Why did American Evangelicals overwhelmingly vote for Donald Trump in 2016?
Why did American Evangelicals overwhelmingly vote for Donald Trump in 2016? Lutheran pastor and journalist Angela Denker offers some illuminating answers to this question in her new book, Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump (Fortress Press, 2019). Denker travelled across America to meet, listen, and to understand Christian voters who embraced Donald Trump as their advocate and champion. “He represents,” she writes, “a combination of a redeemed sinner with a checkered past and a successful businessman who can get things done. When the Christian Gospel has been conflated with a strong country, it’s easy to see how Trump has come to be seen as a timely savior. Evangelicals love a redeemed sinner, especially when he’s white, male, and rich.”
Red State Christians is not just about the American Evangelical vote in 2016; it’s about all of us as a nation. We are a big, boisterous family with competing visions for how we should live together. Denker’s book is a reminder of the importance of understanding and dialog in our democracy. We can achieve great things when we start working together, because in the words of Angela Denker: “grace squeezes through walls.”
Pastor Angela Denker discusses her new book in this interview.
Joseph Richard Preville: What was the inspiration for Red State Christians? And, how was your book a personal journey of faith?
Pastor Angela Denker: I initially pitched to Fortress a book entitled Bibles and Boob Jobs, a study of Orange County (CA) Christianity, how flashy OC megachurches led to the opening of Evangelicals to electing someone like Donald Trump, and the fracturing of my own congregation over political lines during the 2016 election. My original editor at Fortress, Tony Jones, suggested – instead of just Orange County (CA) – a book covering the entire country and Christian Trump voters in red counties across America. As a sportswriter and rare female pastor working primarily with men, I’ve spent a lot of time in conservative spaces and around Evangelicals. I have found there much love, warmth, and illustration of the Gospel. I find that too in my own family, which includes many Trump supporting Christians. Even as I find much in American Evangelicalism that conflicts with my understanding of Jesus – and I find much in Trump’s presidency that conflicts with the Gospel, I wrote this book to tell true stories about Jesus, about America – and yes, a little bit about myself, too.
JRP: How diverse are Red-State Christians in their religious beliefs and political values?
AD: Quite diverse, though I will say that they were unified by a distinct dislike of Hillary Clinton that often surpassed their admiration for Trump. They were also diverse in the extent to which their Christianity influenced their vote. Many voters, especially in the rural Midwest and Appalachia – still theoretically sought to keep what they heard and believed and church separate from their decisions in the voting booth and what they heard on the news. However, I distinctly found in Southern Baptist congregations, especially across the South, an unqualified embrace of Christian nationalism that led to a unique embrace of Trump and the Republican Party.
JRP: What is the “shared language” between Donald Trump and Red-State Christians?
AD: A man who worked in a steel mill in Appalachia told me how frustrating his career was because the company had been outsourced. Instead of a local family running things, the owner’s son had moved operations. Now they got their checks from New Jersey instead of the local bank. It was clear that he preferred the local owner to the distant one. I compare that to many Red-State Christians’ embrace of Trump. Yes, he is often wealthier than them – but he’s “their rich guy.” He eats Taco Bell on Cinco de Mayo, he’s slightly overweight and his suits don’t fit right, he spells words wrong, he curses, he’s “politically incorrect.” Trump has an instinctual knack for speaking in ways that make people who are very different than him feel as if they’re close to him, such as the times he served fast food to championship athletes: food many Red-State Christians would connect with their day-to-day lives as well.
JRP: What did Hillary Clinton represent to Red-State Christians?
AD: Everything they didn’t want. Their utmost fear: that America was becoming unrecognizable to them; that the era of white male dominance was ending in America – was summed up in Hillary. Where Trump appeared relatable, she appeared distant. Her inability to connect emotionally hurt her as well. Somehow, she represented a global-economic complex in ways that Trump didn’t, even though he was much more ruthless in his pursuit of personal wealth at others’ expense. They didn’t trust Hillary; they trusted Donald Trump.
JRP: How did Trump appeal to Arab-American Christians?
AD: Many Arab-American Christians and their families back in the Middle East faced persecution at the hands of radical Islamic terrorists. Trump, over and over again, promised to “crush ISIS.” He was also socially conservative, as many Arab-American Christians are.
JRP: Why did conservative Catholics support Donald Trump?
AD: A common theme: for Catholics who felt like the touchstones of their reality were being altered (acceptance of abortion, acceptance of gay marriage, women’s equality) — Trump offered a trip back in time. And overwhelmingly, they trusted him to appoint Supreme Court justices who would work to end Roe v. Wade.
JRP: What can Christians do to help mend “America’s wounded heart” in our fractured country right now?
AD: We need to leave our echo chambers and talk to one another; we need to really listen before we start sharing our own opinions. We also need to really listen to Christians who have been working on the margins for years. Listen to Evangelicals of color who have been working in red states in the South, such as Rev. William Barber II. Listen to newly elected congresspeople from traditionally red districts. Get straight what we believe to be the heart of Jesus’ Gospel and stick to that — don’t get lost in the weeds. And see people before dogma.