Wahington Post’s Elizabeth Breunig went to Texas around Easter to visit Evangelical family and try to figure out the Trump-Evangelical bond.
“I give to everybody,” [Trump] declared in 2015, during the first Republican primary debate. “When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me.” For a frustrated conservative wondering why Republican presidents had never seemed to make good on their promises to evangelicals while their cultural cachet continued to slip, Trump’s blatant indictment of corrupt, money-driven politics must have seemed refreshingly honest — even if part of his admission was that he himself participated in it.
“I really think one of the things that’s changed since I did my fieldwork at the very end of the Bush administration is a rejection of politics in general as a means to advance the common good, even in a conservative vein.” In that case, politics “becomes a bloodsport, where you’re punishing and striking back at people you don’t like” without much hope of changing anything.
(Quoting Lydia Bean, a researcher who devoted her graduate sociological work at Harvard to studying the comparative politics of evangelicals in the United States and Canada.)
“We’re deplorables,” the [Baptist] Collinses intoned in unison, when I asked them what messages they had heard from Democrats. “We cling to our religion and our guns,” Coleman said, mocking the famous Barack Obama remark from 2008. “I don’t think there’s much room in the Democratic Party for evangelicals like me,” [Pastor] Barber added.
Is there a way to reverse hostilities between the two cultures in a way that might provoke a truce? It is hard to see. Is it even possible to return to a style of evangelical politics that favored “family values” candidates and a Billy Graham-like engagement with the world, all with an eye toward revival and persuasion? It is hard to imagine.
Or was a truly evangelical politics — with an eye toward cultural transformation — less effective than the defensive evangelical politics of today, which seems focused on achieving protective accommodations against a broader, more liberal national culture? Was the former always destined to collapse into the latter? And will the evangelical politics of the post-Bush era continue to favor the rise of figures such as Trump, who are willing to dispense with any hint of personal Christian virtue while promising to pause the decline of evangelical fortunes — whatever it takes? And if hostilities can’t be reduced and a detente can’t be reached, are the evangelicals who foretell the apocalypse really wrong?
Elizabeth Breunig, In God’s country, where she asks “Evangelicals view Trump as their protector. Will they stand by him in 2020?” and does an outstanding job of qualifying her answer. Someone at the Post, though, thought her answer was “Yes, they will,” and that tipoff crept into the page title in my browser.
Breunig opens with an implied question and the four frankly condescending theories/answers she knows:
Theories about Trump’s connection with evangelical voters have long been dubiously elegant. The simplest, and perhaps most comfortable for Trump’s bewildered and furious opposition, is that evangelicals are and always were hypocrites, demanding moral rectitude from their enemies that they don’t expect from their friends. Others held that evangelicals must simply be ignorant, taken in by a campaign narrative that attempted to depict Trump as privately devoted to Christ, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Some argued that evangelicals just wanted an invincible champion to fight the culture wars, even if he didn’t share their vision of the good life. And then there was the transactional theory: Their votes were just about the Supreme Court.
I ended up thinking the “invincible champion” theory, condescending or not, was the most plausible of the theories (though I’m not sure any of the four suffices) based on a couple of portions of the article that surprised me:
- “‘It’s spiritual warfare,’ Dale Ivy added, emphasizing Trump is the only man in the field who seems strong enough to confront it.” My first reaction was “You’ve got to be kidding! Donald Trump as Spiritual Champion!?”
- But then there was this second synthesis: “By voting for Trump — even over more identifiably Christian candidates — evangelicals seem to have found a way to outsource their fears and instead reserve a strictly spiritual space for themselves inside politics without placing evangelical politicians themselves in power. In that sense, they can be both active political agents and a semi-cloistered religious minority, both of the world and removed from it, advancing their values while retreating to their own societies.”
The idea of sending up an adulterous pagan to do spiritual warfare in your stead really is unhinged. Evil spirits would chew him out an spit him out faster than the eye could follow. But if “spiritual warfare” is hyperbole, as I suspect it is, the theory of “invincible champion” becomes more plausible.
Rod Dreher had to bring this to my attention because I deliberately allowed my Washington Post subscription to expire. If my experience holds for you, you can get a year of digital-only access to the Post, which has the best religion coverage of any major newspaper I know, for $40. I couldn’t resist that offer. Just sayin’.
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