Why Do Those White Evangelicals Really Love Trump? Hint: It's What They Use to Interpret Everything Including His Sex Life
White Evangelicals are the largest demographic group voting for and sticking with Donald Trump no matter what he does. Trump won 81% of their votes and 72% still aren’t ashamed to say that they support him.
Trump’s “Religious Advisory Council,” made up mostly of leaders of this same demographic, has held firm even while members of other councils abandoned ship.
So the question many keep asking is: with Evangelicals’ constant insistence on sexual purity for others and their so-called “family values” trope, why do these Evangelicals cling to Trump when he blatantly embodies almost everything that a person could say and do that flaunts those values? On top of that, he displays a clear ignorance of, and past hostility to, Evangelical beliefs themselves.
Those Evangelicals respond with denial and ignorance and remain willing to be used for whatever Trump’s con is. Meanwhile, liberals act astonished at what seems to be the hypocrisy of these Evangelicals for what they usually say about character, sexuality, and ethics when they act with such fidelity to Trump and his Party.
More progressive believers read calls for quite different responses to this president and his party in this Bible that Evangelicals flaunt as their authority. It’s as if those Evangelical claims that they’re just following the Bible as it is don’t hold up unless you’re viewing the Bible through a certain, specific lens that Evangelicals use.
And that’s a clue to what’s really going on. Different people down through history came to that old book with different assumptions – Martin Luther King Jr., vs. Pat Robertson, for example - and they therefore find in the Bible (as well as in “tradition”) what supports those assumptions.
No one takes the smorgasbord that is the Bible “literally.” Everyone interprets. They take literally what works for them and employ some interpretive scheme for taking other passages that would disagree (“seemingly”) in other ways.
in the manner of a religion addiction.
It’s not the Bible and any literalism that decides why they support Trump or come out against “sexual impurity” for other people. It’s other deeply ingrained interpretive assumptions that they’ve internalized from the culture in which they’ve grown up.
Threats to these internalized assumptions feel like persecution and provocations to battle. They see these assumptions and themselves (as people who’ve built their self-definitions on these assumptions), then, as victims of a changing culture around them and feel cornered like rats who must fight “Culture Wars.”
These six assumptions aren’t exclusive to these Evangelicals, but their combination is crucial to their worldview, the lens they use to see reality and their scriptures. These assumptions are the key to understanding what they see in life and the Bible when they claim that they’re righteously following God and the Bible:
(1) Nationalism. America is an exceptional nation with a Divine mission.
From the words of the earliest Christians in America, this country’s religious leaders characterized it as “a city on a hill.” It was called the New Israel and the location of the New Covenant community. Many leaders and presidents from then on embraced American exceptionalism.
But it’s a basic, often quite explicit, unquestionable tenet for these Evangelicals. Many so equate American exceptionalism and Biblical teachings that their churches must have an American flag standing near the pulpit. They’ll worry about saving America from threats both internally and externally.
America must always be first and foremost among the nations. Talk of being a “world citizen” is a threat unless it starts with America saving the world.
They might struggle creatively to find America in the Bible itself, but, at the very least, nothing in the Bible can be seen to be anti-America as an essential ideal. That means, of course, that their American Christianity is the version that finally gets it right again and is supposed to be uniquely true.
Historically, all religions adapt to their cultures and adopt dominant cultural symbols and assumptions. European Christianity is not like American – hence American Evangelicals are convinced that Europe needs American Christian missionaries to help them see the true version.
(2) Patriarchy. The Bible must teach “traditional” American gender roles.
As American culture began to accept equality for women through women’s suffrage and various waves of feminism, these Evangelicals became convinced that they must protect patriarchy and male privilege.
Even conservative churches that had women ministers were criticized. Before the latest waves of feminism scared them even further, a leading Evangelical leader in 1941, John R. Rice, for example, wrote of threats to Biblical Christianity in his Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers: Significant Questions for Honest Christian Women Settled by the Word of God.
Again and again, Evangelists and leading right-wing preachers shamed churches for being effeminate. “Muscular Christianity” came to the United States as a movement pushed by popular evangelist Dwight L. Moody as early as the end of the nineteenth century to masculinize the church.
The idea of a “biblical chain of command” with the man of the house just below God and in charge of everyone below him swept up Evangelicals in the 1960s with home-school advocate Bill Gothard touring the country. In 1991 the “Promise Keepers” emerged to pack football stadiums by advising Evangelical men to take back the authority they were losing in their own homes.
In fact, the threat of LGBTQ equality and the Evangelical fight against marriage equality were premised on how this would destroy the traditional patriarchal (“straight”) gender roles. And “traditional family values” rhetoric was built on the man being in charge of his very White Evangelical family.
(3) White supremacy. The white race is blessed and chosen to dominate any other.
Slavery was built into the socio-economic structure of the United States from the beginning, but reactions to Abolition, movements for racial equality, and desegregation were crucial to the mindset of those White Evangelicals supporting Trump, a mindset that was usually stoked by leaders from the South. In 1847, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States and the one that dominates Evangelicalism today, the Southern Baptist Convention, split from the Northern Baptists to protect slavery.
Well after the civil rights movement of the 1960s, in 1997, they apologized. But maintaining White privilege was already built into the Evangelicals who would eventually support Trump.
These White Evangelicals reacted especially negatively to the Supreme Court’s 1954 call for desegregation in Brown v. Board of Education. They responded with the creation of their own separate schools and an emphasis on home schooling.
Then came Loving v. Virginia in 1967 that ended prohibitions on interracial marriage. A new kind of segregation was needed in response, this time in the area of marriage. Even today, “sexual purity” movements are not just a reaction to changes in the culture’s sexual mores but also are means by which parents can work to arrange the “right marriages” for their children.
In 1967 Evangelical political leader Jerry Falwell founded a segregation academy in Virginia that was advertised as a “private school for white students.” Bob Jones University excluded black applicants until 1971 but prohibited interracial dating, which led to a Supreme Court decision and ended only in 2000.
After federal civil rights legislative victories during the Johnson administration, Republicans chose a “Southern Strategy” to appeal to white voters against African Americans by playing on White racial resentment of gains of people of color. Code words, urban legends, and bigoted insinuations were useful to appeal to these White Evangelical voters and have been used by Republican candidates since.
Sunday mornings remain “the most segregated hours in this nation.” Yet the White Evangelicals who support Trump fear the loss of their status as the better race.
They were a major bloc that voted for Trump because of their racism. And for them, the Bible thus must still be seen as supporting their Whiteness even if one of their great fears is being accused of racism.
Religious institutions in the United States were responsible for the beginnings of numerous great American universities and colleges, many of which are now seen as threats to those Evangelicals who support Trump. In 1995, Evangelical historian Mark Noll chronicled the history of Evangelical anti-intellectualism in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, saying, “the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”
Of course, there’s a long history of “anti-intellectualism”in American society along side liberal educational advances. In 1642, Puritan John Cotton warned: “the more learned and witty you be, the more fit to act for Satan you will be.”
There’s also a long history of the “self-made man,” often a manual laborer, farmer, or cowboy who valued “practical” education, as opposed to book-learning from the liberal arts and sciences. That prejudice is reflected today when educators tell graduates that they are now about to enter “the real world.”
Using the teaching of evolution as the major excuse, these White Evangelicals sought protection in separate parochial schools and home schooling. They founded their own safe colleges usually in places far from what they considered the temptations of cities or major universities. One, for example, advertised that it was “fifty miles from any known form of sin.”
As part of the rise of 20th century Fundamentalism and again in recent decades reacting to the rise of feminism and other social equality movements, Evangelical denominations even purged their own seminaries to return them to the teaching of doctrines and practices that basically affirmed the six principles outlined here. Of course, the official claim was that their professors were not teaching the Bible correctly or in an acceptable “orthodox” understanding.
As large industries such as the fossil fuel industry began to see that they could use Evangelicals, they created their own “science,” promoted criticism of mainstream research and tied it to various doctrines and social issues they identified as crucial to those who would support Trump. Popularly, Paul’s claim to the Corinthians could be a proud rallying cry: “We are fools for Christ’s sake.”
In 2012 Justice Antonin Scalia, these White Evangelicals’ hero, appealed to this anti-intellectualism at a religious conference to demean those whom he felt challenged his faith:
“God assumed from the beginning that the wise of the world would view Christians as fools…and He has not been disappointed. Devout Christians are destined to be regarded as fools in modern society. We are fools for Christ’s sake. We must pray for courage to endure the scorn of the sophisticated world. If I have brought any message today, it is this: Have the courage to have your wisdom regarded as stupidity. Be fools for Christ. And have the courage to suffer the contempt of the sophisticated world.”
(5) Capitalism. Confidence that the American economic system is divinely sanctioned.
Viewing the Bible and Christianity through the lens of Capitalism is nothing new as witnessed in such classics as Max Weber’s, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber argued that what he called the Protestant work ethic that developed after the Reformation was a force behind the rise of Capitalism.
Prosperity was interpreted as a sign of religious piety. The poor seemed to have brought their misfortunes on themselves; the fact that people are rich is proof that God has blessed the wealthy.
Scholars now discuss how American business both promoted and benefited from the rise of Evangelicals. By the 1950s, business lobbies and executives were promoting Evangelical narratives and leaders to counter the regulations of the New Deal and anti-capitalist "Godless Communism."
American Capitalism became fully a part of the lens of these Evangelicals. This meant ignoring or interpreting Biblical passages in that light.
Jesus’ call in Matthew 19:21 to give all that you have to the poor and follow him couldn’t mean that literally and was not meant for me. He couldn’t really mean literally what the Gospels tell us he said with “it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Nor could all the Hebrew prophets’ condemnations of loaning money and asking for interest apply to America. Preferably, “usury” should be interpreted instead as not demanding too much interest.
Evangelists such as Jerry Falwell in his 1980 Listen America! and Evangelical preachers would even promote parables such as Jesus’ “Parable of the Talents” to claim that they taught basic Capitalist principles toward life such as the morality of financial investment.
With the influence of American New Thought and even New Age teachings about being prosperous because a person envisions themselves so, recent decades have seen the rise of what’s called the “Prosperity Gospel” and ministers who downplay the negative elements of their theologies to make people feel happy and prosperous. True and faithful Evangelicals should be financially secure, and certainly their leaders, like Joel Osteen, are.
Though there are voices in American society reminding us that the Bible is not a very good book for promoting Capitalism, for the Evangelicals who support Trump, Capitalism as the best economic system is a clear Biblical teaching. That includes all the ways it rewards the true believer and punishes those lazy folk who must not truly be Christians.
(6) Anti-Secularism. No separation between their Church and the State; the State should promote their sectarian Evangelicalism.
There’s a long history, East or West, of state religions – religions supporting the government while the government patronizes the religion. Secular states are recent occurrences notably with the American and French revolutions.
Religious movements have affected politics down through history with ideas ranging from abolition to temperance. The New Deal seemed to many to embody the Christian Social Gospel while the civil rights acts of the LBJ era were pressured by the movement heavily inspired by the Black church.
Following World War II, White Evangelicals tended to eschew political involvement in the belief that God would do his work on governments and nations including bringing their destruction in an imminent Apocalypse. By 1970 Hal Lindsey’s widely popular The Late Great Planet Earth could assure conservative evangelicals that God would soon vindicate them in the end.
But cultural and social challenges coupled with a mainstream marginalizing of these White Evangelicals as uneducated, backward, and insular, increased the sense of victimization that had historically made them feel like “strangers in a strange land.” Biblical quotations such as “Come out from among them and be ye separate” and hymns such as “This World Is Not My Home, I’m Just A-Passing Through” were soon replaced with the use of the Bible for political activism.
The New Testament was a hard place to find much more for their relationship to governments than to “render” what was due to Caesar or the Apostle Paul saying: “Obey the authorities.” The places for seeing a model for an Evangelical government were the Israel of their Old Testament and the contentious you-can-interpret-it-any-way-that-works-for-you book of Revelation (Karl Marx thought it was the most important book in the Bible!).
But with the defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and the Republican embrace of the Southern strategy, Republicans knew that these White Evangelicals could be useful while popular political/religious evangelists rose to the occasion. Numerous movements such as “The Moral Majority” followed by “Focus on the Family” and “The Family Research Council” tied the self-concept, survival, and success of the agenda of White Evangelicals to legislative efforts and subsequent electionary politics.
It was as if there was little faith left in waiting around for God to do something. Government was to become the means by which these White Evangelicals would be vindicated.
Candidates would have to affirm these six elements of their worldview, and both politicians and their preachers who strayed sexually could be forgiven for their “indiscretions” and “sins” as long as they adhered to those elements. The list of the forgiven became long.
Abortion and equal rights for LGBTQ people became rallying cries. Being “pro-life” became the shorthand litmus test that assured that their candidates actually accepted all six of the elements.
These elements were crucial to Conservative thinking. Linguist George Lakoff in many of his writings would talk about the mental frame that internalized them and brought them into politics - a “strict father” model that embodied all of these elements in these White Evangelicals’ worldview.
When Donald Trump arrived on the presidential scene, he embodied them all. Whether he believed all six or just knew he could get Evangelical votes by espousing them is another question.
And charges of hypocrisy did not matter. They’re common in the world of these White Evangelicals and their leaders.
The word “hypocrisy” doesn’t cause them to challenge anything about their beliefs. It merely says that an individual did not fully live them perfectly.
And since they believe that we’re all sinners anyway, it merely means that the hypocrite is just another human like them being saved by grace. More important is whether the hypocrite holds to the above six elements.
It’s a time-waster to argue their religion with them. Down through history, religions have never done anything – it’s people and what people do with their holy books, institutions, and traditions that has an effect, and that’s done because of the lens with which they see the world.
People cling to religious beliefs for many reasons related to their prejudices, the influence it brings them, their egos, their beliefs about the culture around them, and to protect their personal identities.
It’s also a waste of time to dwell on the religious doctrines and beliefs they regularly tick off to find some mysterious answer there. It’s the wrong question to ask: “How can they believe this or that and still support X, Y, or Z politician?”
Do they, or do they not embrace instead these six elements of the lens through which these White Evangelicals see the world? That’s what matters.