Trump Evangelicals and Race

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in Janesville

In my forthcoming book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump I argue that issues of race played a significant role in the overwhelming evangelical support for Donald Trump.  In my chapter “A Short History of Evangelical Fear,” I trace this history.

Over at VOX, political scientist Nancy Wadsworth makes a compelling case for the role that “racial demons” played in the white evangelical support of Trump.  She chides evangelical anti-Trumpers such as Michael Gerson, David French, and Stephen Mansfield for not recognizing this fact.

Here is a taste of her piece:

But then there are the prominent hand-wringers. Veteran evangelical writers like Michael Gerson, David French, and Stephen Mansfield have been wrestling with the damage this strategic partnership may be doing to a once-great religious tradition.

It is an abandonment of the evangelical path, these writers argue — to varying degrees and with different emphases — for believers who claim to care about the poor, the suffering, and the outcast, not to mention sexual morality and civic virtue, to line up behind a belligerent boor who bullies women, Mexicans, and Muslims and who has a manifestly feeble understanding of religious texts and history. It’s not that evangelicals are personally prejudiced, these writers claim; nonetheless, they find it disturbing that such voters would overlook Trump’s racism and misogyny for short-term political gains.

But these sympathetic critics fail to grapple with the idea that Trump’s racism and misogyny might actually resonate with the evangelical base, which happens to constitute about 35 percent of the GOP coalition. In fact, racism and intolerance are more woven into the fabric of evangelicalism than these Christian critics care to accept.

Read the entire piece here.

Did 81% of White Evangelicals Vote for Donald Trump? Who Knows?


Trump and Bible

According to political scientist Tobin Grant, when pollsters talk about “evangelicals,” what they “really mean are ‘white, non-Hispanic Protestants.”  Polls, of course, are not perfect, and this is particularly true when it comes to religion.  Many polls have claimed that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.  This number is based on a voter’s self-description as “born-again or evangelical Christian.”  It says nothing about the theological or spiritual content of that voter’s faith, or whether he or she attends church on a regular basis.  As a result, the number of devout, theologically orthodox, born-again, weekly-church-going evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump is probably lower than 81%.

As I wrote in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, I wrestled with how to explain the term “evangelical.”  In the book, I focus specifically on white evangelicals.  Black and Hispanic evangelicals did not vote for Donald Trump in such large numbers.

If the number of white evangelicals voters who voted for Trump is indeed lower than 81% percent, the real number (which is virtually impossible to nail down) is still quite large.  This, I argue, is a serious problem for white evangelicals and their witness in the world.

Finally, whether the the evangelicals who voted for Trump are church-going, born-again Christians or nonpracticing cultural Christians who simply claimed the label “evangelical” during the exit poll, they still made a public declaration of their religious identity, which I take seriously.

For another recent discussion of the 81% see Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s recent piece at The Anxious Bench: “Defining Evangelicalism and the Problem of Whiteness.”

Barack Obama’s “Weariness” With Evangelical Political Engagement

WearCheck out Michael Wear‘s piece at Christian Today: “What Barack Obama’s Christianity can teach white evangelicals“.  Wear is the author of Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House and was the director of faith outreach for Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.

President Obama came into Office with plans to deliver on the promise of his campaign outreach to people of faith, including evangelicals. He kept and expanded the White House faith-based initiative, creating an advisory council (which, unlike the current president’s council, was official, established by executive order for the purpose of providing recommendations to the president and the federal government) that included robust evangelical participation. Four months into his Administration, he delivered a passionate case to heal national divides around abortion by seeking to ‘reduce the number of women seeking abortions’ while maintaining his commitment to Roe v. Wade. This speech was followed-up by years of staff work, overseen by the president, to pursue this common ground. Evangelicals were central to many of President Obama’s signature achievements: the Affordable Care Act, New START, the Paris Agreement, the expansion of America’s effort to combat human trafficking, and the rejection of deep social safety net cuts proposed by the Republican Congress.

In addition to discussing these partnerships, my recent book, Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America, also describes why the president’s olive branch withered. On the right, political Religious Right groups made it their mission to sow distrust of and animosity toward the president. This went far beyond opposing specific policies or values of the Obama Administration. They did this through spreading half-truths, tolerating or promoting conspiracy theories, and insisting that Obama was an existential threat to their faith and the nation, among other things. There were notable exceptions to this fearmongering, but they were, sadly, in the minority and suffered under accusations of being closet liberals by their fellow evangelicals.

Of course, evangelicals’ had long-held, substantive disagreements with the president’s own positions on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and religious freedom that were real hurdles to political partnership. At times, the Obama White House unnecessarily exacerbated these tensions, too often choosing to stoke conflict around social issues rather than find common ground, particularly as the re-election campaign neared. Obama called evangelicals to a more constructive politics, but some of his decisions and the political strategy of his party also helped sow the seeds for their embrace of Trump. Nevertheless, though he faced accusations of waging a ‘war on religion’ and ran as the first nominee to support same-sex marriage, President Obama won significantly more support from white evangelicals in his re-election campaign than Hillary Clinton won in 2016.

However, in the president’s second term, his posture toward evangelicals began to shift. While the fact that he no longer had to win election may have played a role in this change, I believe it had more to do with his weariness with the nature of evangelicals’ engagement with his Administration, and in politics generally….

Read the rest here.

Wear and I are in complete agreement about the role that fear has played in the evangelical embrace of Donald Trump.  I develop this argument more fully in the first three chapters of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Trump Led Among GOP Evangelicals From the Moment He Came Down the Escalator

Republican U.S. presidential candidates Carson and Trump talk during a break at the second official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley

According to CNN polling and this excellent chart in Philip Bump’s recent piece at The Washington Postwhite evangelicals flocked to Trump from the moment he entered the race in June 2015.  With the exception of two months during Fall 2015, he led all GOP candidates among self-proclaimed white evangelical voters.

When Trump entered the race, evangelicals were leaning heavily toward Ben Carson and Scott Walker, but by July 2015 Trump had taken the lead among these values voters.  As Bump points out, this was precisely the time when Trump was scaring voters by talking about Mexican immigrants crossing the border and raping and killing American citizens.

Trump held his ground with white evangelicals through the summer before he was passed in September and October by Carson.  It is hard to fully understand why Carson surged among evangelicals during these months, but it is worth mentioning that during these two months the former brain surgeon:

The surge did not last. By the end of October 2015, Trump has recaptured his lead among evangelicals.  On October 28, he trashed Carson’s 7th Day Adventist faith.  By December, media outlets were questioning details of Carson’s life story and his ability to handle foreign-policy issues in the wake of the Paris shootings.  Carson was done.  By the second week of December, Ted Cruz had passed him among evangelical GOP voters.

Read Bump’s piece here.  It would have been nice if Bump included Marco Rubio’s support among white evangelicals in his analysis.

Is It Time To Reconsider 81%?

Donald_Trump_delivers_remarks_at_the_Liberty_University (1)

Since I published my recent piece on the court evangelicals at The Washington Post, I have been getting a lot of mail.   Yesterday, for example, I heard from three well-known leaders of evangelical institutions/organizations/congregations.  These people are not court evangelicals.  They are part of what I would call the evangelical mainstream–the men and women who are represented best by the National Association of Evangelicals. They are all, to one degree or another, anti-Trump.  None of them voted for Trump.

All three of these leaders were greatly bothered by the popular media claim, based on polling data, that 81% of white evangelical voters pulled the lever for Donald Trump. They all insisted that the 81% number needs to be examined more fully.  These people spend a lot of time traveling throughout the evangelical world and all three of them claimed that they just don’t meet many fellow evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump.

My exchanges with these evangelical leaders reminded me of an e-mail conversation I had the other day with a keen and relatively objective observer of the American religious scene. (I don’t know this person’s religious faith, if she/he has one at all.  My guess is that this person is not an evangelical). This observer was wondering whether or not the 81% has made pundits lazy, preventing them from digging any deeper into the polling data.

What do you think?

Krauthammer: “Bungled collusion is still collusion”

Trump Jr.

Conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer started yesterday’s column with this line: “The Russia scandal has entered a new phase, and there is no going back.”

Here is a taste:

Yes, there were several meetings with Russian officials, some only belatedly disclosed. But that is circumstantial evidence at best. Meetings tell you nothing unless you know what happened in them. We didn’t. Some of these were casual encounters in large groups, like the famous July 2016 Kislyak-Sessions exchange of pleasantries at the Republican National Convention. Big deal.

I was puzzled. Lots of coverup, but where was the crime? Not even a third-rate burglary. For six months, smoke without fire. Yes, President Trump himself was acting very defensively, as if he were hiding something. But no one ever produced the something.

My view was: Collusion? I just don’t see it. But I’m open to empirical evidence. Show me.

The evidence is now shown. This is not hearsay, not fake news, not unsourced leaks. This is an email chain released by Donald Trump Jr. himself. A British go-between writes that there’s a Russian government effort to help Trump Sr. win the election, and as part of that effort he proposes a meeting with a “Russian government attorney” possessing damaging information on Hillary Clinton. Moreover, the Kremlin is willing to share troves of incriminating documents from the Crown Prosecutor. (Error: Britain has a Crown Prosecutor. Russia has a Prosecutor General.)

Read the entire column at The Washington Post.

Russell Moore Channels Jess Moody: A Southern Baptist Story

Dr._Russell_D._MooreHe was one of the Trump’s strongest critics during the presidential election, but it was just too much for the Southern Baptist Convention.

Over at CNN’s STATE, Chris Moody tells Moore’s story and compares it to the story of his grandfather, a Southern Baptist preacher who criticized the Convention for upholding segregation. It’s worth your time.

Here is a taste:

Nearly 50 years ago, my grandfather found himself in a very Moore-esque situation. At the 1969 Southern Baptist Pastors Conference, he railed against racial segregation, which was still enforced at some churches.

Questions of race have long dogged the Southern Baptist Convention, which was formed in 1845 over the issue of slavery, on which the Southern Baptists were on the wrong side of history. Even well into the twentieth century, the denomination did not take a leadership role in speaking against civil rights abuses and Jim Crow.

“I’ve been loyal to this convention for the past 25 years and I intend that every breath I take of God’s free air will be a Baptist breath,” Moody said in 1969. “But you listen. It takes the black and the white keys to play the Star Spangled Banner. And you can’t do it without both. We must solve the problem of racial hatred within the next ten years or prepare to become the dinosaurs of the twenty-first century. I for one do not believe that God intended this denomination to be a humorless relic in the museum of tomorrow.”

My grandfather is 91 now. His sermon, which also excoriated fellow Christians who supported the ongoing Vietnam War, was met with faint applause.

The denomination grappled internally over racial issues throughout the twentieth century and finally issued a formal apology for its past racist policies in 1995.

But when Southern Baptists gathered in 2017, they still found themselves scratching at the scars of the past. And, in an interesting twist, Moore was on hand to help confront them.

Read the entire piece here.

Two Princeton American Historians Discuss the Election of 2016

KruseCheck out Princeton historians Sean Wilentz and Kevin Kruse discuss the 2016 presidential at a Princeton alumni event from back in February 2017.  (Thanks to History News Network for bringing this video to my attention).

Here is a taste of the transcript:

Sean Wilentz: I take it our charge is to be historians. Whether you reacted to the events of Nov. 8 with elation or despair or something in between, I think it’s been difficult to get our heads around what happened. Our charge is to try and lend some historical perspective, to put our own loyalties aside for a moment. Thinking historically means trying to understand where this all fits in the recent past, and everything that led up to the recent past, to try and understand the larger historical dynamics that brought us to the place that we were on Nov. 8, and what that portends for the future. I think that’s what we’re here for.

Kevin Kruse: Look, I get asked to comment on the present, or, God forbid, to make predictions about the future, and I always have to remind people that as a historian my professional training is in hindsight. As historians we can look back on snap opinions made after other big elections and see just how wrong those were. After 1964, lots of accounts had said, “My God, this is it for conservatism. You’ll never see a conservative president in America again. Barry Goldwater has killed it. Liberalism is here to stay.” After 1980, “Well, the New Deal is dead. It’ll never come back. It’s going to be swept off the face of the Earth by the Reagan revolution. Social Security is on its last legs.” After Obama in 2008, “Well, we’re now in a post-racial America. Racism is gone. Congratulations, we did it.” 

So there’s this trend of overreacting to a presidential election, and we have to remember that a presidential election, for all of the very real ramifications it has on contemporary politics and policy, is but one data point in a much larger stream. And it’s a data point that I think we need to take in its proper context, because we had 123 million votes cast in this election. If you moved 50,000 of those in just three states, we’d be talking about President Hillary Clinton today, and drawing a whole bunch of other wrong, big conclusions about what that meant. 

SW: Well, let’s look at the proper data point in order to start to understand this. Certainly something happened 50 years ago, and you mentioned the Johnson–Goldwater election. A rupture did occur, I think, in American political life about the time of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Vietnam War, and then Watergate. And I think, in some ways, anything we’re talking about is still a product of that rupture. 

Conservatism didn’t fade away at all. It was just clearing its throat, if you will. Certainly something happened, and it had to do with civil rights, and it had to do with foreign policy, and how the two collided. And it had to do, I think, with — and this is very pertinent to what happened in November — the legitimacy of the political parties and of the political system, between the credibility gap of the late ’60s that was laid at Johnson’s door, and then Watergate. And I think what we’re seeing today, in part, can be seen as the final denouement of the delegitimization that occurred back then. Wilentz

KK: That makes a lot of sense. If we think back to that period from the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s, you can see all sorts of … for lack of a better term, the establishment cracks up. First and foremost the political firmament, the kind of postwar consensus, for all of its flaws; people believed there was a certain center of gravity there, a certain trust in the political system that gets badly eroded first by Vietnam and then obliterated by Watergate. There had been a certain trust in the postwar economy, a sense that the industrial economy, in its kind of catering to a consumer culture, was constantly on the rise. That, too, peaks at about the same time for a different set of reasons: the rise of deindustrialization; the new competition from abroad, like West Germany and Japan; the shift of factories to places from China to Mexico. So the manufacturing economy starts to crumble, too. And then there are changes that I think we would regard as good: The crack of the old racial order and the old systems of segregation, the old systems of immigration restriction — those fall in ’64 and ’65, and set apace a brand new world, a world that is much more open but I think a lot more chaotic, too. And so the ground had shifted underneath people’s feet in a variety of ways, all at the same time. 

Read the entire transcript here.


What Happened to the Easter Prayer Breakfast?


Gorsuch is in.  The Easter Prayer Breakfast is out.

Michael Wear, who directed faith outreach for Barack Obama’s 2012 election campaign, reflects on the fact that Donald Trump will not be continuing Obama’s annual Easter tradition.

Here is a taste of his piece in The Washington Post titled “Remember When the White House Had Faith?

It appears likely that President Trump will not continue the White House Easter Prayer Breakfast, a tradition that began in 2010 under President Barack Obama where he would invite Christian leaders from across the country to join him for a service in the East Room of the White House. It would include singing, a sermon and prayers, and the president would discuss the significance of Easter for him.

Even today, it surprises many to hear that the president would speak so personally about Easter. In 2010, for instance, he reflected on the theological idea of redemption:

But as Christians, we believe that redemption can be delivered — by faith in Jesus Christ. And the possibility of redemption can make straight the crookedness of a character; make whole the incompleteness of a soul. Redemption makes life, however fleeting here on Earth, resound with eternal hope.

Fast forward to today’s White House, with a man who is undoubtedly one of the most religiously illiterate and thoroughly secular presidents in American history. Ironically, without the vote of churchgoing Christians, Trump would not be in the White House today.

Read the entire piece here.


“The Theology of Ted Cruz” Wins Award From The Evangelical Press Association


I just got some exciting news.

Some of you may remember my April 2016 piece at Christianity Today:  “The Theology of Ted Cruz.” Today the Evangelical Press Association released its “Higher Goal Awards” for the best evangelical writing of 2016 and this piece won first prize in the “Article Series” category.

Just to be clear, it was actually Christianity Today that won the award for its 3-part “The Theology of Political Candidates” series.  My piece on Cruz was honored alongside essays on the religious beliefs of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders by (respectively) Michael Horton and Yehiel Poupko.

See all the winners here.

Alan Jacobs to Evangelicals: If Character No Longer Counts, Then What Does Count?

Trump fans

In an essay in the Spring 2017 issue of National Affairs, Baylor humanities professor Alan Jacobs wonders why so many evangelicals no longer value character in their presidential candidates.  He writes:

One of the most surprising developments of the 2016 presidential campaign was the wholesale abandonment by many conservative Christians, including many Catholics and most evangelicals, of a position that they had once held almost unanimously: In politics, character counts. It is not difficult to understand how this happened, though people who share many fundamental religious convictions will be debating for a long time the wisdom of replacing the familiar standards for evaluating political candidates.

All this has received a good deal of attention in the press. But one very important element of this change of emphasis has been neglected: If character no longer counts, or at least is no longer definitive, then what does count? What criteria should determine a Christian’s attitude toward a political candidate? There is no uniform answer to this question, but the most common answer given by Christian leaders supporting Donald Trump is a troubling one. It replaces the public assessment of virtue with the private judgments of pastors. And it has consequences not only for Christianity in America, but also, thanks to the sheer number of Christians in America, for the whole social order and political culture of our country.

The piece critiques the pro-Trump arguments of William Bennett, R.R. Reno, Mark Bauerlein, Jerry Falwell Jr., David Barton, and others.

Read it here.

To What Extent are Trump Evangelicals Connected to the Racial Politics of the Alt-Right?

Trump Bible

Last month I chatted via phone with a couple of national religion reporters who were trying to make sense of evangelical support (81%) for Donald Trump.  These reporters had been reading things, mostly from progressive sources, that connected Trump evangelicals to the Alt-Right movement, Dominionism, and other forms of Christian nationalism.

Our conversations took place right around the time that the Senate was vetting Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Secretary of Education.  Left-leaning magazines and websites were connecting DeVos’s Calvinism to some kind of sinister attempt to turn America into the “Kingdom of God.”

These reporters found partial truth in some of these published pieces, but ultimately found them unsatisfying.  They did not seem to capture the lives and views of the evangelicals that they had been encountering in their fieldwork.

I would place Sarah Posner’s recent article at the website of the New Republic among the progressive writing that these reporters were referencing.  Posner writes:

In the end, conservative Christians backed Trump in record numbers. He won 81 per- cent of the white evangelical vote—a higher share than George W. Bush, John McCain, or Mitt Romney. As a result, the religious right—which for decades has grounded its political appeal in moral “values” such as “life” and “family” and “religious freedom”—has effectively become a subsidiary of the alt-right, yoked to Trump’s white nationalist agenda. Evangelicals have traded Ronald Reagan’s gospel-inspired depiction of America as a “shining city on a hill” for Trump’s dark vision of “American carnage.” And in doing so, they have returned the religious right to its own origins—as a movement founded to maintain the South’s segregationist “way of life.”

“The overwhelming support for Trump heralds the religious right coming full circle to embrace its roots in racism,” says Randall Balmer, a historian of American religion at Dartmouth College. “The breakthrough of the 2016 election lies in the fact that the religious right, in its support for a thrice-married, self-confessed sexual predator, finally dispensed with the fiction that it was concerned about abortion or ‘family values.’ ”

These two paragraphs, in my opinion, are only partially correct.  I have long been a fan of Randall Balmer‘s work, but have never bought into his argument that the origins of the Religious Right can be traced solely to segregation and racism.  I don’t dispute the fact that Moral Majority founder Paul Weyrich told Balmer that the Bob Jones segregation case  (Green v. Connally ) was the impetus for conservative evangelicals and fundamentalist to unite in a political crusade to save the soul of America.  When Balmer revealed his conversation with Weyrich in his book Thy Kingdom Come, and referenced it again in his recent biography of Jimmy Carter, he was offering new insight into the roots of the Religious Right.  Indeed, evangelicals in the 1970s South were upset that the federal government was asking them to desegregate some of their schools and academies.  When Carter, a self-proclaimed “born again” Christian, supported the federal government on this matter, Christian segregationalists abandoned him and turned toward Reagan and the GOP.

But if one takes a longer look at the rise of the Religious Right, one is hard-pressed to say that race was the only, even primary, factor in its founding.  The so-called Bob Jones case was one of many historical factors that mobilized evangelical Christians in the 1970s.  One might trace things back to the Supreme Court decisions, in 1962 and 1963 respectively, that removed prayer and Bible reading from public schools.  One can appeal to the 1965 Immigration Act which brought large numbers of non-Western immigrants (and their religious beliefs) into the country.  One can appeal to Roe v. WadeI have argued that the Bicentennial (1976) got many conservative evangelicals thinking about the relationship between “God and Country.”  All of these things, in addition to race, contributed to evangelical political action in these years.  People like Jerry Falwell were able to harness a perfect storm of disgruntled Christians, much in the same way that Donald Trump was able to harness growing discontent among the white working class in 2016.  Those who gathered together with Weyrich in 1979 to discuss Green v. Connally certainly had other things on their minds as well.  Government interference in their local academies was symptomatic of a larger cultural problem.

Balmer’s “race” theory (which he always, when writing for public audiences, juxtaposes against Roe v. Wade as the true origins of the Religious Right) provides a usable past for progressive reporters such as Posner.  Once one becomes convinced that race is paramount for understanding the roots of the Religious Right it becomes easy to connect evangelical support for Trump in 2016 to the racism of the Alt-Right.

Don’t get me wrong, there are racist evangelicals.  I know some of them.  I also think Posner is right to suggest that many of them read Alt-Right websites and generally support the kind of things said by people like Steve Bannon or Breitbart news.

But I am not convinced that all evangelicals who voted for Trump are racist or were motivated by racial fear when they entered the ballot box.  I would venture to guess that only a small minority of them would associate themselves with the kinds of racist people and organizations that Posner mentions in her New Republic piece.

For example, I live just outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  Anyone who has lived here knows that south-central Pennsylvania is a pretty red place.  (My GOP Congressmen often runs unopposed and my county went heavily for Trump in 2016). I teach at an evangelical Christian college, attend a large evangelical church (some might even call it a mega-church), spend a lot of time with evangelicals (including folks who would say that they are tried and true members of the “Religious Right”), and think that I am in-touch with what is going on in the evangelical world–both locally and nationally. (I try to read Christianity Today and the Harrisburg Patriot-News every day).  But until I read Posner’s article I was completely unaware that there was a neo-Nazi, pro-Trump rally in Harrisburg “days before the election.” What the leaders of that rally said about Jews, Hitler, and Muslims was disgusting.  It does not represent anything even closely related to the spirit of evangelical Christianity.

Yet Posner uses this rally in Harrisburg, and the terrible things that were said, to support her claim that the “religious right” is “now at the service of the alt-right.”  Sadly, uninformed readers of the New Republic, many of whom, I am guessing, have not spent much time with evangelicals or understand them fully, will think that Posner’s piece represents most evangelicals—even the ones who voted for Trump.

Just for the record, I do not know of any people in my large evangelical congregation who attended this Alt-Right rally in Harrisburg.  While it is certainly possible that there were people from my church who were there that I don’t know about, I think I can say with certainty that the things that happened at this rally would have been condemned from the pulpit of my church and by all of the members I know.

I largely agree with Posner and some of the anti-Trump evangelicals she interviewed when they say that “evangelicals are a tool of Donald Trump.” Anyone who has read this blog over the past year knows my thoughts about this.  But evangelicals voted for Trump for all kinds of reasons—the economy, the Supreme Court (religious liberty, marriage, abortion), racial fears, immigration, etc….  Frankly, I don’t think we will ever be able to understand completely why so many evangelicals pulled the lever for the POTUS.  Just when I think I have it all figured out I run into a fellow evangelical who voted for Trump for reasons that don’t fit my paradigm.

In the end, Posner’s piece plays to her base, perpetuates the idea that evangelicals–even those of the Religious Right–are a bunch of racists (I am guessing that she does not really believe this), and does very little to help us understand the complexity of the evangelical movement in America.

Beinart: Secularism is Bad for American Politics


I am not used to seeing Peter Beinart write about religion, but his recent piece in The Atlantic makes sense to me.  Here is the argument:

As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.

And a taste:

When pundits describe the Americans who sleep in on Sundays, they often conjure left-leaning hipsters. But religious attendance is down among Republicans, too. According to data assembled for me by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), the percentage of white Republicans with no religious affiliation has nearly tripled since 1990. This shift helped Trump win the GOP nomination. During the campaign, commentators had a hard time reconciling Trump’s apparent ignorance of Christianity and his history of pro-choice and pro-gay-rights statements with his support from evangelicals. But as Notre Dame’s Geoffrey Layman noted, “Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.” A Pew Research Center poll last March found that Trump trailed Ted Cruz by 15 points among Republicans who attended religious services every week. But he led Cruz by a whopping 27 points among those who did not.

Why did these religiously unaffiliated Republicans embrace Trump’s bleak view of America more readily than their churchgoing peers? Has the absence of church made their lives worse? Or are people with troubled lives more likely to stop attending services in the first place? Establishing causation is difficult, but we know that culturally conservative white Americans who are disengaged from church experience less economic success and more family breakdown than those who remain connected, and they grow more pessimistic and resentful. Since the early 1970s, according to W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, rates of religious attendance have fallen more than twice as much among whites without a college degree as among those who graduated college. And even within the white working class, those who don’t regularly attend church are more likely to suffer from divorce, addiction, and financial distress. As Wilcox explains, “Many conservative, Protestant white men who are only nominally attached to a church struggle in today’s world. They have traditional aspirations but often have difficulty holding down a job, getting and staying married, and otherwise forging real and abiding ties in their community. The culture and economy have shifted in ways that have marooned them with traditional aspirations unrealized in their real-world lives.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Election of 1800 and Today

larson-posterYesterday the Messiah College History Department hosted Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edward Larson for a lecture titled “The Election of 1800 and the Birth of Partisan Presidential Politics.”  The lecture stemmed from Larson’s 2007 book A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign.

I will not offer a blow-by-blow account of the lecture here.  Those interested should read Larson’s book.  It is fast-moving and accessible.

But as Larson lectured to a room packed with undergraduates, faculty, and community members, I was once again struck by the many similarities (and differences) between the Election of 1800 and the Election of 2016.

Here is how I introduced Larson’s lecture:

Was 2016 the most contentious election in American history?  It seems that every election we hear the same things: “Political polarization has never been worse.”  “The rancor and divisiveness is unprecedented.”  But when historians hear words like “never been worse” or “unprecedented,” our natural inclination is skepticism.  As Americans we can so easily become enslaved by the narcissism of the present that we start to believe that what is happening today is the “best,” the “worst,” or the “most hard fought” of ALL TIME.

We can have an honest debate about whether the 2016 election was the most divisive election in American history. But any such debate MUST take into the consideration the Election of 1800.  This was an election of cantankerous politicking.  It was the first United States presidential election that saw the peaceful transition of power from one political party to another.  And it had a controversial ending that makes last night’s announcement of “Best Picture” pale in comparison.

We are privileged today to have Ed Larson with us to help us sort it all out. 

As Larson gave us a blow-by-blow account of this controversial election he focused his remarks around the three themes.  As he sees it, the Election of 1800 was a contest over:

  1. National Security.  Adams and the Federalists claimed that they could protect the United States from the outside interference of armed French radicals and the threat of the French navy in the Caribbean.
  2. Immigration.  The Federalists had just passed the Alien Act which made immigration into the United States difficult. It allowed the government to turn away immigrants and refugees out of fear that some of them (radicals) might try to overthrow the republic.
  3. Religion.  The Federalist painted Jefferson as an atheist.  Jefferson painted Adams as a religious hypocrite who favored a state church.

Sound familiar?  Perhaps we might even add a fourth point–freedom of the press or freedom of speech.  The Sedition Act made anti-Federalist/anti-Adams rhetoric punishable by law.

As I tweeted following the lecture:

Statistics are Not Enough

About three hours ago I tweeted:

Upon first reading, my tweet seems to suggest that an overwhelming number of the American population did not vote for Donald Trump.  Those with a particular axe to grind against Trump might even use this statistic to argue that 80% of the American people oppose Donald Trump.

I actually ended this tweet with the word “discuss” because I wanted to see how folks on Twitter would respond to such information. I wanted to make a small point (perhaps obvious to some, but not everybody) about why we need humanists and others with expertise in the liberal arts disciplines.  So far 25 people have retweeted it and 38 people have “liked” it.

15 people took my call to “discuss” seriously and responded to the tweet. Here are some of those responses:

As several tweeters have pointed out, my original tweet was flawed because it assumed that all 325 million people in America were eligible to vote.  Some brought up other interesting problems with the tweet. But what I wanted to point out, and I hope that some K-12 teachers might find this useful, is that nearly all the responders interpreted my original tweet by placing it into some kind of historical or political context.  Some did so in order to correct me.  Others did so to provide deeper meaning to the tweet.  I have smart Twitter followers 🙂

This is what humanists do.  We take raw information like this and we make meaning of it. We situate it in a larger story.  We offer context.  We draw out implications.  We provide nuance.

My twitter community did yeoman’s work here.  Based on these tweets we can conclude that a large number of people did not vote for Trump, but the number of non-Trump voters was fewer than the 80% I proposed.   We also learned a thing or two about voter turnout.  And new questions were raised about the historical implications of my tweet.

This was just a little experiment with virtually no serious consequences for American life. Having said that, I hope, in some small way, that it reminds us of the importance of the humanities to the our democratic life together.  Statistics need to be fact-checked. But they also need to be interpreted.

Some Very Quick Thoughts on What Historians Might Write About Trump’s Election

trump-pressJohn Lewis may be correct.  The Russian hacking controversy and the last-minute Comey/FBI revelations about Hillary Clinton’s e-mails has deligitimized Donald Trump’s presidency. Yes, the Electoral College selected him last month.  Yes, he will assume office next week. Yes, Clinton was not a perfect candidate. She probably should have offered a more compelling message to the American people and finished the campaign in a stronger fashion.  And we may never know if Putin’s hacks and Comey’s announcement had any direct effect on voting in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania or elsewhere.

I am afraid that Lewis’s remarks about Trump’s legitimacy, while important, will get little traction outside of the Democratic Party.  But historians will write about all of this.  People will always wonder if Trump won fair and square.  There will always be a figurative asterisk next to Trump’s name in the history books.  Some historians will try to defend Trump, but in order to do so they will need to dredge all of this stuff up again and bring it to the attention of the American public.

And if Americans ever get around to doing away with the Electoral College, the Trump victory (and the Bush victory in 2000 and others) will be seen by many as a betrayal of democracy made possible by an antiquated and out of date electoral system.  Al Gore and Hillary Clinton will be portrayed as victims of such a system.

Of course this is all very preliminary.  Historians will also judge Trump on what happens in the next four years and beyond.  We do know, however, that Trump’s kryptonite is the idea that he is not a legitimate POTUS.

We Are a Republic, Stupid!

I am seeing this more and more from the Trump fans who I meet in face-to-face encounters and online.  In the last month I have been told over and over again that America is a “republic” and not a “democracy.”

Of course we are a republic.  But we are also a democracy in the sense that the people play a role in electing their public officials.  We have become more and more democratic over the years.  The Electoral College, for example, largely votes according to the will of the people.  Unlike the original Constitution, the people now directly elect their United States Senators.  This was accomplished by the 17th Amendment in 1913.  Women (19th Amendment–1920) and African Americans (15th Amendment–1870 and later the Voting Rights Act of 1965) can now vote.  There are no longer land qualifications for office.  And we could go on.

So why are so many Trump supporters chiding me and others for calling the United States a “democracy?”  Could it be because Trump did not win the popular vote?

And by the way, if people are so passionate about defending the idea that we are “republic” I would challenge them to consider the moral responsibility that citizens have in such a form of government.  According to the founders (and the Greeks and Romans before them), a republican citizen will regularly sacrifice his or her own self-interest for the greater good of the republic.  They would vote for what benefited the nation, even if that might work against their own particular interest.  Just a thought.