The Nationalist Roots of White Evangelical Politics

The Nationalist Roots of White Evangelical Politics

From its origins, white evangelicalism has been marked by a vision of a Christian America, driven to overcome its perceived enemies.

A T-shirt sold alongside Trump merchandise in 2019 (Gilbert Mercier/Flickr)

White evangelicals remain some of Donald Trump’s most steadfast supporters. Their strong support for the president in the last election—roughly 81 percent voted for him—puzzled many liberals; they found it hypocritical for evangelicals to support someone whose lifestyle so egregiously contradicts their puritanical moralism. But the group that seemed most surprised was the evangelical leadership.

Take Daniel Reid, former editor of InterVarsity Press, one of the major evangelical publishing houses: “How can Trump have gotten eighty-one percent? I don’t know a single person at InterVarsity who voted for Trump.” Mark Galli, the former editor-in-chief of Christianity Today—the flagship magazine of evangelical thought—echoed this sentiment last December in an editorial that called for Trump to be removed from office in light of the impeachment hearings. He and his colleagues had “done our best to give evangelical Trump supporters their due, to try to understand their point of view,” but no longer could. The problem with today’s evangelicals, said Galli in response to the negative reception of his editorial, is their “widespread ignorance” and “ethical naïveté.” Evangelical historian Thomas Kidd has even questioned their religious credentials: “I suspect that large numbers of these people who identify as ‘evangelicals’ are really just whites who watch Fox News and consider themselves religious.”

When they do acknowledge that a significant amount of support exists, evangelical intellectuals like Galli are drawn to cultural explanations for the reactionary white populist surge that they claim has only recently overtaken their movement. The faithful, so the argument goes, avoid extremes when they attend church regularly and adhere to orthodox theology. When these practices break down, chaos and crisis await.

The argument that the gospel can serve as a source of moderation in politics has a long tradition in religious thought. Had Catholic orthodoxy not been compromised by the medieval Church, the Reformation would have had little appeal. Had fin-de-siècle Europe not been swept over by a wave of secularization, workers would have continued to keep faith in paradise in another world, rather than putting their hopes in totalitarian regimes that promised paradise in this one.

White evangelicals, according to this perspective, have substituted the real truth of the gospels for an exclusionary religious nationalism. The absence of a deeper theological and spiritual foundation contributes to a sense of grievance and resentment. For Never Trump evangelicals, this cultural drift explains the wide gulf that separates evangelical Protestant theology from the rank-and-file’s political beliefs. The moral failings of churches, then, are distinct from their central theological doctrines. But it’s harder than evangelical intellectuals think to separate religious doctrine and history from the problems of contemporary racist nationalism on the right. As far back as the founding moment of the United States, the evangelical movement has depended on the nation-state for its survival. Its salvific mission is deeply connected to a theology of exclusionary Christian nationalism.

 

What is evangelicalism? While it can prove difficult to find a simple definition for a global movement involving scores of denominations and ethnic groups, scholars and religious leaders today most often point to the “Bebbington Quadrilateral,” named for historian David Bebbington. In his 1989 book Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, Bebbington laid out four core principles: 1. Conversionism, or the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a lifelong process of following Jesus; 2. Activism, which expresses the gospel through missionary and social reform efforts; 3. Biblicism—a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority; and 4. Crucicentrism, or a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross for the redemption of humanity.

While the Bebbington Quadrilateral has become the standard definition of evangelicalism, it offers little insight into why white evangelicals have been drawn to right-wing populism. The crisis in understanding only deepens when we learn that, according to some Pew polls, increased church attendance correlates with higher levels of support for Trump. Yet African-American evangelicals hold these exact same doctrinal beliefs and vote for the Democratic Party (as do many Latino evangelicals). This helps Never Trump evangelicals to avoid implicating theology, but it doesn’t help explain white evangelical support for the president. A historical approach to the relationship between doctrinal belief and political principle—political theology—can help make sense of these patterns.

Since Luther’s Reformation, the bulk of Protestantism has hedged its bets for survival on the goodwill of kings and nation-states. A threat to the nation, in turn, has often been viewed as a threaten to Protestantism itself. This is true of the history of Protestant evangelicalism, which has deep roots in U.S. history. From its origins, white evangelicalism has been marked by a vision of a Christian America, driven to overcome its perceived enemies. Seventeenth-century New England Puritans understood their wars against indigenous peoples “as a cosmic struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness,” argues sociologist Philip Gorski. “Bloody conquest and violent apocalypse—this has been the basic recipe for religious nationalism American-style ever since.” During the American Revolution, evangelical leaders who supported independence portrayed the war against the British as a struggle between God and Satan, or Moses and the Pharaoh; the Loyalists they branded as “infidels.” Through the Civil War, evangelicals in the South drew a connection between the holy American nation and racial hierarchy, appealing to the Bible to defend the institution of slavery. During Reconstruction, Southern white evangelicals remained completely silent on lynching and enforced segregation.

These connections between white supremacy and evangelical political theology found new expression in the 1970s. For decades now, evangelicals have railed against “big government” as a threat to religious freedom. The origin story of the religious right usually begins in 1973, when the Supreme Court ruled to legalize abortion in Roe v. Wade. But, as historian Randall Balmer has argued, it was the Civil Rights Act, not abortion, that provided the first push for Southern white evangelicals to mobilize as a cohesive political force. When the government moved to withdraw tax exempt status from segregated private schools, evangelicals opposed it by becoming a powerful voting bloc in the Republican Party. Many evangelicals have sought to suppress this history. Balmer, a longtime contributor to Christianity Today, stopped writing for the magazine after Galli—now celebrated for his anti-Trump stance—became editor. Galli, said Balmer, “didn’t appreciate the fact that I persisted in pointing out that the Religious Right was born not out of concern for abortion … but to defend racial segregation in evangelical institutions.” In 1983 the Supreme Court ruled that discriminatory private schools were ineligible for federal tax exemptions. But while they may have lost that particular battle, the religious right succeeded in becoming a significant political force.

The religious right’s Faustian bargain with the GOP isn’t a new feature of the Trump era. It is a position taken for close to half a century, with the hope that the GOP would support this exclusionary political theology: the idea that the United States is a Christian nation, founded by Christians, with a Christian Constitution, whose enemies (internal and external) are enemies of Christ.

 

I grew up in an evangelical home, attended a multi-ethnic evangelical church, and graduated from an evangelical bible college and seminary. At my church, sermons and even church membership statements regularly emphasized racial reconciliation and diversity. Nevertheless, the idea of the United States being founded as a nation destined by God for salvific purposes, and threatened by atheists and secularists on all fronts, was still commonplace. This is a political theology propagated on Christian radio, Christian television, and through Christian fiction. In this narrative, the country is caught up in a cosmic struggle against the demonic forces at work in the secular world and the Democratic Party. Many, especially within the more Pentecostal strains of the movement, believe deeply that prayer can actually change the outcome of elections.

Although I have long since left this world, I wondered if Trump’s nomination would throw a wrench in the single-minded commitment to defeating Democrats, given the concern evangelicals expressed about Trump’s lifestyle during the primary. But because white evangelicals are the biggest supporters of the Republican Party, it ultimately came as little surprise that they threw their support behind him. What did surprise me is how quickly many evangelicals—including leading theologians such as Wayne Grudem—provided detailed theological defenses of Trump.

The most well-known argument, the so-called Cyrus defense, holds that just as God used the ruler of the Persian Empire, Cyrus the Great, as a vessel to free Jews from the Babylonians, so can God use the ungodly Donald Trump as a vessel to free Christians from the captivity of a secular state. The conservative Supreme Court justices he appoints will overturn Roe v. Wade and protect Christian religious freedom from the LGBTQ movement. This is actually a longstanding Christian defense for ungodly political leaders, even used by German Christians who supported Hitler. Its emergence in the Trump era demonstrates how quickly evangelicals abandoned their apprehension to embrace a figure they believed could overcome their enemies.

The reach of this political theology extends worldwide. In recent years, white American evangelicalism has successfully been exported to places like Brazil and Bolivia, where evangelicals have become the chief political defenders of right-wing leaders such as President Jair Bolsonaro and Jeanine Áñez. The World Congress of Families, a U.S.-based evangelical organization designated an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, has found an eager audience in post-Soviet Russia, where wealthy conservatives have joined forces to promote the traditional family and to slow or repeal legislation granting rights to LGBTQ people. Many evangelicals now see Putin as a defense against the decadence of secular Western culture.

Evangelical leaders have long been aware of the nationalism and racism present in their movement. They’ve ignored it, presumably because it is inconvenient and also because they never imagined someone like Trump would have a chance of being elected. But the Cyrus defense isn’t watertight. The hesitance about nominating Trump, which many evangelicals—not only the leadership—expressed during the Republican primary, suggests the seeds of a sense of responsibility that could lead to a rival political theology. We have ample evidence that scriptural reasoning can be integrated into a wide variety of political persuasions.

Part of the challenge, however, is that evangelicalism is a populist movement that transcends denominational lines and ethnicities. A theological reform movement would be difficult to realize given the movement’s diversity and fluidity. Unlike the Catholic Church, evangelicalism is not centralized, and there is no official membership statement, which is one reason it has proven so difficult, if not impossible, to define. Moreover, evangelical institutions of higher education, such as Wheaton College or Calvin University, and evangelical publishing houses, such as Eerdmans Publishing or Baker Books, are enclaves of the Never Trump evangelical intelligentsia; they are not representative of the populist backlash that marks so much of evangelicalism, and as such are out of touch with it. Randall Balmer has even called for Never Trump evangelicals to break from the movement entirely and start a new group that he calls Sojourners Christians.

Given this situation, perhaps the only hope for reform lies with the ethnic diversity of evangelicalism. There are indications that the number of African-American and Latino evangelicals will remain steady or increase, whereas the children of white evangelicals are defecting from the movement. In this diversity lies the possibility of a real historical reckoning. There is an urgent need for something like the New York Times’s “1619 Project” dedicated to the history of evangelicalism in this country—a project to unpack the racism, nationalism, and violence bound up in the structures of the largest and most politically influential religious group in the United States. Such an undertaking might not sway millions to reconsider their political theology overnight; but it could reveal whether evangelicalism can be reformed.


Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is the managing editor of Modern Intellectual History and postdoctoral fellow in the history department at Dartmouth College. He is writing a book for Yale University Press titled Religion and Human Rights in a Populist Age.


Lima