(RNS) — Since Donald Trump became president, many of us have wondered: Why would reasonable, mainstream evangelicals support him?
Until now, we’ve tried to answer that question by analyzing it politically. But looking outside politics might actually provide the clue.
During the election campaign, many evangelicals consoled themselves in the face of Trump’s rise to power that it was only nominal evangelicals, those many millions of Americans who blithely call themselves “born-again” or retain some other slight, vestigial linkage with the great tradition of revivalism, who were supporting him. Real evangelicals, whom we might better call observant evangelicals — the people who regularly went to church, read their Bibles, prayed, tithed and so on — surely were supporting someone else.
Alas, the poll data so widely reported seem to provide no comfort of this sort at all. White evangelicals both nominal and observant supported Trump in large numbers, and still do.
A couple of explanatory factors have already been widely discussed. Unlike black evangelicals, whose worship typically features themes of corporate oppression, suffering and liberation, for most of this century white evangelicals have subsisted largely on a spiritual diet of highly individualized piety. Their preaching, hymnody and spiritual practices have combined to emphasize the central value of one’s personal relationship with Jesus. So long as that relationship remains intact, one might infer, everything else is relatively unimportant.
Except abortion. That, for a generation now, has been the No. 1 issue of our time. The deliberate choice by evangelical leaders —especially, but not only, those who were involved in the Moral Majority — to focus on abortion as the litmus test for righteousness in politics has meant that Candidate A might be more obviously Christian than Candidate B on a long list of important issues, but if Candidate B is “right” on abortion, Candidate B gets the evangelical vote.
What then if Candidate B is a blatantly impious person? Well, evangelicals are nothing if not pragmatic, and while they would prefer a candidate who prays and worships and reads the Bible like they do, if abortion is what really matters, then abortion is what really matters.
Beyond a narrow focus on personal piety and abortion, however, what about other economic or political issues? It’s not as if evangelicals don’t care about them. In fact, some evangelical leaders have tried to broaden the evangelical outlook and agenda to include such crucial items as religious persecution, sexual slavery, poverty, AIDS and more. And evangelicals, like anyone else, care about their own economic welfare.
So why Trump? Here two other factors come into play.
First, since fundamentalists lost their struggle to recapture the culture in the 1920s, and especially since the burgeoning of American wealth in the 1960s, evangelicals have developed a huge range of special purpose groups. Bewildering in their variety, from Bible clubs to motorcyclist associations, these special purpose organizations have also multiplied in the political sphere.
Such groups siphon off evangelical concern about these major issues so that those issues no longer figure large on Election Day. From World Vision to the International Justice Mission, evangelicals can route their concern to organizations they control instead of entrusting their concern to the uncertain vagaries of electoral politics.
This factor may be the crucial one. For it combines powerfully with the fact that evangelicals have been told since they were little to beware “the world” and “the powers” that govern it. So they hardly expect Washington to advance their agenda and have industriously developed a vast alternative culture of their own NGOs instead.
When Election Day arrives, therefore, what matters ne plus ultra is abortion … plus — and here’s the second factor — whatever else really bothers evangelicals that doesn’t ever get addressed from evangelical pulpits focused on personal piety: job worries, tax worries, immigration worries and security worries. No evangelical NGO can help with those, either. So evangelicals, like everybody else, look to the state and, like everybody else, do so without any clear Christian teaching to guide them.
There is a direct line, then, from evangelicals abandoning Jimmy Carter for Ronald Reagan, the divorced candidate who went to church less than any president since George Washington, through Sarah Palin and her bizarre family and stranger politics, to Donald Trump.
Along comes a guy, that is, who names people’s fears in just the language they might use, and seems to make time to consult with evangelical leaders (even if they’re the showy prosperity gospel types), and says he’s going to do the Most Important Thing a President Can Do, namely, appoint pro-life justices to the Supreme Court (since evangelicals have long since abandoned faith in their fellow Americans to legislate a change to Roe v. Wade) … and he runs against people in the GOP who do not share at least some of their crucial fears (e.g., about jobs, taxes, immigration and security) … and then against a Democrat who, regardless of all the ways she might appear to be more Christian than he is, openly sides with Planned Parenthood and the other worldly powers of Washington and Wall Street — well, why be surprised about the way white evangelicals voted?
The interesting question is: Has anything changed in that picture to affect the next election? I’m not seeing it yet.
(John G. Stackhouse Jr. holds the Samuel J. Mikolaski Chair of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, Canada. His 10th book is just out: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World.” The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)