Is THIS Why White Evangelicals Love Trump?

Why? Why? Why? That’s what nerds have been asking for the past few years. Why, that is, do so many white evangelical voters seem to (still) love Trump? Sometimes even more now than in 2016? Reporter Julie Zauzmer recently examined some interviews to offer a new explanation. To me, it seems like there is still something missing. It’s big and it’s obvious, but it’s not the first thing white evangelicals like to talk about.

Trump make america great again

It’s the hat, stupid.

When asked, a group of white evangelicals explained that they like Trump because they think he is fighting for them. Finally. As Zauzmer explained,

Interviews with 50 evangelical Christians in three battleground states — Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — help explain why. In conversation, evangelical voters paint the portrait of the Trump they see: a president who acts like a bully but is fighting for them. A president who sees America like they do, a menacing place where white Christians feel mocked and threatened for their beliefs. A president who’s against abortion and gay rights and who has the economy humming to boot.

“You’ve just got to accept the bad with the good,” Halbert [a white evangelical from Florida] said.

Makes sense. But there’s an important element missing from this explanation. Yes, many white evangelicals feel that America is a “menacing place,” but more important, with a bitter nostalgia they see mainstream America as a menacing place that used to be better. They see a mainstream America that has been warped and perverted, not just an America that isn’t the way they like it. Most important, many white evangelicals see America as a place that has been stolen from them. As I found in the research for Fundamentalist U, white evangelicals have long felt that America has not only declined passively; they feel America has been usurped.

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Watch out, white evangelicals–mainstream institutions have been usurped!

It is a hugely important distinction and it’s one that Trump stumbled across with his MAGA approach to the 2016 elections. Consider just a few 20th-century examples of the kind of nostalgism that has driven white evangelical politics for so long. Way back in 1909, for example, journalist Harold Bolce reported in the pages of Cosmopolitan magazine that mainstream colleges had gone to the dogs. Instead of inculcating youth with revered values of God, home, and family, elite colleges taught students a devilish stew of skepticism and “science.”

By way of example, Bolce interviewed Syracuse sociologist Edwin L. Earp. As Bolce told anxious readers,

“Do you not believe, Professor,” I asked, “that Moses got the ten commandments in the way the Scriptures tell?”

The professor smiled. “I do not,” said he. “It is unscientific and absurd to imagine that God ever turned stone-mason and chiseled commandments on a rock.”

For white evangelicals at the time, the message was clear. Something terrible had happened. They could no longer trust mainstream institutions. The feeling lasted throughout the twentieth century and got stronger with time. By 1979, fundamentalist school founder A.A. “Buzz” Baker could warn readers,

It may come as a surprise to some that the very first public and private schools in our country had a traditional approach or philosophy of education.  Harvard, Yale, Andover Newton [sic]—to name but a few—used to be ‘our’ schools.

For white evangelicals in the 1970s, the notion that Harvard used to be a conservative-evangelical stronghold often came as a shock and a revelation. It fit with the sense of angry nostalgia that has driven white evangelical politics for so long. Not only did America use to be great, many white evangelicals feel, but America used to be OURS.

Why did so many white evangelicals vote Trump in 2016? And why do so many like him even better now, in spite of everything? Yes, they see Trump as a fighter in their corner on issues like abortion rights and LGBTQ rights. But even more important, they hear Trump repeating their mantra: America used to be great. America used to be OURS. It has taken some hits, but together we can Make America Great Again.

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…still Think “Evangelical” Is Not a Political Label?

Albert Mohler can say what he wants. To this reporter, there is a much more obvious conclusion. For those of us who struggle to understand evangelical identity, another recent poll seems like more evidence that we can’t rely on religious ideas alone.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing about it, but I can’t stop mulling it over. In my upcoming book about evangelical higher education, for example, I argue that a merely theological definition of American evangelicalism will not suffice. The reason it is so important to study evangelical colleges, universities, seminaries, and institutes—at least one of the reasons—is because these institutions make it startlingly obvious that religion and theology are only one element defining evangelical identity, sometimes a remarkably small one.

Smart people disagree. Recently, for example, Neil J. Young took Frances FitzGerald to task for over-emphasizing the political element of evangelical identity. And a few months back, John Fea called me on the carpet for over-emphasizing the culturally and politically conservative element of evangelical higher education.

And smart people will surely disagree about the implications of recent poll results from the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation. To me, they seem like more proof that American evangelicals are more “American” than “evangelical,” at least when it comes to their knee-jerk responses to poll questions.

The poll asked people whether poverty was more the result of personal failings or of circumstances beyond people’s control. As WaPo sums it up,

Christians, especially white evangelical Christians, are much more likely than non-Christians to view poverty as the result of individual failings.

Now, I’m not much of a Christian, and I’m not at all evangelical, but I can’t help but think that blaming the poor’s lack of effort for their poverty is not a very Christian attitude. And plenty of Christians agree with me. According to Julie Zauzmer in WaPo, African-American Christians tend to blame circumstances by large margins. The divide stretches beyond race. Democrats tend to blame circumstances. Republicans tend to blame individual failings.

Zauzmer reached out to experts to try to explain why white evangelical Christians might feel this way. She gave Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminar a chance to explain it away. And Mohler did his level best. The reason white evangelicals blame the poor for their poverty, Mohler told her, was because

The Christian worldview is saying that all poverty is due to sin, though that doesn’t necessarily mean the sin of the person in poverty. In the Garden of Eden, there would have been no poverty. In a fallen world, there is poverty.

I just don’t buy it. If we really want to understand why white evangelical Americans tend to blame the poor for their poverty, we are better off looking at Reagan than at Revelation, at Goldwater than at Genesis. Blaming the poor has deep political and cultural roots. American conservatives—at least since the early twentieth century—have insisted that poverty in the Land of Opportunity must be due to individual failings rather than to structural problems in society. When American evangelicals mouth such notions, they are allowing those political and cultural beliefs to speak louder than their strictly religious or theological beliefs.

If we want to understand American evangelicalism—especially among white evangelicals—we need to understand that the “conservative” half of “conservative evangelicalism” is just as vital as the “evangelical” half. We need to understand that white evangelicals are complicated people, motivated by a slew of notions, beliefs, and knee-jerk impulses.

Why did so many white evangelicals vote for Trump? Why do so many white evangelicals blame the poor for their poverty? If we really want to make sense of it, we can’t focus on the merely religious beliefs of evangelicals. We have to look at the big picture.