Trump and the evangelicals

There’s a really interesting piece in Salon last week by Michael Rea, who used to be president of the Society of Christian Philosophers and clearly still regards himself as a Christian (he says he “to some extent still comfortably inhabit[s]” the evangelical world). He’s appalled by evangelical support for Donald Trump, and has a new angle for trying to address it.

I don’t think it works, and for an important reason. But first, here’s how Rea sets up the problem:

Four years in, people are still struggling to understand the overwhelming support for Donald Trump that has come from what should have been its least likely source: American evangelicals. They belong to a socially conservative movement that embraces traditional Christian morality and family values. …

He, by contrast, is a man whose lifestyle displays little regard for Christian morality or family values. His dishonesty and infidelity have been almost daily news items since before he took office. His reputation for sexual predation, bullying, narcissism and a host of other sins and vices antithetical to Christianity has only continued to grow since he took office. … Who could have predicted such an alliance?

That might sound like one question, but it’s really two. First, why do the evangelicals support Turmp? And second, why do many people find that surprising – why did they fail to predict it when others, including those (like me) who know much less about evangelism than Rea does, did predict it and find it not at all surprising?

Rea’s answer to the first question is a good one. He argues that the evangelicals understand their religion in patriarchal terms; drawing on the work of historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez, he describes it as a “cult of masculinity”. Therefore they look for not just a political ally, but a particular sort of leader: “a political strongman” with a “brash and swaggering demeanor,” “a hypermasculine tough guy.” Trump fitted the bill.

Rea argues that this idealisation of masculinity is in no way intrinsic to Christianity, but is a specifically American creation. He’s probably right about that. But he concludes there is the potential to undermine the evangelicals’ identification with Trump by showing them that they themselves, in selling out to his political agenda, have abdicated their own masculine role:

So evangelical leaders, along with others who have abased themselves before Trump in fear of their cultural enemies, stand condemned by the very value systems they proclaim. By the lights of their own conception of masculinity, they are unmanly. By the lights of the value system that valorizes “biblical manhood,” they are not to be followed.

This argument might work with some evangelicals, who’ve taken the professions of their leaders seriously. But I don’t think it’s going to get a lot of traction, because I don’t think that “traditional Christian morality and family values” actually have any intrinsic importance to most evangelicals. They’re just instrumental tools, useful for the persecution of enemies – as in the campaign against Bill Clinton – but ultimately subservient to political goals.

Rea partially understands this. He knows that support for Trump is not a reluctant compromise but a reflection of genuine values in the evangelical community. Yet he can’t let go of the idea that they have sacrificed something in the process: that they have some sort of underlying Christian principles and that “To compromise those values and principles in submission to or defense of a strongman, whether out of fear or calculated, transactional pragmatics, is to become the strongman’s b*tch.”

But if you assume that those values and principles were never more than instrumental in the first place, then the evangelicals are immune to that criticism. They are not abasing themselves before Trump, because they had nothing to give up; they are fellow-cynics who differ from him only in their tactics and their rhetoric, not their fundamental values.

Which brings us back to the second question I raised: why did so many intelligent observers get the evangelicals wrong? It was because they misinterpreted their fanaticism. They observed, correctly, that the evangelicals were fundamentalists, and took that to be a religious trait (which would indeed be liable to conflict with Trump’s behavior). But American Christianity is primarily a political movement, not a religious one.

Once you see the evangelical movement as primarily devoted to patriarchy and white supremacy, the accusation of subservience or hypocrisy loses its sting. Trump’s evangelical supporters haven’t sold out: they’re getting exactly what they signed up for.

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