The Atlantic is out with one of their characteristic, weird, overly conformist essays about the alleged crisis in “evangelical Christianity.” Why they bother with this drivel is not clear. Few, if any, evangelical Christians likely read The Atlantic. This mostly just voyeurism that confirms the elevated self regard of Atlantic readers who enjoy looking down their noses at Christian rubes.
Support for Trump has everything to do with Christian belief, especially its long history of encouraging sexism and racism among its believers. No doubt this author would rather not have to admit that.
The premise, that “evangelical” support for Donald Trump is something peculiar that wants explaining, is fatuous in the extreme. Empirically, it is nonsense. Christians in every group, except African Americans and Hispanic Catholics, voted over 55 percent for Trump. Had only Christians voted, Trump would have won the popular vote easily. Calling Trump Christians “evangelicals” is a total cop out.
It is true that “evangelicals” voted for Trump at 81 percent, but if a clear majority does not define a group, it’s not clear what will. Trump was the Christian candidate in 2016.
Part of the problem with the puzzlement The Atlantic wants to gin up over “evangelical” support for Trump is that the Republican candidate has been the Christian candidate for decades. People have told the story of how activists deliberately made abortion a major issue for Christian conservatives. They did their job very well. Certainly at least since Ronald Reagan, every Republican presidential candidate has kow towed to the Christian position on abortion in order to secure their votes. Opponents of abortion rights are a key component of the Republican base.
Of course Christians voted by majority for Trump. Nothing could be less surprising. Christians vote Republican partly out of opposition to abortion rights, but nothing about Trump or his campaign in any way would have bothered or offended most of them.
The author of The Atlantic piece, Peter Wehner, describes himself as “a person of the Christian faith,” which is an important part of the problem. It is important to take people’s claims about their religious beliefs at face value, so presumably he is sincere.
He must be, because to proclaim one’s self a Christian is to proclaim one’s self a dupe, someone who chooses to believe absurd fairy tales. That he does so is clear from his apparent total ignorance of the history of Christianity in “the Americas,” since Columbus showed up in 1492, long before any “evangelicals” existed because, in western Europe, the operative reference point for “the Americas,” there was only the Catholic Church, which proved with the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation how viciously it would enforce its ideological tyranny.
So Wehner writes, “The enthusiastic, uncritical embrace of President Trump by white evangelicals is among the most mind-blowing developments of the Trump era.” Please. What could be more predictable? While we must take claims of religious beliefs at face value, we still can look around and notice the many Christian leaders who get caught up in various scandals on a regular basis, especially sex scandals.
It has been thirty years, so people may have forgotten about Jimmy Swaggart, the Louisiana televangelist who had to confess to having had sex with prostitutes. Thirty years have also elapsed since Jim Bakker’s affair with Jessica Hahn came to light, but Jim is easier to remember because he is back on television, loudly plumping for Donald Trump. Bakker has predicted that Christians will start a civil war if Trump gets impeached. Very Christian.
What about Trump is at all inconsistent with the history of Christianity, at least in the United States? We won’t even talk about the long running scandal involving Catholic priests molesting children, which the Church has signally failed to address. More recently, a similar scandal has erupted in the Southern Baptist Church, the largest Protestant denomination in the country. It makes far more sense to assume that child molestation has been endemic to both organizations for as long as they have existed than to think that this problem is something new.
The right to freedom of religious belief and practice is one of the most important in our republic. The problem is that too few Christians appreciate the point that it applies to everyone and works to prevent them from imposing their belief on everyone else.
Wehner writes further, “Many evangelical Christians are also filled with grievances and resentments because they feel they have been mocked, scorned, and dishonored by the elite culture over the years. (Some of those feelings are understandable and warranted.)” Even as we accept people’s claims about their religious beliefs at face value, we can still look to social science research to find clues to their motives that they might not want to admit to.
So we have multiple studies showing that the primary factor leading people to vote for Trump was racial resentment. In 2018, a paper came out showing that the best predictors of support for Trump were racism and sexism. A study from 2019 found, after looking at several counties in Iowa where Obama won in 2008 and Trump won in 2016, that “whiteness ‘plays a greater role in explaining Trump’s support among white evangelicals than religion.’”
These scholars are sociologists, not historians. They prefer to stick as close as they can to claims they can clearly support with what they found in the data they gathered. That is as it should be.
Their claim is consistent with the data above showing that race and ethnicity have more to do with not voting for Trump than religious belief — again, the two heavily Christian groups who chose not to vote for Trump were African Americans and Hispanic Catholics, who presumably found Trump’s overt racism off putting.
We have black and Hispanic Christians in the United States, but irrefutably, Christianity in “the Americas” is a European import. There were no Christians here before Europeans showed up. There may be some important ways in which we can separate “Christian” and “white” in the United States, but not at their origins. “White supremacy” is a Christian invention.
This is where we need a historical perspective. Since Christians first showed up in “the Americas” with Columbus in 1492, they have consistently exhibited unhesitating, unreflecting racism, first toward the Native population, and later, towards the Africans they imported as slave labor when the Natives mostly died off and otherwise proved to be poor slaves.
So, of course good Christians voted for Trump, because he reflected and validated their deep seated racism for the first time since George Wallace in 1968. This is entirely unsurprising, even if it is a point that many good Christians are loath to admit.
But this is a very consistent feature of the history of Christians in “the Americas,” including British North America, what would become the United States. Among the British settlers, the first Africans came to what is now Virginia in 1619. Those colonies relied heavily on indentured servants, and at first, the English treated the Africans as indentured servants. By the end of the seventeenth century, however, Africans were consigned to the status of slave, a status they held all of their lives and that children inherited from their mothers, in contrast to indentured servants, who could work off their indenture, gain their freedom, and own land, although many died before completing their indentures.
Most slave owners were good Christians. That most African Americans are also Christian is a reflection of the fact that slave owners taught their slaves a version of Christianity that emphasized their supposed duty to obey their masters. Slaves developed their own version of Christianity that put much more emphasis on the principle of redemption and the biblical story of the escape of the Israelites from slavery.
Nat Turner, who led one of the most famous slave rebellions in U.S. history, was a devout Christian whom other slaves referred to as “the Prophet.”
This only shows how meaningless Christian belief is in U.S. history. It has proven useful to persons on opposing sides of every major issue. Again, most slave owners were good Christians, but the first white people to call for immediate emancipation of the slaves were Quakers. Most of their fellow white Christians considered immediate emancipation literally a crazy idea when they first proposed it.
It is not clear what other grievances and resentments by Christians Wehner could point to, beyond our society’s entirely justified, wholesale condemnation of their continued, thinly veiled racism.
This business of puzzling endlessly over how “evangelicals” — read, Christians — could possibly support Donald Trump is just so much flummery that has the goal of allowing Christians to continue ignoring the ugly history of violent racism they have consistently inflicted on Natives and Africans since they invaded “the Americas” just over five hundred years ago.
Nothing more, nothing less.