largest group was White Catholics, 60 % of whom voted for Trump).
For many Christians of my generation (somewhere between Gen-X and Millenial), Evangelical Christianity’s overwhelming support for Trump’s candidacy was unexpected. We came of age at a time when Evangelical leaders insisted on the moral character of our elected officials, often making their case against the backdrop of Bill Clinton’s infidelity and alleged perjury. If he would lie about his personal life, could his character be trusted with regards to other matters of importance?
For Evangelicals in 2016, the question of character took a backseat to a number of Machiavellian political calculations. Trump, a clearly compromised candidate, could still effect policy in a manner that served the Conservative agenda: he could make court appointments, sign legislation, protect religious liberty, undo a number of apparently hostile Obama-era executive orders, etc. No doubt a number of Evangelicals made one or more of these determinations on the way to the ballot box; nevertheless, I cannot help but wonder if there was not more to the decision. Could it be that Trump’s “Make America Great Again” mantra appealed to American Evangelicals on a much deeper level?
In this blog post – the first of a number of posts devoted to this theme – I want to reflect on the many different aspects of American Evangelical Christianity that culminated in the Trump Presidency and the continued support of Evangelical voters.
Donald Trump and the inherent Populism of American Christianity
One resources that has been invaluable for my own reflections on the events of the 2016 election has been American religious historian Nathan Hatch's The Democratization of American Christainity (Yale, 1989). I first read this book in the Fall of 2004 as a student in Grant Wacker's History of American Christianity class at Duke Divinity School. I remember being captivated by the work, and finding the argument compelling. The book was subsequently buried on my bookshelf as I began a 13 year research project that culminated in my recently completed dissertation.
At the time of publication, it was immediately recognized as a landmark study (a brief history of the work's reception and influence on the study of American history is available here). And although it is a standard in classes on American Religious History, I cannot help but wonder if many – like myself – have forgotten or neglected its basic thesis when considering the relationship between American Evangelicals (and American Christianity more broadly) and Trump.
Hatch's thesis is that in the early days of the American Republic – after the Revolutionary War – American Christianity underwent a significant process of democratization that resulted in an unprecedented wave of populism. Part and parcel of that populism was a simultaneous distrust of institutions and traditional authority structures, and a newfound trust in the ability of common folk. In the first instance, then, what we learn from Hatch is that Evangelical Christianity's support for Trump is not all that shocking when viewed against the backdrop of the historic populist tendencies of American Christianity as a whole. That important point leads to a number of observations that are worth considering.
(1) Whence comes the leaders on the Religious Right?
One of the main questions that I hear from my progressive and liberal friends is, "How could Christians vote for this guy?" The basic (and I think mostly correct) assumption behind the question is that if anyone takes scripture seriously and examines it, they will be hard pressed to find in Donald Trump someone who demonstrates the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love.
Indeed, in the months leading up to the election, a large number of mainline Protestant denominations intentionally released statements demonstrating the incongruity between a number of Trump's platforms and the basic tenets of Christianity. My own denomination, the PC(USA), particularly felt it necessary to confront Trump on immigration due to the fact that Trump proudly proclaimed his childhood baptism and membership in a Presbyterian church in Queens, NY.
But it wasn't just the mainline. In the Southern Baptist Convention, Russell Moore – the president of the SBC's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission – and Albert Mohler – the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary – came out relatively early against Trump, explaining that his character was antithetical to Christian discipleship (See video here). Similarly, Pope Francis regularly reminded Catholics that Christianity was inconsistent with a politics of fear, speaking against Trump without ever naming him. Indeed, on the eve of the election, Pope Francis reiterated this point, connecting fear to tyranny and reminding Christians of their responsibility to care for refugees instead of building walls.
Nevertheless, Evangelical and White Catholic voters broke with the moral teachings of their institutional leaders, choosing instead to heed the voices of a number of regional and upstart evangelical leaders like the Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas or the talking heads of Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr – men who enjoy popular support by virtue of nepotism alone. All of this poses our first question, why did American Christians break with the advice and council of their duly appointed moral leaders?
The answer, according to Hatch, has to do in part with the fact that American Christianity has always been anti-clerical, anti-intellectual, and anti-establishment. Consider, first, this quote from the opening pages:
"The canon of American religious history grows out of traditions that are intellectually respectable and institutionally cohesive. Yet American Protestantism has been skewed away from central ecclesiastical institutions and high culture; it has been pushed and pulled into its present shape by a democratic or populist orientation. At the very time that British clergy were confounding their own gentility in trying to influence working-class culture, America exalted religious leaders short on social graces, family connections, and literary education. These religious activists pitched their messages to the unschooled and unsophisticated. Their movements offered the humble a marvelous sense of individual potential and of collective aspiration" (p. 5).
Those who wield religious authority in American Christianity are not necessarily the theologically educated clergy class or the institutional hierarchies of traditional denominational structures; instead, American Christianity is largely "audience driven". Those who rise to the top in terms of religious leadership are those who are able to garner the most support through rhetorical and democratic persuasion of the populace. This has a two-fold effect. On the one hand, education, class, and the like are no longer barriers to ecclesial leadership (a point which helps explain why Pentecostalism, for example, began as a largely multi-racial, gender-inclusive, and lay-led movement before it bureaucratized into a more traditional denominational structure). On the other hand, however, the message has to play with the masses, almost insuring that those who rise to the top will be those who reinforce the basic assumptions of the people at large, not those who challenge the assumptions of the people.
In short, authority is wielded by leaders who are chosen by the people based on the fact that their message most closely resembles the opinions and beliefs of the people. Those who are effective and charismatic communicators who quickly adopt new technologies of communication and adapt their message to their audience are the ones who rise to the top. Indeed, to say that American Christianity is anti-intellectual, anti-establishment, and anti-clerical is perhaps misleading; it is probably better to say that American Christianity is alt-intellectual, -establishment, and -clerical. That is to say that those who prove their intellectual chops and leadership abilities in a manner that is persuasive to the public are those who are given authority while those who are deemed "experts" by establishment institutions are dismissed. The upstart religious movements of the 18th century (Methodist and Baptist) and 19th century (Disciples of Christ, Mormons, primitivists, etc.) tended to combine the Protestant notion of "the priesthood of all believers" with Jeffersonian democratic (as opposed to federalist) impulses in order to interrupt the traditional leadership structures of the largely Calvinist (Presbyterian, Congregational, and Episcopal) establishment. Eventually, however, these movements all created their own educational and ecclesial structures, pushing towards establishment credibility, and allowing a new generation of upstarts to take their place. Simultaneously, establishment churches like the Presbyterians ended up adopting populist tactics to adapt themselves to the contemporary landscape (think: Charles Finney).
We can say the same thing about religious leadership today. Those who tend to rise to the top in Evangelicalism are those whose message closely represents the thoughts and concerns of the people. So, White Catholics in America find themselves at odds with the Pope because the Pope represents a foreign and institutional authority. When he attempts to wield moral authority to point to the inherently anti-gospel nature of their fears, they repeat the basic habits of American Protestantism by choosing alternative religious authorities who appeal to the crowd by confirming their fears. Or again, when Southern Baptists find themselves receiving mixed messages – with institutional and bureaucratic heads telling them that voting for Trump is inconsistent with their basic Christian convictions and popular regional pastors telling them that voting for Trump is a moral imperative – they tend to side with the voices that are closest to the people in the pews. All of this is the inevitable result of the "democratization" of American Christianity.
(2) Why the Strong man?
A related question people ask is why Evangelicals voted for a man who behaves in an entirely unchristian manner. Here, Hatch again is helpful.
First, I think Hatch further helps us to make sense of why Evangelicals were attracted to Trump's leadership style and campaign rhetoric. Ironically, Hatch notes, often the leaders that rise to the top through populist support end up functioning as demagogues. They wield power by the will of the people, but the people become incapable of checking their authoritarian mantle. At the end of the day, Trump's was a message that resonated with the fears and opinions of the audience. Whenever experts came out against him – insisting that his views on foreign policy and diplomacy, or economics, or the rule of law, were wrong – he effectively outmaneuvered them by inviting the audience to decide for themselves whether they were going to trust the opinions of establishment "experts" or whether they were going to trust the voice that sounded most like some of the questions and ideas that were bouncing around in their own heads and in the local barbershops and diners.
Second, Hatch gives us some historical perspective for why Evangelicals were drawn to the so-called "Cyrus" theory. According to this theory, Trump is like the Persian King Cyrus, who conquered Babylon and freed the Israelites. He was not a godly man but God used him in a manner that served his purposes and prospered God's people.
The Cyrus theory is not new. On the occasion of Thomas Jefferson's second inauguration, populist New England preacher Elias Smith declared that God had anointed Jefferson to be a Cyrus figure, ushering in the millennial kingdom itself. American Christianity has always been intensely millennialist, often fusing the biblical genres of prophesy and apocalypse with views about divine providence and American exceptionalism. This has always led American Christians to read their own social realities against the backdrop of Christ's second coming, often assuming that their own political actions were directly connected to God's plan for the new heavens and the new earth.
American Christianity's affinity for a corrupt strongman is wholly consistent with its two-century old tendency to presuppose itself to be the "City on a Hill" and the "New Israel." This is true of Evangelicalism and Mormonism and has trickled down into other forms of secular American Exceptionalism.
(3) Why Now?
A third question and obvious question is why did these populist tendencies in American Christianity emerge with such force in this particular election?
In one sense, this election was not different for a lot of evangelical Christians. The populist tendencies of Evangelicalism are well-established and always have an impact on presidential elections. It explains why a Yale-educated millionaire like George W. Bush – who in many ways represents the establishment – can appeal to the everyman with a folksy affect and a "commonsense" approach. As long as he is in tune with the perspectives and opinions of the average American in the pew on Sunday morning, a politician like Bush can receive a lot of leeway.
In another sense, however, this election was unprecedented. A lot of people who nominally identify as Evangelical but were not previously politically active came out in larger numbers. To boot, some of those demographically also belonged to other grass roots movements that are at cross purposes with Christianity – the so-called alt-right and the Ayn Rand school of selfishness, to name just a couple examples. So how did that happen?
Again, I find Hatch helpful. For Hatch, the rise of Evangelical Christianity in 20th century America is the resurgence of the populist impulse of democratized Christianity. Hatch explains that at the dawn of the 20th century, the day-to-day governance of the nation became increasingly bureaucratized, with professionals wielding a great deal of authority based on education, expertise, etc. The Progressive wing of American Christianity embraced modernization, often adapting Christianity to expert opinions regarding science, technology, and theories of government. The rise of fundamentalism at this point, more than anything, represents a refusal to allow experts to dictate belief and to establish ecclesiastical authority from the top down. In this regard, the famous evangelists of the 20th century – Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson, for example – represent "a remarkable set of popular leaders, persons who derive their authority not from their education or stature within major denominations, but from the democratic art of persuasion" (Hatch 211).
One answer to the "Why now?" question, then, is that this is the inevitable conclusion of nearly a century of growing populism among right-leaning lower and middle class voters. Another related and undeniable explanation is Barack Obama. Obama represents, in a lot of ways, the height of Progressivism's penchant for experts. Obama, a constitutional law professor, unapologetically carried himself as the consummate professional. He appealed to logic and reason and he effectively mustered the bureaucratic apparatus of the state to govern and to accomplish his agenda. This, more than anything else, isolated him from a number of Americans to the point that no matter how many scholars, experts, researchers, and pollsters told us that the economy was good, people easily believed that Obama was bad for the economy, to offer just one example.
Trump is the anti-professional; but not in the George W. Bush way, who surrounded himself by experts while he represented sort of the approachable face of the Government. Trump is the anti-professional who surrounds himself with Yes-men, who ignores the experts in the room, and who forms his opinions by listening to the popular opinions of Americans as they echo their way up to him through an increasingly unprofessional and populist media. Here again, we see Hatch's thesis at work: the expert journalists of the venerable media outlets, who continue to hold standards of professionalism are ignored while media outlets that have learned the populist lesson and tailor the message to the audience grow to a demagogue-like authority.
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These are just a few observations. They represent merely the beginning of my attempt to think through these matters on my way towards a much larger project of articulating the current state of the American church. Next, I hope to think through the Bernie Sanders phenomenon as it relates to populism on the left. That blog is probably a few weeks away.