Evangelicals, Trump, and “Existential Fear”

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I am pleased to see that conservatives think “fear” has something to do with the white evangelical embrace of Donald Trump.  Here is Regent University political scientist A.J. Nolte at The Bulwark:

As a political scientist, I think it’s important to try and explain this recent evangelical political behavior in the context of broader questions about our current political moment, and religion and politics. As a friendly observer of conservative evangelicalism, who thinks categorical support for Trump is both unwise and harmful for evangelicals in the long term, I think it’s even more important to understand the reasons for that support. After all, understanding why it happened is the first necessary step to persuade evangelicals that it’s ultimately self-defeating. So, as a political scientist and a friendly observer/participant, I’d like to offer a theory: Donald Trump appeared at a time during which many evangelicals’ rising expectations had turned, rather rapidly, into existential fear. Trump was uniquely positioned to exploit that moment and win over evangelicals. Yet while that support is very real, I also think it is shallower and more conditional than it appears.

Read the entire piece here.

21 thoughts on “Evangelicals, Trump, and “Existential Fear”

  1. One mistake that is typically made is to portray all evangelicals as right-wingers. There always has been a large segment of liberal and progressive evangelicals. And that other side of the equation has been growing, now with most young evangelicals identifying with the left.

    Also, evangelicals at other points in history were anti-authoritarian. They once were a major force in pushing for abolition of slavery, separation of church and state, etc. But it’s true that powerful forces in recent history have overtaken mainstream evagnelicalism as seen in its politicization within the halls of power. The leftist evangelicals, although existing, were effectively silenced as if they didn’t exist.

    This didn’t begin with Trump, that is for sure. Evangelicals have been drawn to authoritarianism since the early Cold War. Still, not that far back during the New Deal, evangelicals loved FDR’s progressivism (as did Mormons). Evangelicals are a major reason we have a nation-wide public school system (then again, the KKK also supported public schools).

    It would be interesting to look at changing views on punishment. Evangelicals have become extremely punitive. I don’t know that was always the case. This is an important point not just political but also psychologically. Julian Jaynes wrote about punishment in terms of authority and authorization, in how it makes people submissive and obedient:

    “If we can regard punishment in childhood as a way of instilling an enhanced relationship to authority, hence training some of those neurological relationships that were once the bicameral mind, we might expect this to increase hypnotic susceptibility. And this is true. Careful studies show that those who have experienced severe punishment in childhood and come from a disciplined home are more easily hypnotized, while those who were rarely punished or not punished at all tend to be less susceptible to hypnosis.”

    Polling does show that evangelicals are more in favor of punishment, for kids as well as for others such as criminals. That can’t be blamed on Trump. All that Trump was able to accomplish was to take advantage of the good authoritarian followers that evangelicals had become.

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  2. Ever since the election, my take on the 2016 campaign has been “Both parties succeeded in nominating their WORST possible candidates. Any Dem other than Hillary could have easily beaten Trump. Any GOP other than Trump could have easily beaten Hillary. Instead, we ended up with a choice between Cersei Lannister and Benito Mussolini.” And either was a disaster waiting to happen.

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    • Unicorn,

      You got me on one fact. I did not know who Cersei Lannister was! Had to look up the name. Ha ha.
      You have to be more deferential to those of us who are culturally deprived and limit our viewing to old Jimmy Stewart and Barbara Stanwyck films on rerun. (But , of course, after researching Cersei, I must concur with the American political parallel you suggested.)

      James

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  3. I think Nolte’s piece makes a number of valid points, particularly his observation that Trump is making Evangelical positions more unpopular by proxy.

    But I think his analysis of the Obergefell decision, and its impact on the Evangelical community, is unpersuasive.

    He claims that Evangelicals believed that they were still winning on the gay marriage issue prior to Obergefell, based on a series of state referenda upholding traditional marriage. But he says that Evangelicals missed the millennials turning against them en masse on the issue, which explains the shock from being blindsided when Kennedy authored the majority decision enshrining a constitutional right to gay marriage.

    But underlying millennial attitudes, whether trending leftward or not, had nothing to do with five members of the SC — four of them lockstep progressives along with justice Hamlet, the swing voter who had increasingly swung towards the living constitutionalists on “culture war” issues — deciding as it did. Moreover, any Evangelicals who had been paying attention to how the judicial winds were blowing at the federal level leading up to Obergefell (with a number of state laws supporting traditional marriage having been struck down), and who based on his past performances fully expected Kennedy to support the liberal position, were in no way surprised. Disappointed, maybe; stunned, no.

    And I would say that for those who were shocked, the resulting emotion was not fear, but anger. Not at homosexuals. Anger at the “elites” in D.C., an emotion for which Trump was the “perfect” vessel of political retribution.

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  4. Rick,
    Strong disagreement with you on this one.

    The higest bidders were those on Wall Street who overwhelmingly supported Hillary. I respectfully believe you are stuck in a 1929 time warp. Hillary spent a billion dollars on her 2016 race. There were some high bidders who were expecting some returns on their investments.
    James

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    • And in the entire 2012 election cycle, as one example, 86 percent of dark money was spent by conservative groups, 11 percent by liberal groups and 3 percent by other groups, so I would suggest that the big spenders (the Chamber of Commerce, Club for Growth, Americans for Prosperity) are clearly aligning themselves with Republicans to push a pro-business agenda. Trump’s inability to get his hands on that conservative money in 2016 could be traced any number of factors. If you insist it’s really the liberals who are the big business party, go ahead, but the data points all tend to argue against you.

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      • Rick,
        The so called dark money was not the main monetary input. Even if we accept your statistics, the DEMs are quite adept at raising big corporate bucks. Rick, you seem to be longing for the good old days when they got their money from labor unions and other ideological groups. All that has changed. Hillary outraised Trump on Wall Street and in the boardrooms. They knew they could count on the DEMs after the election.
        One billion dollars!
        James

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  5. Confirmation of an anecdotal nature perhaps, but I actually had some fellow evangelicals tell me that if Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election, it would only be a couple of years until it would be illegal to be a Christian. For them, it was seen as a do-or-die fight for *our very survival*. Which also goes a long way towards understanding the view they now hold of the election as God’s divine intervention, and Trump being God’s miraculously-provided deliverer, against whom a word of criticism or even concern is not to be uttered.

    Obviously most folks aren’t quite as far “into the Kool-Aid,” but many did see it as a “culture war” watershed moment where the forces of darkness were on the verge of overcoming the church and called for a last-ditch effort.

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  6. I have written this before. But I have to write it again that “do not be unequally yoked” comes to mind whenever this devotion to Trump by evangelicals comes up.
    For a while this selling out really shook me up. It has taken some time for me to separate out in my mind my long loyalty to conservative Christian entities from the faith itself. Their compromises to embrace Trump are their problem and I don’t have to let their compromisevs corrupt my long held faith and place in the kingdom.

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    • Jeff,
      A lot of your concern hinges around the definition of the verb “to yoke.” I get it that you see Trump as an unbeliever, something for which you can make a valid argument. Christians, however, are not yoked to him in a legal, contractual, or moral manner. How long do you think Christians would stay in the Trump tent, if he appointed a liberal justice to the Supreme Court or if he started a wholesale public policy endorsement of abortion and sexual deviancy?
      James

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      • I don’t know the extent Trump can go without losing a critical mass of Christian’s support. He’s gone pretty far and I think its relatively rare that a well known figure says enough is enough.

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        • Jeff,
          I can tell you that there are certain nonnegotiable issues which would cause evangelicals to leave Trump. Accordingly, there is no yoking.
          James

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          • Can you give examples of some of these “non-negotiable issues”?

            Because in a lot of blogs’ comment threads, the Born-Again Christians seem to be the most Fanatical of Trump Fanatics. This may be a Lunatic Fringe of “net drunks”, but it looks like a (1) large, (2) very vocal, or (3) both Lunatic Fringe.

            The phenomenon of “Court Evangelicals” (Prof. Fea’s term) among the Evangelical Leadership Caste also seems to bear this out, and they influence their Megacongregations like a political machine solid voting bloc.

            Completely forgetting an alternate interpretation of Revelation:
            If the Beast represents a corrupt political system and the False Prophet a corrupt religious system, which of the two ends up as the Boss and which as the Flunky?

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            • Unicorn,

              In answer to your question evangelicals would leave Trump if he caved on abortion or any of the sexual deviance issues. Many would abandon him if he caved in his support for Israel. There is also a lot of support for a less high-handed Department of Education and for more home schooling rights. Of course, there is also a distrust of HHS and its paternal reach into the lives of citizens. Any combination of retreats in these areas would hurt Trump among evangelicals.

              As far as your final question on Revelation, not all evangelicals accept the same eschatology. There are evangelicals who are not premillennial or dispensational. Accordingly, the Left Behind scenario is not held by all. Some are postmillennial, some are amillennial and others are preterist. The dispensationalists are the most zealously in support of the State of Israel.

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  7. “strong anecdotal evidence suggests that conservative evangelical women under the age of 45 really don’t like him, even if most of them will never take that dislike far enough to vote for a pro-choice Democrat.”

    Sadly, he has a point. The tragedy of our age is that white religious people remain chained to the one party that’s selling out their country to the highest bidder, while remaining stubbornly allergic to the only party with half a chance to restore sanity. Credit the relentless right-wing communication machine for successfully demonizing Democrats over the course of four decades.

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    • Vast Right Wing Communication Machine: Fox News. AM radio. National Review. (But they mostly don’t like Trump.) NY Post. Washington Examiner. The Weekly Stan– er, nevermind.
      Commentary. Claremont Review of Books. Various independent blogs. Ann Coulter broadcasting from her diesel-powered Zeppelin, Nativist One; Ben Shapiro podcasting from his dimly lit Bond villain lair.

      Poor, outgunned, piteously impotent left wing truth squad with no megaphone: ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC, NPR, PBS, CNN, NYT, WaPo, LaTimes, Chicago Tribune, NY Daily News, Vox, Huffpo, Slate, the Nation, Rolling Stone, New Republic, Vanity Fair, Esquire, Time, Newsweek, the Atlantic, SNL, all of Hollywood, Trevor Noah, Colbert, Maher (not to mention all the, what’s the word? — yes, “relentlessly” woke folks running Facebook, Apple, Paypal, Twitter, Netflix).

      I’m getting a little choked up at the D’s inability to get their message of tolerance and anti-demonization out because it is suffocated in the crib by the R media colossus. What we need is a Fairness Doctrine! Or something to level that playing field, stat.

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        • Rick: my reference to Paypal was not about reporters, as was clear in my comment. It has been sued by a number of conservative, web-based companies and bloggers for attempting to de-platform and blacklist them for non-conforming crimethink. And the CEO has been open about his company’s partnership with the execrable SPLC to target conservatives and organizations which advocate for traditional Christian views on marriage as hate groups. That was the point of its inclusion.

          But I think you kinda knew that already.

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          • I know exactly what the hell you’re doing. You’re underselling conservative media (no mention of Breitbart? Sinclair Broadcasting? Winger think tanks, propped up libertarian study groups, dark money foundations with more money than God?) and somehow including everything else as part of the vast lefty conspiracy. Apple makes iPods and doesn’t pay tax. SNL makes comedy shows that no one claims to watch, since obviously the show peaked in 1978.

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            • Rick,
              Again, I think you are in a time warp still longing for the days when the urban DEM ward healer and the leader of the local Granger movement marched proudly in the annual Labor Day parade. The evil railroad barons controlled the major media. Yes, we all knew, by golly, who had the power and who was getting squeezed by the power.

              If you think that today’s DEMs still stand for those sorts of “little guy” interests or still suffer from media blackouts, you have not been staying current. Are you sure your romanticized view of American politics has not been superseded?

              James

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    • The Lunatic Fringe among the Dems helped demonize themselves.
      I live in a one-party Blue State, and they’re just as corrupt as any East Coast machine pols. Only their corruption is the Corruption of My Righteousness, which is more insidious than the normal skim & boodle. And a Righteous enough cause justifies any means to bring about its triumph, any number of eggs to crack for its Perfect omelet. (The most over-the-top type examples — those 200 years of Revolutionary regimes from Paris to Phnom Penh.)

      Righteousness plus Power is a REAL bad combination;
      if Insanity is Part of These Times, both party factions rush to Embrace the Madness.

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