Trump famously once said that he could shoot a man on Fifth Avenue in broad daylight and hold onto his supporters anyway. For his white evangelical base, at least, that seems to be true. Eighty-one percent of white evangelical voters chose Trump. Since his inauguration, Trump’s approval rating among white evangelicals has remained steadily high. It’s currently at 71 percent, just one point down from its all-time high in April.
Why did white evangelicals support Trump in such numbers? And why do they still support him? That’s what independent filmmaker Christopher Maloney, 32, whose documentaries have appeared on PBS and the Discovery Channel, decided to find out.
In his documentary In God We Trump, now on iTunes and Amazon Prime Video, Maloney explored the long-standing relationship between white evangelicals and the GOP, and how Trump captured not only the GOP nomination, but the party’s full-throated support.
I spoke with Maloney about his filmmaking process, Christian nationalism, justifications for Trump, and the end of days. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for length and clarity.
Tara Isabella Burton
So, before we get into the specifics of In God We Trump, I’d love to know about your own thought process behind making this film. Certainly, the rise of the evangelical right in politics has been a much wider, longer-standing story than Trump’s ascension to power. What makes now different, and what made you decide “this is the story I want to tell now”?
Right after the election, I was kind of like a lot of people: in a state of grief. I started trying to process what had happened and how it had happened. And the thing that I was most upset about was how he had gotten so much Christian support because, having grown up in that world and still considering myself a Christian, that was something that I didn’t understand about a community that I thought I knew. So just for my own edification, I started trying to figure out how the connection between evangelicals and Trump had formed, and what they got out of it.
Tara Isabella Burton
I understand it’s a question it takes the whole documentary to answer, but what is that connection? How do you conceive of the relationship between white evangelicals and Donald Trump overall that got him elected?
Evangelicals, especially since the 1970s, have been trying through movements like the Moral Majority, the religious right, through people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, to gain power and influence with deciding the norms of America, the legal norms of what they think America should be. They’re still wrapped up in the idea that America is a Christian nation. And part of that means getting rid of abortion and also getting rid of same-sex marriage, things that make them basically uncomfortable. That’s always been a big part of how evangelicals vote: abortion and same-sex marriage.
This time, though, was different because they chose to vote for those things even though the person [they were voting for] had no discernible moral center. And that usually plays into how evangelicals vote: someone’s character, if someone goes to church, if someone professes to be a Christian. Trump didn’t really fake it that well. He obviously didn’t know the Bible. He didn’t really go to church very much. He’s been divorced several times and they didn’t care about that this time around. And that’s what made it different than every other time they’ve just voted for whatever Republican was available.
Tara Isabella Burton
So we’ve established that white evangelicals were willing to vote for Trump, even if it was by “holding their noses.” But I’m curious, next, about what justifications evangelicals have offered to defend that vote. From the “end justifies the means” logic to, say, the propagandistic notion that Trump was chosen by God directly, it seems we’ve seen a few different defenses. Can you tell me more about them?
That’s the question that’s at the center of the film. Certainly the Supreme Court was a really big part of it. Like [in making the film] I heard Christians, more than once, explain that, yeah, you know, Trump is maybe not a very good guy, but he’s going to change the court and then we won’t have legalized abortion anymore.
Or there’s the argument made by [prominent prosperity gospel preacher and Trump advisor] Paula White, that Trump “became a Christian” in 2015. So that’s how we can justify giving him our vote.
The most extreme narrative is, I looked at so much footage of television preachers saying that God had told them that he had chosen Trump to be the president. And so if he was God’s choice, every other thing that came up that they might object to about him was irrelevant because we don’t have to understand God’s choices. God works in mysterious ways. So if he’s chosen this guy to be president, some preacher on TV believes it, and then the preachers who pastor churches who watched that show then take the message from that and then pass it on to the congregation. That was a much bigger part of it than I think most people realized.
An interesting thing is that Kenneth Copeland, who’s one of those influential TV preachers, he had said, I believe, that same thing about Ted Cruz at one point when he thought Ted Cruz was going to get the nomination, like God chose Ted Cruz. And then when Trump got the nomination, instead it changed to “well, God chose Trump.”
Tara Isabella Burton
So, your film contains a number of powerful and illuminating interviews with scholars and authorities on the rise of the Trump evangelical right, as well as on the Christian left, such as eco-theologian Leah Schade, who had some incredible insights on Trump, Christianity, and the environment. And we see a lot of video clips of evangelical Trump supporters drawn from publicly available sources, which you contextualize beautifully. But something that we don’t see a lot of in the film is direct interviews with Trump supporters themselves. Was that a conscious choice, or did it arise from the filmmaking process?
That’s what I see as the great missing part of the film. I wanted to have people who had willingly voted for Trump because of their Christian beliefs and who could sit face-to-face with me and explain how they reached the conclusion that that was who they were going to vote for, and how their faith led to that choice. I tried for months to find somebody. I couldn’t get a single person to agree to do it. There was nobody who was willing to defend their stance on camera with me. I was accused of being the liberal media and they didn’t trust me or want to talk to me.
I think also it’s a lot harder to defend yourself when you’re not in a group of people or in a mob or rally. When you’re just one person by yourself, it’s much easier for your argument to fall apart. And I think that’s partly why it didn’t come together. But it’s something that I really wish I had been able to include.
But the part of the film I’m proudest of is the opening [in which Maloney creates a montage of clips from prominent evangelical leaders, like Jerry Falwell Jr., extolling Trump’s virtues during the campaign]. I felt like the argument came together pretty well because they’ve been so public about their support that I was able to pull together all of these clips that are in the public forum. They told their churches to go out and vote for him, and that evangelical vote was enormous and was extremely influential in getting him elected. That argument in the beginning lays the groundwork for everything in the film that comes after.
Tara Isabella Burton
Let’s talk about something more cheerful: the end of days. Another narrative I’ve seen consistently present in evangelical support of Trump is the impending apocalypse. Of course, different evangelical groups have different ideas of how exactly this is going to come about, but often it seems that a lot of Trump’s decisions — moving the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, say — are viewed in the light of an eschatological, rather than just historical, background. Can you talk about how ideas about the apocalypse play into evangelical support of Trump?
I’ve heard a lot of evangelicals talk about how Trump is the “chaos candidate.” Chaos is a word that might bring unrest to me and most people, but to evangelicals, that’s all part of us being in the end times, which most of them believe we are in. So if Trump is bringing about chaos, that fits in perfectly with their idea of the world being in the phase where it’s actually ending. So chaos is fine, and violence is fine, and unrest in the streets is all part of what Scripture tells them is supposed to happen. And the end of the world is a welcome thing for evangelicals because they get to go to paradise. So if Trump is going to help bring that about, that’s wonderful.
The other thing is that specifically with the idea of being a steward of the earth or paying attention to climate change, there’s no reason for evangelicals to want to pay attention to those things because this is not their home. This is just a place that they’re passing through before they get to heaven. So if Trump thinks climate change is a hoax, and if Trump is not going to do anything to stop the natural world from being destroyed, they don’t care.
In fact, many of them see it as a good thing because when the earth is destroyed [according to some forms of end-times theology], Jesus comes back, they get to go to heaven, and it’s not their problem anymore. So him bringing about chaos or him causing civil unrest in the streets or any kind of tribulation fits into their end-times narrative.
Tara Isabella Burton
Did the filmmaking process change your perspective? Did you have any insights into evangelicals, and their future, that you didn’t expect?
My mind actually did change on some things when I started making the film. I had concluded that it would need kind of a downer ending and that there was no conclusion except that we just had to wait it out while the evangelicals died off.
But what I instead found was all of these people [including a number of anti-Trump Christian activists profiled in the film] who have maintained their faith and just abandoned a conservative sect of Christianity. The church in America as it stands probably will end at some point. I think the time’s up for it, but that doesn’t mean that the message of Jesus will end.
Tara Isabella Burton
You absolutely do spend a lot of time in the film talking about the resurgence of a religious left, including an evangelical left — people like Shane Claiborne, say, whose progressive Christian, implicitly anti-Trump, “Red Letter Revival,” conveniently located almost at the door of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, tried to bring Christianity out of the orbit of the GOP and nationalism. Do you see a future for that kind of Christian resistance?
For the Christian church in America to survive at all, it’s going to have to get much simpler and much more back to basics. I don’t think that big megachurches with their bloated budgets and presences are going to last very much longer. I think that people in general aren’t as interested in showing up somewhere once a week to just consume.
What gives me hope is that [in terms of] ethics, especially with my generation and younger, we mirror those of what are traditionally Christian ethics. I mean policies that are inclusive and that take care of the poor and the vulnerable. I mean, most people my age and younger here in America tend to believe in those kinds of things.
Even though they’re not as interested in going to church and many don’t even believe in God per se, the way that they behave and the way that they fit into society is in a benevolent way. So that’s why I have hope. I don’t want or need people to share my same religious beliefs. I just want to be in a society with people who want to take care of each other. The more America becomes like that, the more we will become like a Christian nation. But we’re not going to have to make the distinction of calling it or naming it after a certain religion.