THE IMMORAL MAJORITY: HOW EVANGELICALS CHOSE POLITICAL POWER OVER CHRISTIAN VALUES
By Ben Howe
JESUS AND JOHN WAYNE: HOW WHITE EVANGELICALS CORRUPTED A FAITH AND FRACTURED A NATION
By Kristin Kobes Du Mez
THE POWER WORSHIPPERS: INSIDE THE DANGEROUS RISE OF RELIGIOUS NATIONALISM
By Katherine Stewart
UNHOLY: HOW WHITE CHRISTIAN NATIONALISTS POWERED THE TRUMP PRESIDENCY, AND THE DEVASTATING LEGACY THEY LEFT BEHIND
By Sarah Posner
There were many things that were incongruous about Donald Trump being elected president of the United States in 2016. For starters: how did such a figure become a champion of the political Right? He had been a Democrat in the past, and was considered to be a liberal (in the American sense) on many cultural issues, like abortion. He was opposed to neocon foreign policy, one of the few areas where he seemed to have any interest in policy at all, and seemed indifferent to neoliberal economics beyond anything that would be to his immediate personal benefit. A notorious scofflaw, by the time of the January 6 insurrection and his second impeachment he’d made a mockery of standing for law and order. As far as “family values” went, that was only a punchline to a joke in very bad taste.
But perhaps the greatest incongruity of all was the rock-ribbed support for him among evangelical Christians, some 80% of whom voted for Trump in 2016 and again in 2020. The religious Right rallied behind a figure who was, “of course,” as Katherine Stewart drily notes, “the man who by all accounts has the least claim of any public figure in recent memory to those virtues that are commonly identified as ‘Christian’”. As Ben Howe puts it, this was a “story of the evangelical movement embracing someone who was not in it or of it, who was not like it and did not like it, and who represented culturally and morally all that it opposed.” So how was this justified, and why did it happen?
Howe, himself an evangelical of the Never Trump variety, breaks the first question down into what he sees as the three rationalizations evangelicals employed to justify their support for what he dubs “the new good news.” First there was “vessel theology”: the idea that it was not for Christian voters to judge the means God had decided to use to achieve his (God’s) ends. The second rationalization was compartmentalization: Trump wasn’t being elected to be a good shepherd to the soul of the nation, but to kick ass, both foreign and domestic. In other words, there is no spiritual dimension to political decisions but a complete separation of church and state. Finally, if these have failed to move you, there is the lesser-of-two-evils rationalization. Sure Trump was a moral degenerate, but what about Hillary or any of the Democrats? Aren’t they the ones holding Satanic black masses where babies are sacrificed to alien pedophile rings?
The second question, of why evangelicals so enthusiastically went for Trump is, like many “why?” questions, harder to answer. Motivation is always tricky ground to enter into, especially when analysing what appears to be perverse behaviour. That said, in supporting Trump, Howe charges that evangelicals have done irreparable damage to their brand, which means you do have to ask why they did it.
Howe settles on “a simple answer: selfishness.” Unpacking this, what I think his analysis illustrates more broadly is the way evangelicals became hooked on the drug of rage that Trump embodied so absolutely. Trump was the evangelist of a pervasive culture of resentment and “the new era of anger.” Indeed he was resentment and anger incarnate, and for a group that saw itself as sick of losing his was a gospel of endless winning, whatever that might mean. Instead of standing as a rejection of evangelical values he was the demon that the movement summoned forth. The two then became joined at the hip, feeding off each other in a perverse symbiosis. As Sarah Posner reports, “The [religious right] movement desperately needed a savior; Trump was eager to oblige because of his bottomless need for a worshipful retinue. Trump and the religious right, then, are each essential to the other’s success.” And not just success – which can be defined for Trump as staying out of jail and, more ambitiously, for the Christian right as “flipping the script on civil rights, casting conservative Christians as the real victims of prejudice and discrimination, undermining the separation of church and state, and implementing a totalizing legal structure of ‘biblical’ law” – but, finally, essential to their mutual survival.
I began by talking about Trump as an incongruous figure, but this is only one way of looking at him. For other observers he stands more as the terminal point in a long regression. In Jesus and John Wayne Kristin Lobes Du Mez makes the case:
How could the “family values” conservatives support a man who flouted every value they insisted they held dear? How could the self-professed “Moral Majority” embrace a candidate who reveled in vulgarity? How could evangelicals who’d turned “WWJD” (“What Would Jesus Do?”) into a national phenomenon justify their support for a man who seemed the very antithesis of the savior they claimed to emulate?
Pundits scrambled to explain. Evangelicals were holding their noses, choosing the lesser of two evils – and Hillary Clinton was the greatest evil. Evangelicals were thinking in purely transactional terms, as Trump himself is often said to do, voting for Trump because he promised to deliver Supreme Court appointments that would protect the unborn and secure their own “religious liberty.” Or maybe the polls were misleading. By confusing “evangelicals-in-name-only” with good, church-attending, Bible-believing Christians, sloppy pollsters were giving evangelicalism a bad rap.
But evangelical support for Trump was no aberration, nor was it merely a pragmatic choice. It was, rather, the culmination of evangelicals’ embrace of militant masculinity, an ideology that enshrines patriarchal authority and condones the callous display of power, at home and abroad. By the time Trump arrived proclaiming himself their savior, conservative white evangelicals had already traded a faith that privileges humility and elevates “the least of these” for one that derides gentleness as the province of wusses. Rather than turning the other cheek, they’d resolved to defend their faith and their nation, secure in the knowledge that the ends justify the means. Having replaced the Jesus of the Gospels with a vengeful warrior Christ, it’s no wonder many came to think of Trump in the same way. In 2016, many observers were stunned at evangelicals’ apparent betrayal of their own values. In reality, evangelicals did not cast their vote despite their beliefs, but because of them.
In other words, family values had not been rejected so much as redefined in a reactionary way, being all about patriarchal family structures headed by a heroically masculine father figure lording over a sweetly submissive domestic helpmeet. “Evangelicals hadn’t betrayed their values. Donald Trump was the culmination of their half-century-long pursuit of a militant Christian masculinity.”
This point is one that’s often been addressed by political commentators trying to judge how much the rise of Trump marked a break with conservative orthodoxy and the Republican establishment and how much it showed continuity with an established historical arc. Was Trump’s election an aberration, or the dark harvest of seeds sown long ago? Looking back over a century at the fashioning of a masculine, militaristic Christian hero in American pop culture, Du Mez argues for continuity. Evangelicals didn’t just support Trump; in a very real sense they made him. Or to return to the image I used earlier, he was the demon they summoned and then embraced.
Part of the difficulty when discussing these matters lies in defining what it is conservatives and evangelicals believe. What are their core principles and values? Keeping in mind that political and religious creeds evolve, sometimes quite rapidly, I would say that conservatism today is basically neoliberal in its ideology, meaning that it’s opposed to government having any function at all aside from protecting private property. So basically just opposition to taxes and government regulation. Squaring that with a Christian message isn’t easy, but is nevertheless essential as that has become the political freight the religious Right has to carry.
Evangelicalism, however, is a more slippery term. Part of what makes it slippery is that it has become detached from any theological content. “In truth,” Posner writes, “what it means to be an evangelical has always depended on the world beyond the faith.” As critics, even within the evangelical movement, have complained, many people now consider themselves evangelical only because “they watch Fox News, consider themselves religious, and vote Republican.” Indeed, “among evangelicals, high levels of theological illiteracy mean that many ‘evangelicals’ hold views traditionally defined as heresy, calling into question the centrality of theology to evangelicalism generally.”
I talked about how political and religious labels like conservative and evangelical have begun to lose their meaning, but if we take a step back we can say that even categories like politics and religion have been tossed into the hopper. The lines between church and state have obviously blurred any clear or meaningful demarcation. To paraphrase T. S. Eliot, politics is our new religion, and so is our religion. But there can be no mistaking which is the junior partner in this alliance of church and state. Politics, specifically Republican politics, hasn’t just infected American religion but taken it over. And, like Trump’s refashioning of the Republican party, the takeover has been hostile. Religious extremism has gone mainstream with an extreme political agenda that Katherine Stewart in The Power Worshippers sees as antithetical to the entire American political tradition.
The agenda being set isn’t about values but power. As always, one has to ignore the rhetoric, the words, and see what’s actually being done. Or, taking another route, we should follow the money. “The religious right is not a single organization,” Stewart writes, “and yet it is surprisingly well organized in a certain sense. It may be perceived as a grassroots movement, not answering in a formal way to a command-and-control hierarchy. But it is the big-picture strategists who are, to a largely underappreciated degree, acting as its architects and engineers.” What this means in effect is that “the Bible of Christian nationalism answers to the requirements of the individuals who fund the movement and grant it power at the highest levels of government.” Schematically, the movement serves “the emotional needs of its adherents, the organizational needs of its clerical leaders, and the political needs and ambitions of its funders.”
For a specific example of how this works, Stewart looks at how Russia is used as a model (a shining city on a hill, if you like) for American Christian nationalists. Now the way the American Right has drawn closer to Russia is a point I’ve made before. After the fall of the Soviet Union, American “conservatives” saw Russia no longer as an evil empire but an exemplar, a textbook case of oligarchic takeover, single-party rule, and media control. As part of this process Russia’s ruling elite wrapped themselves in Orthodox vestments, despite Russia actually being one of the east religious nations on earth. This would dovetail perfectly with the use of religion by the American Right. Stewart is worth quoting here at length:
The Christian nationalists’ affection for Mr. Putin and all things Russian goes much deeper than a tactical alliance aimed at saving souls and defeating “homosexuals” and “gender ideology.” At the core of the attraction lies a shared political vision. America’s Christian nationalists have not overlooked Putin’s authoritarian style of government; they have embraced it as an ideal. During the 2016 presidential campaign Mike Pence hailed Mr. Putin as “a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country.” The Christian nationalist hasn’t shied away from the fusion of church and state that characterizes Putin’s regime. On the contrary, it appears they want to emulate it. They love Russia, it seems, because they hate America and its form of secular, constitutional democracy.
When Russians undertook a direct attack on American democracy in 2016 with the clear aims of electing Donald Trump as president and undermining Americans’ trust in their system of government, Christian nationalist leaders did more than join Trump in the spurious cries of “No collusion.” They joined him in denying that there ever was as an attack. They cheered him on as he obstructed efforts to investigate the attack. And then they joined hi attacking Democrats, the FBI, the “fake media,” the “deep state,” and everyone else who suggested that investigating and countering an attack on American was a good idea.
It seems sadly fitting that so many of the self-anointed patriots of America’s Christian nationalist movement should have found themselves working with foreign powers intent on undermining our national security, our social fabric, the integrity of our elections, and the future of American democracy. This is a movement that never accepted the promise of America. It never believed that a republic could be founded on a universal ideal of equality, not on a particular creed, or that it might seek out reasoned answers to humanity’s challenges rather than enforce old dogmas. It never subscribed to the nation’s original motto, E Pluribus Unum, that out of many, we could become one. From the beginning, its aim was to redeem the nation by crushing the pluralistic heart of our country. The day when it will have the power to do so is fast approaching.
The cynicism is jaw-dropping. America must be destroyed in order to be “saved.” The foot soldiers of the authoritarian movement will be Christians marching onward to a New Jerusalem, or Moscow, untainted by democracy and the rule of law.
Meanwhile, Trump was only a golden calf for the funders of the movement to present to the people, a false god who would liberate his followers from the rigorous yoke and doctrinal messiness of values and moral law and allow them to freely hate whoever they wanted. Religion, as Posner writes, “is just a cover for the endgame,” which is not the Second Coming or Rapture but the worldwide dismantling of democratic institutions, human rights, and humanitarianism (in their eyes, the latter word being now “not an accolade but an epithet”).
That all of this makes a mockery of Christian teaching, indeed inverts it entirely by turning love to hate, is, in the final analysis, beside the point. Trump has never had any interest in religion of any type, presumably seeing it as being for suckers. His followers have, thus far, only proven him right.
Review first published online March 22, 2023.