Do Evangelicals Care What I Think About Trump?

Believe Me 3dHistorian David Swartz does not think so.

Here is Swartz at The Anxious Bench:

White evangelicals are doubling down on President Donald Trump. Their choices in 2016—Trump or Clinton—may have been distasteful to them then. But in 2019, their taste for Trump is heightening, even without a singular evil liberal personality yet serving as his foil.

To be sure, not all evangelicals are jumping on board. Christianity Today editor Mark Galli, prolific blogger and historian John FeaAtlantic writer Peter Wehner, Liberty student Rebecca Olsen, academician-activists Ron Sider and Richard Mouw, and many others have offered a steady stream of criticism.

These and other bracing rebukes of co-religionists who voted for Trump, however, have not done much to stanch support for the president. The divide between cosmopolitan evangelicals and populist evangelicals is too entrenched. In one of the most sobering scholarly articles I’ve ever read, James Guth shows that the “Populism Syndrome”—marked by “nationalism,” “authoritarianism,” “rough politics,” and “compromise bad”—is disproportionately practiced by evangelicals. Guth writes, “Populist Syndrome scores are a better predictor of a Trump vote among Evangelicals in 2016 than are party identification and ideology combined.” He continues, “White Evangelicals share with Trump a multitude of attitudes, including his hostility toward immigrants, his Islamophobia, his racism and nativism, as well as his political style, with its nasty politics and assertion of strong, solitary leadership.”

And he adds this:

But if you were only hanging out in the faculty lounge at an evangelical college or with humanitarians at an evangelical NGO in Phnom Penh, there’s a good chance you were shocked by the 81 percent. The election exposed the many evangelicalisms that have been there all along.

And this:

But they are reinforcing their cosmopolitan script with a selective historiography that does not reflect the full sweep of evangelical identities. Abolitionists never really represented the mainstream of evangelicalism. There were always more slaveholders and white Jacksonian patriarchs in the nineteenth century than Tappan brothers and Grimke sisters who championed social justice causes. Though some evangelical leaders have sought to refine the term in ways that minimized support for Donald Trump, they do not speak for most rank-and-file evangelicals. There continues to exist a vast subterranean populism that upsets establishment vanities.

Read the entire piece here.

“I’ve worked hard at trying to get rank-and-file evangelicals to rethink their support of this president.  And some have changed their minds.  I know this because they have told me.   But these are just anecdotes. In the end, Swartz is right.

But at least I took a shot.

I have been a longtime advocate of detached scholarship.  I made the case for this kind of scholarship in Why Study History?  But I also argued in that book that there are times when a scholar must use his or her knowledge, expertise, and resources in service to the church.  While other Christian scholars sat on the sidelines and offered detached analysis that they hoped would have a trickle-down effect, I jumped headfirst into the fray.  I don’t regret it one bit.

I continue to be inspired by the recent words of historian Carlo Ginzburg:

I must say that I don’t like sermons. If there is anything I can do, as a historian, from an analytical point of view, it is very good. It’s part of my job. But the situation is evolving in a way that I may have to get a little more involved. Yesterday, I was asked to comment on the screening of a film on immigration and I accepted. Would I have said yes five or ten years ago? The context is changing… Even if the idea of the committed intellectual is not something I particularly like.

Moreover, I have never understood myself as a “cosmopolitan.” (Swartz seems to place me in this camp). In fact, I once wrote a book and a Journal of American History article problematizing “cosmopolitan” as a form of identity.  I have also made the case, in Believe Me and elsewhere, that the kind of evangelical populism Swartz writes about has been around for a long, long time.  No “cosmopolitan script with a selective historiography” here.

Finally, I don’t spend much time in the faculty lounge at Messiah College (although I probably should–fellowship is good), I have never been to Phnom Penh, and I have no experience with NGOs.

So how should I respond to Swartz’s piece?  I can’t speak for the other “evangelical cosmopolitans” Swartz mentions, but I will persist in trying to get evangelicals to see that their propensity for fear, political power, and nostalgia is not healthy.  Someone has to keep saying it or else Trump’s words, behavior, actions, and policies will become normalized.