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. Wade. I 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.