Explaining Evangelicals’ Support for Trump

David Shumway

Ever since Donald Trump emerged as a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination, people have been scratching their heads over the support he received from evangelical Christians. Some prominent Evangelicals were early Trump supporters, and in the general election he received overwhelming support from Evangelical voters. That support has remained constant throughout his presidency, and in fact it seems to have solidified. But how can people who seem to spend a great deal of time criticizing the sins of others overlook the obvious immorality of Donald Trump? Why does his corruption, both financial and sexual, not drive them away or inspire in them even mild criticism?

One answer to this is that the Evangelicals are simply hypocrites, excusing or ignoring Trump’s behavior because he is on their team while attacking Democrats, like Bill Clinton, for similar but less extreme or obvious sexual misbehavior. I don’t believe that evangelical Christians are any more hypocritical than other members of society, and it is worth observing that those to left of center have also behaved hypocritically in this regard. Allowing for the existence of the certain amount of hypocrisy among evangelical voters, we need to look beyond this explanation for evangelicals’ support for Trump. My argument is that Trump’s behavior does not actually contradict evangelicals’ worldview, but rather is entirely consistent with it. This argument is based on a critique of evangelicalism rather than on a reading of its explicit theology. As Gillis J. Harp observes in his new book on the history of the influence of Protestantism on American Conservatism, in its support for Trump, “Evangelicalism’s lack of a theological or philosophical basis for political engagement became painfully clear.”

But first, I need to offer a few qualifications and disclaimers. The term evangelical covers an enormous range. Indeed, most Christian denominations seek converts and are therefore evangelical or proselytizing, unlike, for example, Judaism, which does not. When evangelical began to be used as the preferred term for conservative Protestants in the U.S., it replaced fundamentalist, perhaps because the latter had come to be used to name Muslims associated here with terrorism. The change may also reflect of shift of emphasis from a style of Biblical interpretation to a style of public engagement. Conservative Protestants of the later 20th century were more identified by their media presence than their theology, and that media presence was precisely evangelical. Not all Christians who would call themselves Evangelical are politically conservative, and there are numerous theological differences among them as well. Let me make clear then, that I am speaking here about those Evangelicals who have endorsed and supported Trump, and not about everyone who confesses Evangelical Christianity.

Because Evangelical preachers spend a great deal time attacking people whom they regard as sinful—LGBT people, women who have abortions, Muslims, etc.—one might assume that their primary concern is to rid the world of sin. People tend to think of them as Puritans, whom they imagine striving to save themselves by hewing to the straight and narrow. But in fact, Evangelicals, like most other Christians, don’t believe it is possible to be without sin. It is a standard tenet of Christian theology that human beings are inherently sinful, and that no one is ever deserving of salvation. Salvation is said to be offered by God’s grace through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Historically, what follows from this basic theology has differed. Catholicism emphasized activities of penance and observance as additional requirements for salvation. Calvin thought that one’s eternal fate was determined by God in advance, but that meant that the elect would be revealed by their “fruits,” their correct behavior. More modern conservative Protestants preached that God would judge based on a person’s deeds, which would reveal his or her true faith better than words or rituals.

Contemporary Evangelicalism has moved away from this theology, affirming instead the position that once one has been truly saved—”born again” is the preferred term—then what one does afterward is inconsequential. Because people are incorrigible, it is a certainty that being born again will not prevent one from sinning. The best that churches can do is to teach and admonish but in the full knowledge that this work will fail.

There are several important results of this theology that makes sin inevitable but that also makes the experience of conversion indispensable. One is that it produces a religion that defines itself against everyone who is not saved. There is, of course, a long history of this in monotheistic religions in general, but it comes in different flavors. Some groups withdraw from the larger society in order to save themselves. One might argue that the English Puritans who founded the Massachusetts colony were of this persuasion, since they sought a place where they could live as they believed God required rather than electing to stay in England (or Holland) and convert their neighbors. The Great Awakening of the 18th century changed that among many American Protestants, and ever since both tendencies have existed here. Contemporary evangelicalism is militant, rather than quietist, in its relation with others, i.e., all those who are unsaved. It regards itself as persecuted by societal tolerance of those who are not Christians by its definition. This militant us-versus-them stance fits perfectly with the movement’s racism. As Randall Balmer showed in a 2014 article in Politico, the origin of the current religious right as a political movement lies in the desire to preserve segregation.

The second result of contemporary evangelical theology is a new lack of emphasis on sinful behavior. When sin is an inevitable state, particular sins are no special significance. The effects of this thinking are borne out by the facts of social life in the regions of the country where evangelicals are dominant. While evangelicals tout the sanctity of marriage, divorce rates among them are higher. The body is said to be a temple that should remain pure, but drug and alcohol abuse in these regions is epidemic. While some conservative churches still prohibit card playing, dancing, and secular music, most no longer try to enforce such rules. Since sin is inevitable and Jesus died to redeem sinners, sin really doesn’t matter.

Unless, of course, the sin falls into a few special categories: gay and lesbian sexuality, same-sex marriage, transgender expression, abortion, birth-control, and women’s sexuality in general. What these sins have in common is that they threaten the traditional gender roles, the patriarchal family structure, and male dominance in society at large. It is preserving male hegemony that is the ultimate concern of right-wing evangelicals. While the public recognizes that these evangelicals hold a number of beliefs that strike them as pre-modern—the rejection of evolution, denial of human-caused climate change—it is not been made clear that the religious right does not accept the principle of gender equality to which virtually everyone in public life at least pays lip service. As I will explain below, the primary goal of the religious right is to keep women in traditional roles and subservient to men.

It is this anti-modern project–a bit anomalous, in that Evangelicalism seems to function as a pathway to modernity in so many other nations– that explains how abortion suddenly became a major issue for America’s right-wing Protestants. As Balmer explains, “both before and for several years after Roe, evangelicals were overwhelmingly indifferent to the subject, which they considered a ‘Catholic issue.’” Balmer treats the religious right’s interest in abortion itself as a piece political hypocrisy, observing that “evangelical leaders . . . seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. Why? Because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the religious right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools.” While this may have been true for a moment in 1979, it doesn’t explain the staying power of this issue. George McGovern was more accurate speaking after he lost his Senate seat in 1980. “People were reluctant to come right out and admit they wanted to put women in their place, but there was a strong current of that running through much of what happened,” he said. “There’s a lot of fear of changing sex roles, of new pressures on the family, and men and women alike were threatened by it.” [George McGovern quoted by Leslie Bennetts in the NYT Friday, Nov. 7, 1980, A16]

In the 1970s, it wasn’t just segregation that the nascent elements of the religious right were fighting. Indeed, one of the first major victories of religious conservatives was the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment that sought to enshrine gender equality in the constitution. In the early 1970s the amendment itself was not regarded as controversial, which is why it was approved easily in Congress and by a substantial majority of state legislators. But under the leadership of Phyllis Schlafly, the right stopped the amendment’s momentum with ratification by three state legislatures lacking. The campaign against the amendment centered on preserving traditional gender roles, and it raised the prospect of the elimination of single-sex restrooms and the legalization of same-sex marriage. The organization of the opposition was canny in its use of female leaders and its address to female voters, whose social and economic precarity made the threatened loss of special protections for women in labor and divorce laws more frightening.

Despite the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, gender roles continued to change. One of the right’s major arguments against the amendment had been the prospect that women would be eligible for the draft, but women have continued to play an ever-larger role in the military. Same-sex marriage is now a reality, and the “restroom problem” has cropped up again with regard to transgender individuals, who are now widely visible and struggling to achieve social and legal recognition. By standards of equal participation in politics, business, and economic standing, women lag behind, but they have nevertheless made significant gains since the 1970s. The marriage rate continues to decline, and young people are marrying later in life but having sex in the meantime.

All of this is a nightmare for the men (there are almost no women pastors at evangelical churches) who run Evangelicalism. They derive not just their livelihood, but their power and status from male privilege. Their conception of the world derives from scriptures written at a time and place where government was literally patriarchal, a government of fathers. While right-wing Christians do sometimes argue explicitly for curtailing women’s rights based on Biblical models, the patriarchal family is something like the common sense of evangelical culture. People steeped in this reading of the Bible come to accept many of the background assumptions of the pre-Christian world of the Old Testament as their own. It seems unnatural even to women in this culture if men are not dominant, but that prospect is existentially threatening to the dominant men themselves.

Abortion is especially threatening to these men because it gives women control of their own sex lives, and over the potential offspring that might result. In patriarchal societies, women and children are property of fathers. One needs to keep this point in mind to understand the Evangelicals’ views of sex. Since women are property, they need to be controlled, and their sex makes them always potentially uncontrollable. Historically, all of the monotheistic religions had for this reason rules that restricted women. Most such rules are not socially enforced in the U.S. today, so the Evangelicals have to do it on their own. For example, they have invented the purity pledge, which is often made by pre-adolescent girls, vowing virginity until marriage. The pledge itself is accompanied by instruction that makes girls responsible for the maintenance of sexual morality, since boys and men are held to be incapable resisting temptation. This, of course, leaves men free to whatever they please, since we are all always already sinners.

Given this view of sex, Trump seems not aberrant, but normal. He is a man, only more so. While there are certainly some Evangelicals, especially women, who do not like the way he treats women, I suspect many Evangelical men are envious. Others just recognize him as kindred spirit. He keeps women in their place. If it is necessary sometimes to do that by violent means, well, you can’t make babies without breaking some membranes. To these evangelical men, the allegations that Trump harasses and rapes are not a bug, but a feature. While rape is universally regarded as a crime, conservative politicians and evangelicals seem to have great difficulty understanding it as a serious one. While they doubtless would object to women in their own families being raped—that would be a kind of theft—they have trouble both blaming men and not blaming female victims.

Since Trump has done his best to support Evangelicals’ opposition to women’s equality in appointments and executive orders, their support for him is consistent with their most important motive. However, one might wonder why they overlook Trump’s many other faults. Some of these also appear to Evangelicals to be positive qualities, rather than defects. For example, his authoritarianism is consistent with the Evangelicals’ world view, which is rooted in a world ruled by kings like David and Solomon. While Evangelicals, like other conservatives, have learned to use the modern language of human rights—which it should be remembered, was not prevalent in the U.S. prior to World War II—their vision of the world is profoundly anti-democratic. Trump’s rejection of science goes along with the long-standing rejection of it by conservative American Protestants going back to early 20th Century fundamentalism. His penchant for conspiracy theories is consonant with the mindset of Evangelicals, who see the world not as a place that can be understood in terms rational causes, but as a giant Ouija board that can reveal glimmerings of God’s hidden plan.
But perhaps the most important reason why the patent failure of the Trump presidency on most fronts has been acceptable to Evangelicals is their lack of interest in the reality of the human present. Evangelicals’ concerns are focused on the second coming, and nothing that happens in the meantime has any real significance to them except in so far as it may point to or in some way enable that event. There is a theological principle that supports this, dispensationalism, which holds that society must deteriorate before Christ’s return. Where traditional Christian theology held that the Church was preparing the way for the second coming by making the world fit for His return, evangelicals believe that we are simply in a holding pattern. At most, they believe that certain events, said to be found in the book of Revelation, must occur first—for instance, the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, something that explains Evangelicals’ support for Israel. Because this world is of so little consequence to them, nothing Trump does that might threaten it, no matter how scary to the rest of us, will matter to Evangelicals. Similarly, his financial corruption is insignificant, even if it is recognized as sinful, since it has no bearing on the cosmic drama which Evangelicals believe only they comprehend.
In short, Evangelicals’ support for Donald Trump is entirely consistent with their underlying motives and assumptions.

Christians of other stripes will for good reason find it hard to square this with their vision of Christianity, but Evangelicals will not be persuaded by citing Bible verses they ignore. Like all Christians, they read scripture selectively and through a definite interpretive scheme, but they do acknowledge this and fall back on the notion that they read it literally. If there is an answer to the Evangelicals’ devotion to Trump, it is not to argue theology, but rather economics. Evangelical leaders may happily follow Trump down into recession, but many followers may have second thoughts about supporting someone who will destroy their livelihoods. This world becomes much more real when you can’t pay the bills.