Trump Evangelicals and Pickett’s Charge

Pickett

Here’s a theory.  Again, just a theory.

Yesterday I was chatting with a pastor about evangelicals who support Donald Trump. This pastor affirmed a lot of my thoughts about the generational make-up of this group. Most (not all, but most) pro-Trump evangelicals (or evangelicals who voted for Trump) who I encounter are older than I am.  This group looks back on the last fifty years and they see increased religious and ethnic diversity, changes in sexual ethics, and an ever- growing number of legal cases related to the separation of church state (think 10 Commandment monuments, “Merry Christmas” and manger scenes, prayers at football games, etc.).  They are afraid.  They are uncomfortable.  They believe America was once “great” and now it needs to be made “great again.”  They have dug in for one last stand in the culture wars. Trump can help them win.

If this generational argument is true, then the pro-Trump evangelicals, and others who live with this fear, will soon fade off the scene.  If my pastor friend is correct, and I think he just might be, younger evangelicals are less fearful, more open to diversity and immigration, and at least willing to treat those with whom they disagree on sexual ethics and marriage with dignity, respect, and civility.  They remain orthodox in their theology,  but they are not culture warriors.

With all of this in mind, the pro-Trump evangelical movement may represent a kind of last-ditch effort by the Moral Majority generation to reclaim the country in the way that they were trained to do by Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and others back in the 1980s.

Military history teaches us that final assaults are often carried out on a grand scale. Think about Pickett’s Charge–the final engagement of the Battle of Gettysburg.    The Confederate Army attempted to make one last thrust into the Union line before it was turned back once and for all.  Many historians have argued that the loss at Gettysburg sent the Confederate army on a downward spiral that eventually led to its defeat at Appomattox in April 1865.

The Trump evangelicals have found a strongman to lead them.  With control of the White House they are poised, at least for the moment, to initiate a final forward movement  for the purpose of preserving their “way of life” against the social and cultural changes that they have been fighting against for a couple of generations.

Just a theory.  What do you think?

If I am correct here, it seems like the challenge for pastors and Christian leaders is to figure out how to meet the spiritual needs of the Trump evangelicals in their churches. They need to find a way to walk beside them in their place of fear and anxiety and remind them of the “God of all comfort” and the “perfect love” that “casts out fear.”  It would be easy to just dismiss the Trump generation of evangelicals or simply tolerate them until they pass off the scene, but such a demographics-based approach would be a dereliction of pastoral duty.

20 thoughts on “Trump Evangelicals and Pickett’s Charge

  1. I’ve been reading “death of the religious right” stories for 20 years now. It’s wishfull thinking.

    They’re not dying off. They’re dedicated. They’re zealots. And they’re in control.

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  2. If we have to pick a historical analogy, is the Civil War the most apt and if so, where are we really?

    It’s hard to argue that this is the turning point for us. Trump and his fellow regressives are at the start of at least four years of undermining already weakened institutions.

    His or Pence’s appointments to the Supreme Court alone ensure at least a generation of diminishing civil rights and other public protection.

    The nation as a whole is becoming more not less regionally divided. States and regions are even entertaining ideas of succession. Not serious yet, but who knows?

    So, where are we at the Civil War? 1863 or 1859, when war seemed a remote possibility at best?

    But 1859 was also the year John Brown on his way to the gallows slipped a note to a jailer that read: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed, it might be done.”

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  3. The problem is that “young Evangelicals” eventually become “old Evangelicals.”

    The problem is not youth or age but Evangelical Christianity itself. It’s difficult to embrace diversity when you’re convinced that’s going to lead you to burn in a lake of fire for all eternity.

    The young are convinced they’re immortal. The old know better.

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    • And they will probably become old under far worse economic and political conditions than the devastating ones they have already experienced.

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  4. Having read various millennial Christian blogs and ezines and raised five millennials myself (one of whom is attending MC), I think you may be right that this is a last ditch effort on the part of older, white evangelicals (and some Catholics) who tend towards fear-based reactions to our culture. While I am an older Christian hailing from mainstream then evangelical circles and now Catholic, my spiritual journey has led me to greater openness and less fear, and I have been shattered by the militant, uncompassionate attitude of evangelicals and some Catholics and mainstream Christians in our area. I am concerned about the harm this does to the witness to Christ and am no longer sure what to call myself but am hopeful that God is doing a shaking and that people, especially young people, will rediscover Jesus absent from the accretions of American Christian culture as the older generations fade out. I am thankful for those in evangelical and Catholic circles like you who do speak for truth and compassion.

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    • Thanks for this LuAnn. And if your millennial at Messiah College is historically or politically minded and wants to chat, tell him/her to stop by during office hours–Boyer 260.

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  5. Absolutely correct. As I was expressing my disbelief that 81% of Christians professed in November, 2016 that Donald Trump best embodied their values, this fear was explained to me. I replied then as I think now: These Christians need some faith. If Christianity is what they profess to believe it is, it will survive no matter who is president. My own interpretation of their actions is that by voting for world power and influence, they have exactly the opposite of what Jesus did when He was offered world power, remember: He refused it.

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  6. Yes, absolutely. The culture loss argument is exactly what Robert Jones was talking about when he described “nostalgia voters” who by definition are older. I’ve been arguing the rhetorical frame of cultural engagement is different from millennials than it is for their parents (to say nothing of the Court Evangelicals!). They are trying to figure out what faithful Christian living looks like in a diverse and complex world based less on rigid categories and more on personal experience. The older crew (folks my age) are more focused on “holding the line” against the slippery slope that will engulf us all any minute.

    A corollary interest I have is trying to figure out why my generation remained so silent about the challenge of reconciling lived experience with institutional boundary markers. What was it about American cultural history or evangelical realities that made us so willing to keep our questions and struggles to ourselves?

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    • Do you have any working theories on that? It’s probably a lot of things, but I would guess they are mostly part of the ensemble of punitive, shame-based, war and poverty traumatized, WASP-dominant, pre-desegration and resegregation, pre-sexual revolution America. When most people are hiding some deep shame, fear, wound, confusion, or unhappiness there’s not a lot of opening up or sharing, so everyone thinks it’s just them all by themselves with their terrible secret. And if you mean struggles pertaining to atypical physical, mental, or sexual categories that were unknown, understudied, highly stigmatized, and subject to institutional treatment on par with imprisonment and torture, well those were all good reasons to keep quiet.

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      • I tend to see the difference less in terms of personal characteristics and more in terms of rhetorical structures (worldviews) that are shifting. The former style built rigid categories of what it means to be Christian that social change is disrupting. The younger generation doesn’t grow up with that. John’s piece made me pull together some of my own theoretical analysis: http://johnwhawthorne.com/2017/07/21/a-political-sociology-of-evangelicals/

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      • Thanks John, I picked up on that in your previous comment, and it seems to match my experience certainly — the different ways the generations talk about their way of doing the old “cultural engagement” project. But those “rhetorical styles” have a lot to do with the concrete historical experiences that define each generation, or large parts of it, right? That was what I was getting at, and you seem to say this too in your theoretical sociology post in the latter half, in relation to Gloege, Jones, and Bean.

        Hasn’t the “engagement” rhetoric itself (initially coined by Carl Henry, IIRC) become problematic (if not downright loathsome) to younger people precisely because it was intuitively embraced by older generations who were closer to the boat, or tied to a distinctly ethnic, regional, confessional, and even a linguistically defined community? (In many cases in the midwest, Bismark’s original kulturkampf was very much a part of our denominational formation and the experience of grandparents and great grandparents who then had to contend with their place in a partitioned Protestant-Catholic-Jew America.) Evangelicals coalesced as a big tent after the world wars largely as the resistant or non-assimilated Protestants outside the mainline, which became the liberal-secular bogeyman upon which increasingly post-confessional Evangelicals could project their own fears of deracination. So the Evangelical movement went to work on the mainline, hammer and tongs, as the big enemy when it was the vital center and basis for the success of the civil rights movement. Having achieved a late triumph over these former foes, it is precisely what younger Evangelicals do not want, down to the whole minority subculture of outsider resentniks looking in mentality from which “Christian worldviews” are purveyed and “Christian education” retains a structurally separatistic, antagonistic cast in many if not most Evangelical communities. From the view of the older people who built and came up in those structures, the younger folks have sold out to the zeitgeist, abandoned the antithesis, lost their salt/first love, compromised the faith, diluted doctrine to suit the spirits and cultural trends of the day. On a sociological level, it is the “shanty Irish” angry at the kids marrying “up” and putting on airs as “lace curtain Irish” — forgetting where you came from is the perennial crime in families and communities vexed by upward (and downward) social mobility.

        A side comment on Bean: Her “Canada is different (i.e. better)” argument is the default position liberal Canadians always take. I am sure her data and image of Canadian churches is accurate but not entirely representative, and not representative of the rapid radicalizing of the Canadian right since late 2016 in a newly unified bloc that is aggressively scapegoating Muslims and sexual minorities as Liberal and Socialist-enabled sowers of disorder and stolen patrimonies. As you probably know there are Canadian sociologists funded and touted by the usual Reformed and Evangelical sources whose recent work usefully asserts that Canadian churches die when they do not teach a very narrow, new, and reactively political definition of “traditional orthodoxy.”Additional research featured in the national press showed conservative Christians active in their churches as the most altruistic at least within fairly homogeneous social categories. Concurrently other researchers working on school outcomes have contended only Protestant Christian schools produce a certain kind of ideal citizen. On top of that comes the alt-right attack media and a controversial UT psychologist, all of whom argue a militantly anti-Islamic form of Christian nationalism. Canada is changing, or heading into high seas where it will be harshly tested by the deliberate stressors being applied by American and Canadian Christians and Conservatives.

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  7. I grew up in a very conservative Baptist sect in the south. We weren’t as fundamentalist as IFB, but still considered Southern Baptists way too liberal. I got a steady indoctrination of dire warnings of the sins of the world and the impending end times. My theory is right along the same lines as yours, John. The culture warriors turned from Jesus to Caesar because their fear of punishment a la Sodom & Gomorrah, Cannanites, Egypt, etc. “God will destroy us if we don’t turn our country around.” Despite all the dispensationalism, it’s like they don’t make the connection to their end times theories that the US is not ever mentioned in the apocalyptic prophecies. In fact, no country outside of the continents of Asia, Africa, and Europe play a role, if we are going to interpret literally (which they typically say they do). So what I see is the culture warrior Christians have been taught to fear punishment to the extent that they are so fearful of suffering because of someone else’s sin that they are codependently controlling. I’ve largely lived my life in such a manner because a controlling & abusive father and would regularly get in trouble not just for what I did, but for things others would do to me. It’s learned behavior. And that said, what I learned in church was more legalism than Jesus. It took me a lot of years in the “wilderness” to realize the verse I learned as a I child in my youth group with life-giving truth: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” I’ve come to terms with being collateral damage to my dad’s sins/crimes (that’s a story in itself), and am learning that I am not responsible for anyone’s behavior but my own. And I am learning that either Jesus is everything, or he is nothing. Because if I do not completely trust him, I am going to turn to “the world” for my safety, security, and desire.

    Sorry if I went a little off topic. 🙂

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    • Thank you for such a personal story. Jesus was all about healing, and I pray that you continue to heal.

      I think we have a paradox of personal and corporate responsibility. American world-view is centered on individualism. Yes, we are responsible for ourselves. And, yes, we are responsible as communities. The national sin of slavery in America affects us all even now. We can’t just put all the blame on those who started and maintained the system long ago. Slavery would not have ended as soon as it did if it had not been for a community of opposition. And, I think if we were to put ourselves in the shoes of slavery’s proponents we might well have done as they did. We rest only in the grace of God.

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      • Interesting stuff Ron. I remember leading a discussion in class a few years ago on how Protestant individualism fit so well with American democracy and consumer capitalism. A student raised her hand and said “in my church we don’t have a problem with individualism. We follow Rick Warren’s ’40 Days of Community’ in our church.” When I told her that these kinds of schemes affirm the point I was trying to make about individualism, she looked at me like I was crazy. Indeed, there is a reason why Protestant evangelicals talk so much about community.

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  8. Great illustration what I think is an accurate assessment. I tried to teach on “Living in Babylon” last fall before the election. I was extremely disappointed in the evangelical response, and continue to be disheartened by this digging in mentality I am witnessing as Trump keeps stumbling along.

    The analogy is interesting. If this is accurate, then the rest of evangelicals (like me) who won’t be charging up that hill will still be swept in “the loss.” But that is what I’ve been trying to prepare people for in the days ahead. These are days where the shift has to come and we can’t think in terms of “wins” and “losses” anymore. The last charge of the old guard of evangelicals, however, will only make it TOUGHER in the days ahead for those of us left. But we have to deal with it. My task is to prepare my church as fully as possible.

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  9. “If this generational argument is true, then the pro-Trump evangelicals, and others who live with this fear, will soon fade off the scene. If my pastor friend is correct, and I think he just might be, younger evangelicals are less fearful, more open to diversity and immigration, and at least willing to treat those with whom they disagree on sexual ethics and marriage with dignity, respect, and civility.”

    Of course, as people get older, they become more fearful, less open to diversity, and more conservative generally.

    “The loss at Gettysburg sent the Confederate army on a downward spiral that eventually led to its defeat at Appomattox in April 1865.”

    And, arguably, the South did very well, despite having lost the war. They got Jim Crow, voter suppression, and eventually their ideas regarding states’ rights, small government, and etc. came to dominate the party of their erstwhile nemesis, Lincoln.

    Expect surprises going forward.

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  10. It all depends on where you live. I live in a solid red county in Florida (Brevard) and there are PLENTY of young evangelicals here who voted for Trump and would probably do so again if faced with the prospect of someone like a Clinton. I even have some friends who actively support him and are into all kinds of weird crap.

    I always hear from my more… I guess… optimistic, liberal friends that the tide is changing and eventually all of those people will die off and young people will come to save the day. Maybe the statistics overall are showing that young people are less conservative but I just don’t see it in my area. And, with the Electoral College and gerrymandering and voting rights suppression, I don’t know how that ever gets changed.

    I’M LOSING ALL HOPE JOHN FEA

    😉

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    • My young friend your liberal friend is correct. The pendulum of history swings from conservative to liberal trends and back. Throughout our history progressive movements have pushed change when change is needed. Trump being elected is the catalysis for that change both cultural and economical and it will be the new generation that will lead the charge.

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      • Maybe he is also a catalyst, but I think he’s more of a symptom. Stronger catalysts for lasting reactionary regimes — in North America and beyond, as Bannon and others have long envisioned it — are the rhetorical shifts in public discourse that now have popular and mainstream buy-in. (From Lee Atwater to now, the “Overton window” has moved back to where you can almost dispense with the dogwhistle bigotry and start running a new George Wallace, Huey Long — or Kid Rock.) We have re-accepted language, perspectives, and emerging policy that blatantly rejects the egalitarian norms of liberalism and social democracy as outmoded, disingenuous, “politically correct” lies designed to enfeeble and replace white/christian/patriotic citizens. If that is what “the people” want, the moneyball class will give it to them because their focus has always been rolling back the New Deal. However it is the dominant rhetoric of American identity, freedom, and patrimony that opens up or forecloses on our prospects for solidarity as a united people. The language of identity based exclusion — heavily evangelized by Evangelicals when it comes to Islam and sexual minorities — is the whole basis and framework for radical antiliberal reaction. Even moderate and principled conservative Evangelicals are in it knowingly or not after decades of attacking liberal discourse and institutions as disingenuous purveyors of a public neutrality myth and other related “wedge” strategies — e.g., religious freedom as a right to discriminate according to a separate and unequal civil rights code. (Progressive Evangelicals for their part have done nearly nothing to stand in the way of this too.) As a way to press their way into the levers of power, this rhetorical strategy has worked very well, but look what else has come in the same door. The validity of the arguments about liberalism’s blind spots is not the issue — they’re largely valid — the problem is the disorder it creates when you actually *break* the existing order, and the opportunity arises for many regrettable, unintended consequence — especially from the zealots with terrible convictions and power hungry cynics who lack all conviction.

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