How Can It Be That Most White Christians - and 80% of White Evangelicals - Voted for Trump?
Galen Carey, Vice President of the National Association of Evangelicals, explains the Evangelical movement, its ministries among people in poverty, and its politics in this week’s webcast. The webcast is an hour long, but worth your time.
The Evangelical movement has great strengths - fervent faith, sacrificial service, effective outreach, global vision, and active citizenship. Galen tells us about his parents - global missionaries from rural Kansas - and they exemplified all these strengths.
But more than half of White Christians - and about 80 percent of White Evangelicals - voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and again in 2020. President Trump’s policies and, even more obviously, his character are antithetical to Christian teaching. I attribute this spiritual failure to three sources: effective political organizing, electronic media, and long-standing weaknesses of the Evangelical movement and of U.S. Christianity generally.
In the 1970s a network of religious and political leaders set out to organize conservative Christians, and the Religious Right emerged as a powerful, well-publicized force within the Republican Party. Among the most prominent leaders (Jerry Falwell, Paul Weyrich, Ralph Reed, James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and Richard Land), only Land had the support of a national church body (the Southern Baptist Convention). The others were independent operators. Falwell, Robertson, and Dobson were television and radio personalities. They focused on hot-button issues - protecting the Christian schools that sprouted up to avoid racial integration and, later, abortion and same-sex marriage - but they also embraced conservative causes with less obvious connections to religion (such as free-market capitalism and U.S. military might). The Religious Right organized within the Republican Party, with a focus on elections rather than legislative advocacy.
The Republican Party was influenced by and drew strength from the Religious Right. The two parties took opposites sides on the abortion issue in 1980. In the George W. Bush campaign of 2004, the Republican Party presented itself as the pro-religion party - and helped to convince many Americans that abortion and same-sex marriage were the main political issues of religious importance. In 2010, the Religious Right melded into the Tea Party movement. President Trump managed to convince many White Americans that he was their best defender of America the way it used to be. Many White Christians were also convinced that he was their best defender on issues such as abortion, even though his own faith commitment and morality are subject to question.
Fox News and social media now have more influence on the politics of many conservative Christians than Christian teaching. While many pastors are hesitant to talk about political issues in church, conservative Christians are prime targets for right-wing disinformation campaigns.
The popularity of Trumpism among White Christianity is also connected to three long-standing weaknesses of Christianity in general and the Evangelical movement in particular.
First, the Christian churches have, for the most part, tolerated or embraced racism for centuries - in the conquest of the Americas, colonialism, the enslavement of Africans. In this country, churches in the South found ways to live with the oppression of African Americans through biblical justifications of slavery and the idea that churches should “stay out of politics.” These churches became an important part of what is now known as the Evangelical movement, forming an uneasy alliance with other evangelical churches with roots in the abolitionist movement. Trump’s racist rhetoric and harsh treatment of undocumented immigrants are not out of step with how many White Evangelicals and other White Christians feel.
Second, religious faith is often in tension with evidence. I think the best theology is consistent with what we know about the cosmos and human experience. But the Fundamentalist movement of the late 19th century squared off against what scientists were learning about evolution and the modern world generally. They held up a handful of doctrinal statements - the six-day creation, for example - as a litmus test for true Christian faith. Nearly all the major U.S. church bodies opted for forms of Christianity that take evidence seriously and are responsive to social problems, but Fundamentalism became an important stream within the Evangelical movement.
Forms of religion that downplay evidence-based analysis might leave people vulnerable to groupthink and disinformation campaigns - about the integrity of the 2020 elections, for example, or Q-Anon. They might also make people inclined to insist on traditional rules of morality and thus be closed to learning from what we now know about sexual diversity.
Finally, U.S. Christianity generally and elements of the Evangelical movement in particular have loose connections to broad church structures. In this country, anybody has the right to found a new church, and many people have done just that. Fundamentalism has stayed alive in independent local congregations, networks of like-minded congregations, and the work of travelling preachers (later, television and Internet preachers). Many of the biggest, fastest growing churches nowadays are Evangelical churches with no denominational ties or responsibilities. Galen Carey shared a great chart that shows the host of different, often relatively small organizations that comprise the modern Evangelical movement.
Church authorities and national/international church structures have weaknesses of their own, but institutions (especially institutions that span generations and geographies) carry wisdom. I’m struck that the Christian Right has been able to thrive partly because many Americans are more attentive to religious entrepreneurs than to bishops, ordained clergy, and elected church leaders.