May 30 2024

Why Trump, and What Next? An (Ex-)Evangelical Response

by David P. Gushee, Mercer University

an image of an American flag sumperimposed on top of crecked, dried bed of clay

Prelude: What White Evangelicals Just Did, in Violation of Their Own Proclaimed Values

No group of American voters bears more responsibility for the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States than do white evangelicals. Their 81% vote on his behalf far exceeded his share of support in any other religious community, and it was a higher share of the white evangelical vote than any Republican candidate had received since the dawn of the Christian Right. So let us ponder for just a moment five propositions about the contradiction between the character and behavior of now-President Trump and what were once believed to be evangelical values:

  1. The consensus white evangelical vote was for a candidate married three times and unfaithful in marriage, only nominally Christian, and known for his vulgarity and crude public talk about sex (not to mention the later-discovered bragging about sexual assault, along with the dozen accusations from specific women).
  2. The consensus white evangelical vote was for a candidate whose character has revealed lack of self-control, lack of truthfulness, and lack of the most basic verbal discipline, and whose entire business career has been embroiled in false promises, ethics questions, and lawsuits.
  3. The consensus white evangelical vote was for a candidate who launched his campaign with an attack on the character of Mexican immigrants, who pre-launched his campaign by leading the “birther” movement against Barack Obama, who during his campaign told lies about American Muslim responses to 9/11 and called for a ban on their immigration.  
  4. The consensus white evangelical vote was for a candidate who created rally environments latent with mob violence and hate speech, and who threatened to create a constitutional crisis by refusing to accept the results of the election if he lost.
  5. The consensus white evangelical vote was for a candidate who articulated the most extreme form of nationalism seen at the presidential level in memory, who insulted many US allies, scoffed at international norms and institutions, and spoke favorably about the use of torture.

The consensus white evangelical vote for Donald Trump has shattered whatever survived of the moral witness of white evangelicals to American culture and to the world. The remainder of this essay seeks to discern why 81% of white evangelicals voted as they did, and how those of us who dissent must now respond.

Why Trump?

What follows are my top ten surmises as to what attracted white evangelical Christians to Donald Trump. I will arrange these claims from the least to the most controversial.

  1. White evangelicals were attracted to the security promises of Donald Trump. Donald Trump promised to protect US borders from unlawful immigrants and to protect US citizens from terrorist attacks. The latter was probably more salient for more voters, but a minority had become convinced of the (Fox News) narrative that “illegals” were running rampant and committing all kinds of heinous crimes. Voting their security fears, many white evangelicals found Donald Trump a more persuasive defender of their lives and their families than his competitors.
  2. White evangelicals were attracted to the economic promises of Donald Trump. Here I speak especially of working-class and downwardly mobile white evangelicals, and notably small-town, rural, and exurban evangelicals. Donald Trump’s promises to restore American jobs, to negotiate tougher trade deals, and to shame American companies taking jobs to other countries were very appealing to many who have faced tough economic times.
  3. White evangelicals were attracted to the nationalism of Donald Trump. Long after many Americans had either abandoned patriotism, abandoned religion, or both, millions of evangelicals are both deeply patriotic and deeply religious, and have not been taught any real differentiation between the two. Donald Trump strikes nationalist rather than globalist notes, promises to put “America First,” and conflates God and country. This was preferable to the alternative, for many evangelicals.
  4. White evangelicals were attracted to the Christian tribalism of Donald Trump. Donald Trump often sent signals that the polite multifaith inclusivity that had prevailed under Barack Obama would be supplanted by a privileging of Christianity. In various ways, Mr. Trump communicated that Christianity would be restored to its privileged place in the American public square. One specific aspect of this would be that Christian moral sensibilities and religious liberty concerns would be protected. An ironic aspect of these promises, of course, is that President Trump has only practiced the most nominal Christianity himself. But that did not matter.
  5. White evangelicals were attracted to the promises of Donald Trump related to the Supreme Court. One of the most enduring aspects of the Christian Right–GOP alliance since the late 1970s has been the GOP promise that its elected presidents would only nominate Supreme Court candidates who could be counted upon to overturn Roe v. Wade—and in other ways give conservative Christians what they seek from the Supreme Court. Donald Trump made perfectly clear that he would maintain this bargain. Evangelicals voted accordingly.
  6. White evangelicals were attracted to the exaggerated masculinity of Donald Trump. Millions of fundamentalists and evangelicals believe that God’s will is that men should lead in homes, churches, and society. The advances of feminism have softened this patriarchalism to a profound extent, but male leadership remains doctrine in many thousands of churches. It’s not just maleness, it’s also masculinity that matters. Donald Trump won among Republican candidates because he exuded a certain hyper-masculine toughness, which included belittling other candidates who couldn’t quite measure up. Pun intended. And then, in the general election, when it was Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton, the potential first woman president, it was no contest.
  7. White evangelicals were attracted to the authoritarianism of Donald Trump. Many evangelicals run their families and their churches in an authoritarian rather than democratic way. I think of the thousands of churches founded by one man and controlled by that one man with little oversight. I think of the continued popularity of Reformed church models, in which an all-male elder board functions as a kind of spiritual oligarchy. Then, of course, there are the millions of families run by the husband/father/patriarch according to the will of the Heavenly Father. While there are also millions of Christian families and churches that are governed as democracies, it is fair to say that the majority of churches in America are not democracies. It is my surmise that Donald Trump’s tendency toward authoritarianism resonates deeply with many.
  8. White evangelicals were attracted to the wealth, glitz, and celebrity of Donald Trump. I speak here not just of those churches that have explicitly embraced the “prosperity” or “health and wealth” gospel, in which preachers teach that God rewards the faithful with worldly success. I want to broaden out to the idea that especially the massive megachurch movement within evangelicalism and fundamentalism bears a striking resemblance in many ways to the business and political model offered by Donald Trump. Everything revolves around an attractive central (male) figure, who exudes power, wealth, and success, and is usually accompanied by an equally beautiful wife and children. Donald Trump fit that paradigm.
  9. White evangelicals were attracted to the attacks on “political correctness” by Donald Trump. White evangelicals often feel embattled and belittled by the dominant powers of American culture—Hollywood, New York, Boston; CNN, New York Times, and Professor So-and-So at State University. Hollywood tells us who we are supposed to want to be, the Times tells us what we are supposed to count as news, and Professor So-and-So tells us what counts as truth. The fact that most of the time these authorities offer views that totally contradict those of white evangelicals is not lost on the latter. Donald Trump is not a white evangelical, but his bristling attack on “political correctness” spoke profoundly to shared resentments.
  10. White evangelicals were attracted to the thinly veiled white racism of Donald Trump. This claim will of course be the most disputed. The vast majority of white evangelicals do not believe that they hold racially prejudiced beliefs or act in racist ways. Evangelical individualism also makes it difficult for white evangelicals to accept the reality of structural racism.

The space for this essay is too short to litigate these issues, so let me make a quite circumscribed claim. Many American voters, including millions of Christians, believed that the total body of statements made by Donald Trump during his public career and especially the campaign, related to, for example, Mexicans, blacks, and Muslims, itself morally disqualified him from the office of president. Those who voted for Mr. Trump obviously did not agree. This at least makes them complicit with what he said and now does in relation to race.

What Do We Now Do?

Some of us have begun to face the fact that white evangelicalism is no longer our religious community. We must grieve, deeply. Perhaps we are now to be called post-evangelicals, or ex-evangelicals. Whatever we call ourselves, it is time to move on. We must then find others of like mind for shared dissent and resistance. Different ones of us will “feel called,” in evangelical parlance, to different struggles. For some, it might be immigration/refugee issues. For others, it might be peacemaking and international relations issues. For a different group, it might be climate issues. Each individual has limited bandwidth, but all can do their part.

Ultimately, we must move into a posture of radical solidarity with those who are most threatened. We ourselves feel disempowered and afraid, but our disempowerment and fear pales in comparison to that of many, many others. Whatever privilege and power we might have, we must invest for others. We leave our morally bankrupt religious tribe. Find new community. State our clear dissent and give good reasons for it. Practice resistance where we can. Stand in solidarity with the oppressed. This is what we do now. At least, it is a start.

David P. GusheeDavid P. Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. He is the 2018 president of the American Academy of Religion and the author or editor of over twenty books including Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism (Westminster John Knox Press, 2017); In the Fray: Contesting Christian Public Ethics, 1994–2013 (Cascade Books, 2014); Changing Our Mind: The Landmark Call for Inclusion of LGBTQ Christians (Read the Spirit Books, 2014); and Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (InterVarsity Press, 2003). Working with Colin Holtz, he has just completed Moral Leadership for a Divided Age: Fourteen Leaders Who Dared to Change the World, to be released in October 2018.


Image: Lev Dolgachov / Alamy Stock Photo