Not long after Donald Trump’s inauguration, I met with a conservative evangelical pastor near his church in a small city in one of the most conservative of the Southern states. He told me how deeply he despised and feared the new president as a threat to his values and his community. Some of his concerns were moral, involving Trump’s sexual behavior. Some were pastoral–he worried that young people would be alienated from Christianity as the faith came to be associated with Trump. And some concerns involved leadership. He felt that he struggled to be a good leader of his church community: accountable, inclusive, a peacemaker. Trump modeled the very opposite style.
I often recall this conversation as I read about White evangelical support for Trump and the criticism he’s now receiving from some evangelical clergy.
That first spring of the Trump era, I formed an empirical hypothesis. I thought that many evangelicals might vote for Trump because of abortion and a few other issues, and I could understand that. However, I thought that admiring him as a leader would correlate negatively with actual participation in a Christian community, once you controlled for demographics. In the back of my mind was the theory that being Christian can have three meanings:
- A set of theological beliefs that may have moral and political implications. These vary enormously. Some Christians see Jesus as a pacifist socialist; others think he would endorse capitalism and national sovereignty. But if you take theology seriously, you will assess a politician in its terms, and not just do what he says.
- Membership and participation in a community of believers, which may extend from a concrete local church to a denomination or even an ecumenical network of denominations. Churches vary from congregationalist to hierarchical (the word means “holy order or structure”), from traditionalist to innovative, and from homogeneous to diverse; and we would expect these differences to matter politically.
- An identity, something you are as well as (or even instead of) something you believe or do. It’s possible to identify as a White Christian man without believing in God or going to church, if you think of Christianity as pure identity, akin to an ethnicity.
I would expect #1 to inform attitudes toward Donald Trump, but in a complex way. Assessments would depend on the theological commitments of the specific believer and the policies of the administration. Theological seriousness would make people into critical thinkers about any politician.
I would expect #2 to teach people lessons about what kind of leadership to expect and admire. In a megachurch dominated by a charismatic and wealthy preacher, people might learn to expect leaders who act at least roughly like Trump. In a congregationalist church or a Catholic parish with empowered laity, people would learn to expect accountability and inclusivity, not to mention skills like listening and mediation; and they would despise Trump’s leadership style in contrast.
I would expect #3 to predict support for Trump because that’s what he offers. He gives no indication of actual belief but looks for all opportunities to say: This is a white Christian nation, and everyone must acknowledge that. I haven’t yet read Janelle Wong’s new book, but this seems to be her finding. It would be consistent with the theory that “Fox News evangelicals” (or “coach-potato evangelicals”)–rather than deeply committed Christians–are Trump’s base.
We had the opportunity to ask about all these topics in one survey. We asked about policy opinions, demographics, admiration for Trump as a leader, and experiences of participation in religious and secular communities. I don’t want to “publish” our findings here, because I worked with several colleagues who aren’t co-authors of this blog, and the statistical issues were somewhat complex. Our work is yet unpublished. But I will say there was no clear evidence that I was correct. The outcome was something like a null result. Once you know that someone is a White evangelical who favors abortion rights, you don’t learn anything new by asking about her personal involvement in a church community.
This is disappointing, but it may not be the end of the story. Assume that you are a serious Christian with conservative politics who actually cares about theology and the community of the living church. Christianity as an ethnic identity is a threat to everything you deeply believe in. Right now, you’re losing the struggle for your faith. It’s becoming an ethnic identity with a dangerous level of resentment, not a belief system. But you have resources to struggle back. You have moral legitimacy, cultural depth, diversity, youth support, and grassroots institutions that are shrunken but still vital. I would expect to see more and more anti-Trump organizing from the evangelical pulpit, and a widening gap between White identity “Christianity” and actual Christian faith.