President Donald Trump joins Judge Neil Gorsuch and others in prayer at the White House, following Trump’s announcement of Gorsuch as his nominee to the Supreme Court, January 31, 2017.
Shealah Craighead/The White House
q&a / belief

Evangelicalism and Politics

Four historians weigh in on evangelicals' affinity for Trump – and their commitment to the conservative movement more broadly.
Considering the longer history of evangelical politics, were there forces of change—both within evangelicalism itself, as well as in American culture and politics writ large—that politically stirred evangelicals in the long lead-up to 2016 in unique and unprecedented ways? Stated another way, was 2016 a pivot in the life of modern evangelicalism and its political expressions and ambitions, or a continuation of existing—perhaps accelerating—trends within the movement?

Both-and. The 2016 election was certainly a continuation of existing anti-feminism; the hatred of Hillary Clinton goes back to 1992 and her perceived insult to traditional stay-at-home women (“Well, I guess I could have stayed home and baked cookies …”). There is a lot to say about this! On the other hand, I also think there was an acceleration of forces such as fear and anger toward both immigrants of color and citizens of color that appeared to mobilize conservative religious voters to an extraordinary degree. Scholars are still parsing this out, of course, and debating the politics of race in white evangelical voting patterns; but there’s no question that white working-class men in many communities have adopted a narrative of victimization in which they are being left behind and displaced by “outsiders” (people of color, immigrants, etc.). A large number of white women seem to support this view and identify with these men’s victimization; I suppose they find some measure of comfort in that narrative, even if it fuels their anger and paranoid fear of outsiders. So what journalists keep seeing locally and calling “economic anxiety” is deeply tied up with racist fears of who the culprits are. This is in no way limited to evangelicals, but many of those who are expressing this sense of victimization are evangelicals, hearing these narratives from pulpits like that of Robert Jeffress and other Trump supporters. The evangelical belief that one is “in but not of the world” and has thus willingly taken on the status of a visitor to this evil world lends itself pretty seamlessly to a sense of one’s own victimhood.

Fear, the pursuit of power, and an approach to public policy built on an unhealthy dose of nostalgia have plagued evangelical politics for a long time. Since the 1970s, the Christian Right has followed a well-known political playbook. Its members want to elect the right president of the United States who will appoint the right Supreme Court justices who will then overturn decisions that the Christian Right believes have undermined the republic’s Christian foundations. In the past, this playbook was inseparable from the moral character of the candidate. In 2016, however, the Christian Right executed the playbook in support of a candidate known for his sexual escapades, nativism, deceit, xenophobia, racism, and misogyny. This is a new development.
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