The OTHER Myth about Evangelical History

Thanks to leading historian Matthew Avery Sutton, we see a reminder this morning that Trump is nothing new. Conservative evangelicals have always backed morally besmirched leaders. The idea that evangelical voters previously preferred “clean” candidates joins the myth that evangelicals retreated from politics in the twentieth century. It’s just not true. Weirdest of all, though, white evangelicals have long tended to pretend—maybe even believing it themselves—that their immoral candidates somehow personally embody Christian virtue. Why?

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St. Donald the Orange?

Professor Sutton, author of field-defining books such as American Apocalypse and now Double Crossed: The Missionaries Who Spied for the United States during the Second World War, points out that conservative evangelicals have a long history of supporting Trumpish crooks. Back in the 1920s, for example, prominent institutions like the Moody Bible Institute gave cigar-puffing, booze-swilling, corrupt wheeler-dealer Warren Harding their full-throated support. As Prof. Sutton relates,

The editors of the leading fundamentalist periodical Moody Monthly routinely praised Harding for his leadership. “We are thankful just now for a Federal administration,” they acknowledged, “which seems honestly disposed to do its best for the nation.” They insisted that “it is generally admitted that the President has gathered around him an efficient cabinet with a genius for team work.”

Conservative evangelical support for the train-wreck presidency of Warren Harding was not the exception. As Prof. Sutton writes, conservative evangelicals also picked divorced actor Ronald Reagan over Sunday-school teacher Jimmy Carter in 1980. They ignored Eisenhower’s meh attitude toward organized religion. Support for Trump among white evangelicals is just more of the same. As Prof. Sutton concludes,

Fundamentalists in the 1920s separated Harding’s personal morality from his pro-fundamentalist policies. Evangelicals in the Trump era do the same. If politicians champion white evangelicals’ proposals on immigration, foreign policy and religion in the public square, they are willing to forgive many, many personal sins. And when Trump’s nonvirtuous behavior serves their political goals by boosting his political power — for example, by accepting election interference from the Russians or by allegedly trying to pressure the Ukrainian president by withholding aid — they may see these acts as advancing a virtuous cause.

And evangelical support for dodgy politicians is often more than merely a pragmatic political decision. As Professor Sutton reminds us, white evangelicals have talked about their support for moral monsters in odd terms. As some evangelical leaders are doing these days with Trump, evangelicals have tended to lavish praise on their chosen political leaders, as when they hailed President Harding as “the Christian president,” or as “‘an earnest Christian man’ who ‘in all his speeches … advocated a return to the Bible and to Bible righteousness.'”

Support for Trump among white evangelicals is not an exception. It is the rule—white evangelicals have always done more than just hold their noses and vote for candidates based on hard-nosed policy considerations. In every case, some evangelicals will pretend to themselves that their candidates are actually good Christians.

Can anyone explain that one to me?