Belief  /  Antecedent

The Long Road to White Christians' Trumpism

Any effective soul-searching must take into account the history of white American Christian support for white supremacist power.

Donald Trump’s staunch support from white Christians has invited a lot of handwringing throughout his political career. Why would Christians vote for a man whose life flaunts their norms? What about his treatment of women? What about his racism and his anti-immigrant policies? After nearly five years of questions, white American Christians still overwhelmingly supported Trump’s unsuccessful 2020 reelection bid.

Peter Wehner has argued in The Atlantic that “the Trump-evangelical alliance has inflicted enormous damage on the Christian witness in America.” When rare denunciations have come, such as women’s Bible study leader Beth Moore’s disgust at Trump’s bragging about sexual assault, more white evangelicals turned against critics like Moore than Trump. Evangelicals of color, in particular, have faced painful decisions. “I really, this Sunday, don’t feel safe worshiping with white people,” said author Jemar Tisby after the 2016 election. Yet, evangelicals are not alone. Most white mainline Protestants and white Catholics supported Trump over Biden. Polling also suggests majorities of white Christians across the country disagree with the ideas that systemic racism exists or that the legacy of slavery and discrimination has made it difficult for Black Americans to get ahead. As some white Christian leaders try to rescue their tradition from Trumpism, their message has largely been: This isn’t who we are.

A look at history, though, reveals that the forces of Trumpism—with its racism and sexism—run deep through white American Christianity. From the antebellum defense of slavery to postemancipation attacks on Black rights, many white American Christians have long defended racial hierarchy. In researching my book, Christian Citizens: Reading the Bible in Black and White in the Postemancipation South, I realized that white Christians after the Civil War invented many of the arguments that are now used by Christian Trump supporters. White Southerners argued that the Bible demanded that they oppose Black civil and political rights in favor of white men’s power because equal rights were a new political idea that conflicted with biblical teachings. They created their own echo chamber of white supremacist Christianity where they claimed that no Black Christians nor any white Christians who endorsed racial equality deserved their attention.

Defeated Southern Confederates made these claims first, but they grew to have national reach, despite Black Christians’ fierce denunciations. Northern white Christians, even veteran antislavery advocates, rarely denounced racial hierarchy or supported Black Americans’ autonomy. After Reconstruction, most Northern white Christians lost interest in aiding African Americans. At the same time, white Southerners spread their views nationally by defending them in race-blind language as faithful applications of the Bible against new modern trends for forced equality rather than biblical submission. Today, many Christians who defend rigid gender norms or fight LGBTQ equality use the same logic to say they must hold to biblical teachings against new, misguided social movements.