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Why (white) evangelicals still support Trump

Historian and author John Fea on Trump’s “court evangelicals” and the long history of Christian nationalism.

President Trump Participates In The Celebrate Freedom Rally At The Kennedy Center
Robert Jeffress is one of the evangelical leaders who serve on Trump’s unofficial advisory council.
Olivier Douliery-Pool via Getty Images

Seventy-one percent.

That’s the percentage of white evangelicals, according to a recent Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) poll, who still say they approve of Donald Trump’s presidency. That figure is down just 3 percent from April.

In the intervening months, Trump’s controversial migrant family separation plan scandalized faith groups by taking undocumented children from their families at the US-Mexico border, and several prominent evangelicals, including Franklin Graham, spoke out against the policy. But that seems to have figured little into evangelicals’ assessment of Trump overall.

Why do white evangelicals still support Trump in such strong numbers? And what will that mean for the upcoming midterms? I spoke to John Fea, a historian of American religion at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and author of Believe Me: the Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, about how Trump has galvanized his Christian base and about the “court evangelicals” who have traded their traditional moral ethos for access to one of the most powerful men in the world.

Tara Isabella Burton

In your book, you make the case that the tendency toward “fear” in white evangelical culture — fear of the immigrant, fear of secularization, fear of modernization — is not just a contemporary phenomenon. Can you talk a little bit about the rhetoric of evangelical fear in American history, and particularly how it has played out in terms of racial politics?

John Fea

If you look closely at American evangelical history, you see fear everywhere. During the early 19th century, white evangelicals in the South constructed a “way of life” built around slavery and white supremacy. When Northern abolitionists (many of whom were also evangelicals, I might add) threatened this way of life by calling for the end of slavery, white evangelicals in the South responded by turning to the Bible and constructing a theological and biblical defense of slavery and racism. After the Civil War, the fear of integrating blacks into white society led to Jim Crow laws and desegregation.

Meanwhile, in the North, many white evangelicals feared the influx of Irish immigrants, especially in the 1850s. These immigrants not only had different religious beliefs (Catholicism), but they were viewed by many as members of a different, inferior race. The same could be said of white evangelical responses to Italian immigrants and Jews at the turn of the 20th century.

In the 1960s and 1970s, as historian Randall Balmer has shown, white evangelicals in the South felt anxious about Supreme Court decisions forcing them to desegregate their K-12 academies and colleges. They claimed that “big government” was intruding on their way of life and their right (based on their reading of the Bible) to segregate. Many of the arguments they made sound a lot like the arguments made by the Confederates against the “Northern invasion” during the American Civil War.

With such a long history, it should not surprise us that so many white evangelicals believed Donald Trump’s accusations that Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, was not born in this country or was a secret Muslim. A 2015 CNN poll found that 43 percent of Republicans, a political party dominated by white evangelicals, believed that Obama was a Muslim. This, of course, is not true. It can only be explained by racial and religious fear.

Tara Isabella Burton

In your book, you characterize the 1980s as a watershed moment when it comes to the encroachment of (white evangelical) Christian participation in the political sphere and shaping of political discourse. What are the social and political forces that made the rise of the Moral Majority possible, and how did we get there?

John Fea

The rise of the Moral Majority followed a familiar pattern in American history. Whenever the United States has faced significant demographic or cultural changes, it has always resulted in some kind of reactionary backlash. Evangelicals are almost always part of that backlash and, in many cases, have led the backlash. As noted above, when the Southern “way of life” was threatened, white evangelicals responded with a defense of slavery. When the Irish arrived, white evangelicals joined the nativist Know-Nothing Party. At the turn of the 20th century, the fundamentalist movement arose to protest intellectual and theological changes taking place in Protestant churches.

The Moral Majority, and by extension the rise of the Christian right, was a backlash to the removal of prayer and Bible reading from public schools, the increasing diversity of the country in the wake of the 1965 Immigration Act (which allowed Asians and Middle Easterners into the country in large numbers), the civil rights movement, and the legalization of abortion. The nation was changing on many fronts, and white conservative evangelicals mobilized to turn back the clock and “restore” or “reclaim” an America that they believed was in danger of disappearing.

Tara Isabella Burton

That brings us to Donald Trump. Now, as you point out, in the age of Clinton, the idea of moral rectitude in one’s personal life was deemed necessary to garner evangelical support. Now? Studies like this 2016 one by PRRI have shown that is no longer the case. What do evangelicals see in Donald Trump, if not moral rectitude?

John Fea

While there is much continuity between the past and the present when it comes to evangelical political engagement, the Trump era also represents a significant change. With the exception of becoming pro-choice on abortion or appointing a Supreme Court justice who is not a strict originalist, it is hard to imagine something Trump could do, in terms of character or policy, that would lead white conservative evangelicals to abandon him.

Since the rise of the Moral Majority, these evangelicals have been operating with a political playbook centered around abortion and one or two other issues, depending on the election year. (This year, it is “religious liberty,” as they define it.) Trump has delivered on these issues, especially in terms of his two nominations to the Supreme Court. As a result, white conservative evangelicals, to use the now famous phrase of Family Research Council leader Tony Perkins, are willing to give the president a “mulligan” on the misogynic, racist, and nativist rhetoric, the adultery with adult film stars, and even the separating of children from their parents at the Mexican border.

In the past, the Christian right political agenda has always been associated with someone (Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Mitt Romney) who they believe exemplified character, integrity, and a respect for American institutions.

Tara Isabella Burton

It seems that, through his campaign, people around Trump (if not Trump himself) are actively leaning into the rhetoric that he’s not just the best of bad options, or morally preferable to Clinton, but actively chosen by God, such as the idea that he’s a new “King Cyrus,” the Persian king some evangelicals see as a biblical example of a “pagan” being used for God’s ends in history. How do you account for this part of the narrative?

John Fea

Most evangelical Christians believe that God is sovereign. He raises up rulers and he brings them down. So the fact that so many evangelicals believe that God is somehow responsible for the election of Donald Trump would not be shocking to students of American evangelicalism.

What is surprising, however, is the sense of certainty that many conservative evangelicals have about exactly why their God has allowed Donald Trump to be president. You never hear devout evangelicals say that God raised up Trump to punish or chastise evangelicals for placing too much of their hope in power politics or political strongmen. Evangelicals are modern people — they believe in certainty and often insist that they know the exact will of God on all matters. In other words, they do not share the Catholic or Orthodox idea of the “mystery of faith.” They also have a long history of cherry-picking from the Bible to justify their politics.

Some believe that Trump, like King Cyrus, is delivering them from the “captivity” of the Obama administration. Bible verses calling for obedience to government are used to justify immigration policies that seem to contradict the teachings of the Scriptures in relation to refugees and “strangers.” They find some verses useful and ignore others.

Tara Isabella Burton

In your book, you write a lot about the “court evangelicals” surrounding Trump. They seem to come from two camps. Some are the old-guard names — Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham — associated with a more traditional form of evangelicalism and the rise of the moral majority. Others, like Paula White, say, are associated with new apostolic reform movements or other fringe theologies. How do these two camps work together, and do you see any tensions there?

John Fea

The “old guard” and the Pentecostal/Charismatic wing make for strange bedfellows when it comes to theology. Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, and others rarely talk about healing, prosperity, prophecy, or speaking in tongues in the way that Paula White and others do. Yet they all share a concern for the Christian character of the United States. They all read pseudo-historians such as David Barton, who argue that the United States was founded as a Christian nation but has lost its way in the last 75 years. They are all in the business of “reclaiming” an “restoring” what they believe has been lost.

This view of American identity and history drives their politics. They are willing to put minor theological differences aside in order to battle together for the evangelical soul of America.

Tara Isabella Burton

What are the points of evangelical resistance, if any? Do you see the potential for the evangelical community to ever break away from Trump support?

John Fea

The “evangelical community” is a large tent. The evangelicals who attend Trump rallies and wear MAGA hats will not abandon him unless he starts to reject the moral issues they hold dear. Since Trump is a savvy politician, he will always give lip service to evangelical concerns as a way of holding his base.

As I travel around the country listening to Trump voters, it is also clear that many white conservative evangelicals are disgusted by Trump’s rhetoric, character, and even some policy decisions, but because Trump has delivered the Supreme Court, they still believe that their vote for him in 2016 was worth it. Other evangelical Trump voters are having second thoughts about their 2016 vote. They thought Trump would have more respect for the office of the presidency once elected and they do not see that happening.

Of course, there are many white evangelicals — the so-called 19 percent — who did not vote for Donald Trump.

This group is divided between conservatives who support most of Trump’s policies but reject his immoral rhetoric and disrespect for American institutions. Ben Sasse, the senator from Nebraska, falls in this camp. Others did not vote for Trump because they reject his character and his policies. They believe he champions policies (immigration, the Muslim ban, “America First,” etc.) that do not reflect their Christian values. In the end, the white conservative resistance to Trump is vibrant, and it may be growing, but it still remains relatively small.

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