Evangelical Belief and Evangelical Reality in the Age of Trump

Trump court evangelicals

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump does not appear until June 28, but people are already arguing with my interpretation.  This is great!

When I wrote this book I expected criticism from all sides.  Greg Carey has already suggested that I am not sensitive enough to race. (And a gentleman named William Lindsey, who as far as I know has not seen the ARC, has affirmed Carey’s review and taken his criticism to another level).  When the book comes out you will see that I spend a lot of time writing about race.  In fact, Chapter 3: “A Short History of Evangelical Fear,” Chapter 5 “Make America Great Again,” and the Conclusion all deal with race.  Some readers will be very upset about how much I talk about race.  Others, like Greg, will think I don’t spend enough time on it.

Recently Hollis Phelps, an assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at Mercer University, responded to what I said in my recent interview at Religion Dispatches with a piece of his own at RD.  It is titled “Maybe It’s Time to Admit That the ‘Grotesque Caricature’ of White Evangelicals is the Reality.”

Here is a taste:

It would be wrong to paint all evangelicals with the same brush. Evangelicalism is and will remain a complex socio-political movement propped up by a religious rhetoric that emphasizes individual piety, but its adherents aren’t all the same. Indeed, some of Trump’s most vocal critics come out of evangelicalism.

That said, given the consistency with which white evangelicals as a whole have lent their support to Trump—and right-wing candidates and policies more generally—it’s far past time to own up to the fact that the image is, in many respects, the reality.

Well-intentioned evangelical leaders may not like to hear that, but it remains the case that an overwhelming majority of evangelicals continue to support Trump and his policies. Sure, they may have issues with his moral center, or lack thereof, but they’re willing to overlook all this for the sake of political expediency, for promises of “religious freedom,” and the hope of a judiciary stacked with conservative judges.

This is because, at the end of the day, evangelicalism isn’t really about personal values but, rather, social and political conversion and control. Little has changed, in this sense, since the days of Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority (as Daniel Schultz rightly pointed out recently on RD).

The Trump era, then, does not create a new problem for evangelicals and their image; it’s simply casting a very bright light on what has always been there, at least for the past forty years or so.

If evangelical support for Trump sounds more calculated than sincere because of this, that’s because it is. But while critics charge evangelicals with hypocrisy, with undercutting their own assumed moral authority for the sake of political success, it’s important to emphasize, contra John Fea, that this more pragmatic approach to social change isn’t completely outside their own religious traditions, and it’s questionable the extent to which evangelicals ever held much moral authority in the first place.

And then he concludes:

In pointing this out, I’m not saying that I agree with the particular narrative arc of the morally suspect individual and the way it’s deployed by evangelicals in our current political landscape. I don’t, and if I had to throw my hat into the “culture wars” I’d throw it on the side of the more liberal Christians every time. Nevertheless, it’s wrongheaded to reduce evangelical involvement in politics to a simple hypocrisy that lies completely outside the purview of biblical faith. In this respect I part ways with John Fea, who believes that prominent evangelical leaders have “sacrificed their moral vision” to become “court evangelicals.”

Hollis’s piece is good, and he may be surprised to learn that I agree with much of it.  In fact, I would actually push some of his concerns much deeper into the American experience than merely “the past forty years or so.”  I hope he reads Believe Me so that he can get a sense of my full and nuanced argument.

Hollis’s claim that my interpretation is “wrongheaded” and “simplistic” fails to realize that I am writing this book as an observer-participant.  As a Christian who defines my faith through an evangelical theology built on the teachings of the New Testament, I do believe that the court evangelicals have sacrificed themselves on the altar of power.  This is a theological and biblical claim that I would hope my evangelical readers (the primary audience for the book) will understand, even if they may not all agree with me.  It is also a claim that I would make about evangelicals in any generation or era in American history.  At this particular moment I have felt a moral responsibility, as a person who adheres to evangelical faith, to speak out against court evangelicalism and address what I see as the problematic views of the 81%.

As a historian, I realize that evangelicals have a long history of nativism, xenophobia, racism, etc., etc.  Yes,  the story of American evangelicalism is a sad tale.  (So, I might add, is the human story).  One of the things I argue in Believe Me (and I think Hollis would agree) is that evangelicalism has often failed to live up to what it claims to believe as it relates to the teachings of Jesus, Paul, and the rest of the New Testament authors.  For me, this is not merely an academic point to be made by a scholar of American religion, it is also something that saddens me.