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What Went Wrong with White Protestant Evangelicals In the US?

 11 min read / 

The White Protestant Evangelical community in the U.S. plays a perplexing and improbable role in politics in the age of Trump.

How can a religious community whose values are, supposedly, based on the ‘love thy neighbor’ ethic of Christianity, and whose historical role in the country’s past has involved remarkable leadership in humanitarian service and social reform, be so staunchly supportive of a president whose morals, behavior, actions, rhetoric and policies are so diametrically opposed to that ethic?

How has this sizable part of the American electorate become so alienated from the modern mainstream consensus, which, even though at times tenuously, still holds out the best hope for the survival of the US as a unified nation? Why the apocalyptic and conspiratorial view of America as a nation in total decline? Why the unwillingness to accommodate, compromise, and work with fellow citizens who do not share identical religious beliefs, views on social and political issues, or ethnic-tribal identity? Why this extreme insularity?

If you want to understand this extraordinary phenomenon in historical perspective, and in terms of religious, as well as social-political history, a great introduction is the superb article ‘The Last Temptation‘ by Washington Post op-ed columnist Michael Gerson in the April 2018 issue of The Atlantic.

Subtitled ‘How Evangelicals Lost Their Way and Got Hooked by Trump’, the story is illustrated with the image of a fish hook hauling up the ancient Christian fish symbol called the ichthys, used during the Roman Empire by persecuted Christians to secretly recognize one another, and widespread nowadays as an Evangelical identity marker.

Historical Roots of Evangelicalism

Gerson reminds his reader that the roots of Evangelicalism were in the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century, a wave of religious revival that was optimistic, concerned with humanitarian values as well as personal morality, and, in the northern states, provided much of the energy for the movement to abolish slavery.

This was Evangelicalism then. Oberlin College, steeped in that tradition in its early years, was the first coeducational college in the United States, the first white college to admit black students, and a key stop on the ‘Underground Railroad’ that helped fugitive slaves escape to freedom in the North during the period before the Civil War.

Of course, in those same years, in spite of the ‘warm heart’ of Evangelicalism, the major American Protestant denominations were being rent apart into Southern and Northern branches over the issue of slavery, the original sin that has poisoned, and continues to poison, so many aspects of American national life, something that Gerson seems to gloss over in his article.

Fundamentalism – ‘The Great Reversal’

In the next chapter of American religious and social history, the trajectory of Evangelicalism after the Civil War,  this confident, optimistic and generous movement began to turn increasingly inward and pessimistic, and to shackle itself to the narrow theological ‘fundamentals’ of Christian dogma (hence the term Fundamentalism, which is often used interchangeably with Evangelicalism).

This ‘Great Reversal’ of the late 19th and early 20th century entailed Evangelicals rejecting engagement with many of the profound ideas that were to shape the modern world. Three ideas in particular: the idea that all texts (including the Bible) were written by humans and therefore fallible, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the ‘social gospel’ idea that Christian ethics required that churches fight for social justice.

The culminating event of Evangelicalism’s early retreat from reason, science and modernity was, of course, the high-profile Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’ of 1925. In which William Jennings Bryan, the great Evangelical political orator, led the prosecution against John Scopes, a high-school science teacher convicted of teaching evolution in defiance of a Tennessee state law that made it illegal, with the brilliant American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Clarence Darrow leading the defence.

While the case was lost for Scopes, the drama cemented the national view that Evangelicals were backward, narrow, closed-minded and anti-scientific, and precipitated their retreat as a community into a self-created ghetto of alternative institutions to the country’s established institutions of learning, public opinion and social welfare.

“In the mid-19th century,” says Gerson,

“evangelicalism was the predominant religious tradition in America. . . Fifty years later, it was losing intellectual and social ground on every front. Twenty-five years beyond that, it had become a national joke.”

And so a religious movement and community that had been culturally dominant for a long time started to morph into a subculture of resentment, seeing itself as persecuted and disrespected, when it believed its natural role should have been to shape the nation in its own image and beliefs.

The Devil’s Bargain With Movement Conservatism

Against this historical background, it is easier to understand how Evangelicals became vulnerable to political exploitation by the Republican Party, which was in search of a reliable base after the long period of Democratic ascendance and the triumph of liberal ideas from the New Deal through the Great Society.

Made increasingly uneasy as the nation became more open, tolerant, secular and diverse, especially after the 1960s, Evangelicals (most specifically White Protestant Evangelicals, as the story of Evangelical religion among Catholics and African Americans is somewhat different) became easily manipulated by the promise of returning things to the way they were before their subculture became marginalised and irrelevant.

The devil’s bargain was loyalty to the Republican Party in exchange for access to power and special treatment as an interest group.

White Protestant Evangelicals would provide unwavering support for policies favouring what is now called ‘ the one percent’ and corporate interests (the approach could be described as ‘socialism for the rich, unaided free enterprise for the poor’), even if that meant favouring the rich.

Republicans would give lip service to Evangelical religious beliefs, pass legislation exempting Evangelical institutions from certain legal requirements, and support for the community’s hot-button issues (contraception and abortion rights, the banning of prayer from public schools, the teaching of evolution, untrammeled scientific inquiry, the banning of books and art considered offensive, the rise of LGBT rights, alternative family structures, equal rights for women, non-discrimination protections for ethnic minorities, equal treatment for all religions, immigration, etc.).

Starting with the 1960s ‘southern strategy’ of appealing to white racial prejudice, the Republican Party has increasingly come under the influence of the ‘movement conservatism’ of talk radio, Fox News, the alt-right, and the many ultra-conservative think tanks that have been established to counteract ideas coming from mainstream so-called ‘elite’ universities, research institutions and news media.

These ‘movement conservatism’ ideas, mostly extreme and reactive, have become the de facto White Protestant Evangelical positions on social and political issues, in part because Protestant Evangelicalism in modern times never developed a coherent overall social vision comparable to the compassionate view towards humanity and its suffering that had existed and inspired the movement in the early 19th century.

Trump As Unlikely Savior

And now, here comes the most extraordinary and incomprehensible part of the story. How Trump, whose many failings on any scale of Christian charity, morality, character, or basic human honesty and decency, are as outsized and over-the-top as everything else about him, became seen by White Protestant Evangelicals as the man to save them from their perceived oppressors.

In her book Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger And Mourning On The American Right, University of California-Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild narrates a most revealing incident from her five-year research project among Trump supporters in Louisiana bayou country.

She was there in August 2016 when then-candidate Trump flew into Baton Rouge for a campaign photo-op of showing support for victims of that month’s disastrous floods. The crowds there to greet him, predominantly White Protestant Evangelicals, were highly emotional, totally electrified by his presence, entranced. In Hochschild’s metaphor, it was like a match lighting fire to tinder. Trump as the Savior.

Indeed, candidate Trump’s constant fulminations about how ‘disastrous’ everything supposedly was in America, and the need to ‘take back the country’ and ‘make it great again’, resonated deeply with White Protestant Evangelicals’ sense of loss and grievance. Their feeling that they are a persecuted and righteous religious minority in a modern ‘cesspool of godlessness’. Their apocalyptic views about us living in the ‘end times’ of universal decline before the Apocalypse and the Second Coming of Christ to make all things right.

Loyalty No Matter What

Skip forward to the present, nearly a year and a half into the Trump presidency, and with ever deeper and more troubling revelations about the man who, so improbably and perniciously, holds the most powerful political office in the country and in the world.

To the astonishment of objective observers and pollsters, White Protestant Evangelical support for Trump has hardly budged. A March 2018 Pew Research Center Survey shows that, while only 39% of the public approves of how Trump is doing as President, the figure for Evangelicals is 78% (and that figure may include all Evangelicals, so may be low when it comes to white Protestant Evangelicals). They are the most loyal part of the coalition that put Trump in power and keep him there. The charge that there is a fair amount of hypocrisy in this does not seem to make a dent.

How do the prominent Evangelical leaders justify such a craven and immoral loyalty? Easy to explain, if you understand the self-image of Evangelicals today, and see how Trump plays to it. Evangelicals have indeed come to see themselves as under siege, a mistreated group in need of protection and preferences.

They see Trump as their defender, a president who pays attention to them, gives them visible signs of access to power, and is able to stand up for them precisely because he is so worldly and immoral that he will do whatever it takes to advance their cause. He’s a bully, a liar and a boor, but he’s our bully, liar and boor! Christianity is under siege and protecting it requires a ‘flawed vessel’ such as Trump.

As the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Jr. recently tweeted:

“Complaining about the temperament [of President Trump] or saying that his behavior is not presidential is no longer relevant.”

And conservative radio show host show Dennis Prager justifies loyalty to Trump with the following astonishing piece of Biblical cherry-picking and self-serving logic to support the unholy alliance between white Protestant Evangelicals and Trump: “God chose the prostitute Rahab to enable the Israelites to enter the promised land.”

The Tragedy of Evangelicalism Today

And so, more than any other element in Trump’s political base, White Protestant Evangelicals have become an ‘army of enablers’ supporting this corrupt and cynical presidency, and continue to give Trump ‘pre-emptive absolution’ for his many sordid and cruel lapses from civilized norms of speech, behavior and action, not to speak of his reckless undermining of democratic institutions and their moral underpinning.

For a writer like Michael Gerson, himself a product of the compassionate, generous and warm-hearted tradition that Evangelicalism once was, as well as, no doubt, for other sincere Evangelicals who may be personally distressed by the devil’s pact (though not as yet brave or mobilized enough to challenge it within their community), the current situation is tragic.

For secular Americans, it is a matter of getting beyond the us-versus-them dynamics that both Evangelicals and their critics are caught up in today. It’s about understanding, in a balanced way, the positive and negative forces that shape our national history and psyche, and committing to those positive forces, the ‘better angels of our nature” that Lincoln spoke about so eloquently.

There are many who uncritically scoff at all things religious, but there are also those who have an immense respect for the positive contributions of religion to the evolution of human conscience. But there is also have immense anger about the dark side of religion — when it becomes dogmatic, a closed system, a tribal us-against-them, an interest group, and forgets the warm heart of humanitarian compassion that animated the teachings of its founders.

One can only hope that the turmoil of present times may bring forth among American Evangelicals some kind of Third Great Awakening, which will lead the community, particularly its White Protestant members, out of the current debasement of their once noble tradition. Or perhaps, and maybe more likely, especially among the younger generations of the community, who already show signs of parting from some of its intolerant attitudes towards others, something will happen that historians will come to call The Great Abandonment.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

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  1. Pate Easy

    May 20, 2018 at 7:17 PM

    I like this, finally someone is brave and focused enough to mention these things. Keep it Up Girl.

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