Amid the vulgarity and recklessness that has been the hallmark of Donald Trump’s presidency so far, a quieter but no less astonishing revolution has taken place. The values so long attributed to America’s white evangelical voters have been consistently challenged by a thrice-married serial adulterer, who lies nearly all the time and boasts about sexually assaulting women, yet their support has remained steadfast. With Trump’s approval rating at record lows, it’s worth examining why this politically vital group continues to back this singular man.
Evangelicalism is a trans-denominational Christian movement tracing its roots back to the early part of the 18th Century. In modern times, America’s cultural revolution of the 1960’s was countered by revivalist ministers like Billy Graham, who spoke for the millions of conservative Christians who felt ignored and sidelined by the pace of social change.
For many, it was the election of Ronald Reagan that permanently welded evangelical faith to conservative political power. In 1976, Jimmy Carter had enjoyed the support of nearly 50% of the evangelical vote, and the most prominent themes attributed to this group’s backing were human rights, caring for the poor and the avoidance of war. But by 1980 this focus had radically changed, and Reagan was able to fan the flames of what became the ‘culture wars’ that made abortion rights and gun ownership laws a primary focus for evangelical Christian zeal.
American evangelicalism (which had been surprisingly diverse) became more homogeneous under Reagan and George H.W. Bush, as Irving Kristol’s ‘neo-Conservative’ movement co-opted America’s born-again Christians to gain and wield political power. After Reagan’s second-term purge of Republican centrists, the two walked hand in hand.
Although ‘born-again’ political influence waned somewhat under Bill Clinton, the marriage of conservative politics and white Christian evangelicalism reached its apotheosis with the election of George W. Bush, a man who appeared to embody the new muscular Christianity of America’s right. Bush was sober, fit, belligerent, and wore his faith on his sleeve. In the 2000 election the demographic defined as ‘white, born again’ voted 57-42 for Bush over Gore. In 1996 (Dole v Clinton) it had been 49-43. This shift in evangelical favor handed Bush the White House, in the closest election in American history.
As with some evangelical Christians, the neo-Cons who made up the spine of Bush’s new cabinet were intensely ideological and the two made happy, if strange, bedfellows. An essential part of neo-Con ideology was the linking of political policy to religious dogma, allowing Bush to say that each direction taken was in line with Judeo-Christian morality and ‘biblical values’.
9/11 turned fervor into an inferno. After the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Bush invoked what he perceived as a Christian-inspired righteous vengeance, and Americans seemed to agree. Briefly, Bush’s approval rating reached 90%. When asked if he had consulted his father prior to the invasion of Iraq, Bush said he had not, but he had asked his ‘higher father’.
Political dishonesty and the deliberate launching of war may seem ‘un-Christian’, but it’s important to remember that the alliance between neo-Conservatism and evangelical faith really was a marriage of convenience, as neo-Conservative ideology contained none of the central messages of Christianity. Religion, and Christianity in particular, continues to play a huge part in political discourse in the United States, a country where nearly 280-million people (more than any other country in the world) still identify as Christian. Somehow, Bush’s neo-Conservatives persuaded evangelical Christians that policies like lower taxes for the rich and endless foreign military incursion aligned with the teachings of Jesus. Neo-Conservatives wore the cloth of Christ while engaging in political skullduggery solely to gain and retain power.
Bush received a whopping 79% of ‘Evangelical/Born Again’ votes in 2004, but as the years passed and the horrors of Guantanamo, Iraq and the ‘War on Terror’ made it to the public consciousness, even evangelical ardor for Bush’s warmongering cooled.
Sadly, in the last eight years, surveys consistently showed that America’s Christian right was open to the examination of concepts such as Barack Obama being a Muslim, or born in Kenya. It’s hard to mount a convincing case that race did not play a significant part in this madness, something eagerly fed by the current occupier of the White House. Although Obama did nothing to restrict gun ownership, and advances in women’s health and rights were incremental at best, it appears evangelical Americans felt sidelined, and as the Republican party moved so far to the right that it faced the danger of fracturing completely, conservative politicians fanned the flames of national division.
During the Obama years, Republican opposition and obstruction was not just focused on policy, but squarely on the man. Obama, Republicans told us, was a Kenyan Muslim hardline socialist, hell-bent on destroying the United States itself, and the most radical, divisive and dangerous President in the history of the United States. That’s really what they said.
This nihilistic approach dragged America’s political discourse into the gutter, and it was from this abject starting point that Donald Trump mounted his improbable campaign.
Republicans have won the popular vote only once in the seven elections from 1992 to 2016, and the broadening palette of American demography lead many to believe that the Republican party faces a choice – retain power through any means possible, or lose and die. This raises the already sky-high stakes, given the powers now vested in the office of a President who considers ‘winning’ his birthright, is happy to break any rule in order to do so, and takes losing as a personal affront.
A week after last year’s election, author Katelyn Beaty wrote in patheos.com that she had woken to an evangelical family she no longer resembled. “Evangelical at its root means evangel or “good news”. We proclaim to follow a man who chose to affiliate himself with the poor and dispossessed, who called the political and religious leaders of his day to account, who saw and loved people whom others had discarded”.
Trump is the diametric opposite of these values.
As we approach the first anniversary of the 2016 election (can it really be only one year ago?), evangelical support for Donald Trump continues to be at an almost monolithic 88%, and there is little sign that Trump’s base are experiencing buyers remorse. Despite Trump lying nearly every time he opens his mouth, his vulgarity, his clear lack of any detailed knowledge of policy and his thin-skinned pettiness, born-again Christians – raised to consider any ethical merit on the basis of ‘what would Jesus do’ – today practice political absolutism, and show no signs of deserting their man.
In 2004 George W. Bush received nearly four in five evangelical votes. You could now mount a case that Bush’s views would be broadly rejected by today’s Republicans and born-again Christians. In twelve years, their values appear to have changed completely. Although evangelicals appear to be holding their noses, in the hope that Trump will deliver them something more than (to date) just a Supreme Court pick, it is not clear how long this support will hold.
Whatever happens, Trump is not going to change. His careless destruction of the institutions that have kept the world from war since 1945 will soon place America at a crossroads. And then we will find out what evangelical values really are in 2017. There is little current indication that the teachings of Jesus will guide their hand, or even bear relevance.
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