Update: Trump and the evangelicals (This article is work in progress. Comments and suggestions welcome)

Trump and the white evangelicals - a crisis of liberalism?

‘How did a libertine who lacks even the most basic knowledge of the Christian faith win 81% of the white evangelical vote in 2016?’
- Publisher's blurb for Kristin Kobes du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne

'Why did so many Evangelicals turn out to vote for Donald Trump, a serial philanderer with questionable conservative credentials who seems to defy Christian values with his every utterance?'
- Publisher's blurb for Sarah Posner, Unholy

In the past few decades, two conservative religious insurgencies have reshaped politics – revolutionary Islam and the Christian Right. It is not hard to get our heads around the former – a violent movement for a form of theocratic state enforcing Koranic law. But, to go by the publishers’ blurbs above, Americans are themselves bewildered by the triumph of the American evangelical right, and its gifts to the world in the presidencies of George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump. Who are these people? Why have they done this to us? How come they have so much power?

‘Evangelicals’ account for around one American in four; of this one quarter, three-quarters are white (not black, Asian or Latino) – and of these white evangelicals, 80% voted Trump in 2016 and will in all likelihood do so again in November 2020. By contrast, in the UK, evangelicals amount to about 3% of the population, and our voting habits, if anyone cares, are not distinctively different from those of the wider public. So what makes American evangelicals so numerous and so different?

Recent books provide valuable, critical and combative insights into how, in the twentieth century, nationalism, militarism and anti-communism combined with cultural factors around family and gender identity to solidify a white, conservative evangelical bloc. Kristin Kobes du Mez and John Fea are academic historians writing from a Christian perspectve - du Mez works in Calvin College and is a specialist in gender questions (a previous title from her is 'A new Gospel for Women') and Fea is at Messiah College in Pennsylvania and the author of several titles including 'Was America founded as a Christian nation?'. Sarah Posner is an investigate journalist. Earlier contributions come from Chris Hedges (a journalist and academic) and Darryl Hart (an academic church historian and Orthodox Presbyterian elder). More books are on the way. One such is Tony Keddie's 'Republican Jesus: How the Right has rewritten the Gospels' to appear in October.


There are here many good titles, informative and well written, though partisan. But, for me, they do not really explain the profoundly racialised and politicised character of the bloc. Here I find Frances Fitzgerald's superb, Pullitzer prize-winning history to be essential reading. Mark Noll is an acclaimed evangelical historian whose book, taken with Fitzgerald's, provides me with the account I offer here. We are going to dig down in history to the era of the founding of the Republic, and then look at the US's painfully incomplete escape from the legacy of slavery.  Then I want to explore an idea - that, to grasp the real politics of what is going on, we need to understand this as a racial crisis which is also a crisis of liberalism.


Roots: revivals and slavery

The roots of American evangelicalism lie in a series of ‘Revivals’ before and after the Revolution. At outdoor mass meetings, roving preachers inspired a faith based on personal conversion, trust in the bible and in the cross of Christ, and a commitment to call others to follow. By the early part of the nineteenth century virtually the entire white Protestant community had been swept into the evangelical revival – and as immigrants arrived, mainly from Protestant Europe, they too were carried in. The movement shaped what we now consider the distinctive characteristics of American society – individualist, voluntarist, democratic, brash, with a love of showmanship and salesmanship. The tide pushed aside the established hierarchies run by local elites and landed interests in the colonies and their semi-established Anglican and Congregationalist churches. Instead the rising churches of the new Republic were the Methodists, the Baptists, a new expression of Presbyterianism and a variety of free churches. It was an activist movement committed to social improvement and orderly living, as the population grew six-fold from Independence to the middle of the 19th century.


But from the start it divided over slavery. In 1780 the Methodists determined that no member should be a slaveholder, and set a deadline of 1786 for this to be fulfilled. The south said No and the denomination (eventually) backed down. The north-south division became a dispute over the bible and indeed the meaning of Christianity itself. The great evangelist Charles Finney preached that slaveholding was a sin and begged the churches to stand against the practice. At first he also begged that the issue be not politicised, foreseeing the consequences as increasingly militant voices called for state-ordered abolition.


In the 1840s Baptists and Methodists split on north-south lines. As the population grew, slavery grew in proportion alongside it, but became concentrated in the states that formed the Confederacy. The Civil War of 1861-65 started in the dispute over whether, as the USA expanded west, new states would be run by slaveholding whites along the lines of the existing South. But it is sometimes called a war of religion – did the bible approve slavery or not? The white south had come to see the rest of America as neither Christian nor truly American.


Racism, liberalism and 'progress'

After the war the Radical Republicans ran the South in partnership with freed slaves for a few years. But the old order reasserted itself through the ‘Redeemer’ Democrats and violent private armies, sponsored by large landowners. The northern Republicans decided not to intervene and withdrew the Union army from the south in 1877. They were called ‘liberal’ Republicans, meaning they supported the idea of a small federal state that left decisions for local settlement.
Blacks were stripped of the right to vote, segregated and driven back to semi-slavery on the plantations. Nationally, evangelicalism divided over the interpretation of the scriptures, as fundamentalism emerged to defend literal biblical truth against the rising tide of modernism. Evangelicalism lost its activist social vision. The north now lacked the will and energy to challenge southern ‘redemption’ and to overturn the Jim Crow laws that enforced white supremacy. Eastern whites and enfranchised blacks voted for the Republicans, the party of Lincoln, while the Democrats were the party of the white south and of the Catholics who arrived in the latter part of the nineteenth century, much to the fear and displeasure of Protestants.

The Democratic Party incubated what became known as ‘progressive’ politics. William Jennings Bryan (a committed Christian) was the party’s Presidential candidate three times around the turn of the twentieth century. He was an early adopter of a looser money supply (anticipating Keynesianism in wanting to abandon the Gold Standard) and graduated taxation. He was an anti-imperialist and a passionate supporter of self-determination overseas. Later, it was the Democrats whose New Deal protected the working class from the Great Depression. With this, the black vote made its journey over to the Democrats.

Yet the Democrats were also the party of racism and a segregated South – the party that defended, and prospered through, this white hegemony. Bryan wrote in the New York Times in 1923 reiterating the argument he said he had always put: that depriving southern blacks of the vote was not to deny equal protection under law, but:

The question is, which race shall make the laws under which both shall live? The more advanced race will always control as a matter of self preservation not only for the benefit of the advanced race, but for the benefit of the backward race also.


From civil rights to the 'Moral Majority'

Meanwhile, deep reflection among African-Americans, incubated in the churches and the universities, forged a strategy for black people to take their place in American democracy. It was a reflection by Christians based on the bible, but learning also from Gandhi and the worldwide anti-colonial movement and from the organising movement in trade unions and neighbourhoods (‘community organising’). It brought together Christians of both conservative and liberal (‘modernist’) theological inclinations. Its fruit, after segregated black units served with distinction the second world war, was the civil rights movement. Here were claims the Democrats could no longer resist with any sort of consistency or honour. After the key legislation passed, President Lyndon Baines Johnson understood that he had secured his murdered predecessor John F. Kennedy’s legacy - and that he had sacrificed the white south to the Republicans. The southern white drift from Democrat to Republican affiliation started with the election in 1960 of Kennedy, a Catholic whose campaign had shown some support for civil rights. The drift continued from 1960 to the present day, the only blip being in the election of the southern Baptist Jimmy Carter in 1976 when much of the white south reverted to its historic Democrat roots.


Carter served only one term before losing to Ronald Reagan in 1980 after the campaign that marked the rise of the Religious Right. Now we can come back to the story told well by Hedges, Hart and more recent writers. Republican strategist Paul Weyrich and the southern Baptist pastor Jimmy Falwell collaborated to found the ‘moral majority’ to deliver a change in American politics, when the historically Democrat bedrock votes of the white south and working-class white Catholics moved Republican, and, largely, stayed there afterwards. Evangelicals soon became disillusioned with Reagan’s White House, but their deal gave them enough control over the grassroots Republican party to ensure that no future candidate for the presidential nomination could ignore them. This vote, at both primary and general election stages, delivered the second Bush in 2000 and Trump in 2016 – both on minority votes in the popular count, which, with evangelicals concentrated in overrepresented rural  areas, could translate into a majority in the electoral college, and both with huge majorities among white (not other) evangelicals. Both presidents gave some evangelical ‘leaders’ a presence in the White House, which in Bush’s case was (Fitzgerald says) instrumental in the decision to make war in Iraq. In Trump’s case (suggests Fea) these ‘court evangelicals’ are there mainly for photo-opportunities, though this may be to underestimate their voice, especially on the vital matter of judicial nominations.

What triggered the evangelical rebellion against Carter? Abortion? Not really – evangelicals were not disposed in principle against abortion when the Supreme Court legalised it in 1973, though later Frances Schaeffer’s pro-life books and films made an appeal that brought Catholic and evangelical opinion together. What about rights for women – the Equal Rights Amendment to the constitution (eventually passed in 1982, though never supported by the southern states) was one mobilising issue. An aggressively physical, sexualised version of male headship and female submission were and remain part of the evangelical cultural offer (du Mez is great on this). Weyrich himself explained that the key issue all along was race – many Christian private schools had been founded to escape forced integration and remained segregated, so were losing their tax privileges. Weyrich and co blamed Carter, and Reagan appeared to offer to review this - but reversed himself on the issue before assuming office.


Religious right ideology

However, the triumph and significance of this political movement cannot be understood without understanding the political ideas that underpin it, to make the tactics and strategy sustainable. Like radical Islam, the evangelical Right is based on a particular idea of the state. This idea was developed especially by Roussas Rushdoony, and simplified and popularised by Frances Schaeffer. Rushdoony’s theory, named ‘Theonomy’, says:

  • The state is a ‘creation ordinance’ – an institution mandated by God from the outset of the created order.
  • The function of the state is to enforce law
  • All law is a statement of fundamental values – which is to say, of a society‘s religion. By seeing what laws are enforced, we can see what religion a society follows (whether explicitly or not).
  • The bible is understood as a legal textbook – it sets out the laws which God requires a society to follow, found in the Old Testament and modified in the New. This is ‘Judaeo-Christian’ law.
  • By moving away from God’s law and implementing something else (such as ‘secular humanism’) the state becomes anti-God – it is the ‘Moloch state’ referred to in the book of Leviticus.
  • A pluralistic society (enabling a diversity of values in conditions of religious freedom) is impossible. It is necessarily a transitional phase between different public religions. Anyone who endorses pluralism is actually endorsing polytheism and is therefore a ‘polytheist’ whether they understand it or not.
  • Liberal pluralism in politics is actually the polytheistic project of the Moloch state and, as such, will inevitably persecute Christians.
  • True Christians must understand they are engaged in ‘cultural war’ against all others. All aspects of life and culture are actually under the control of the forces of either the truth as revealed in the Judaeo-Christian bible and its law, or the false gods of the Moloch state.

This philosophy has a visceral appeal to white evangelicals who understand themselves as representing the true America and the true Christian faith. It depicts projects by the state for equality and ‘social justice’ as intrinsically anti-Christian and anti-American, however well-intentioned. These objectives, if they are correct, are to be achieved by voluntary methods under church supervision. This thinking has penetrated deep into consciousness and no longer relies on denominational or pastoral leadership and tactics to gain traction – it is led, as Bean shows, by ‘cultural war captains’ in congregations. There is a racial dimension to all this, but this is not an inherently racist politics. Indeed in the UK, the strongest advocate of Rushdoony’s philosophy is Christian Concern, which is close to the UK African church community.

Is it fascist? Or at any rate, does it have the potential to become fascist? In its hardest form, as taught by Rushdoony, it is a philosophy which de-legitimises the liberal state, and combines well with nationalist and ‘post-liberal’ theories which aim to replace liberal democracy with a new theory for state legitimation. Sarah Posner’s book was originally entitled Alt-Bloc: The Religious Right's Unlikely Union with the Alt-Right, and How It is Changing American Politics (this title still appeared on her agent’s website after publication) and details the tactical union between the proto-fascist ‘Alt right’ and the Religious Right. Against this, one strain in Religious Right thinking holds that the Christian state must also be a liberal state with a view of all humans as equally formed in the image of God. Such a view holds that (social and political) pluralism is the hallmark of a truly effective Christian politics. This softer account is closer to (though not quite the same as) the thought of Schaeffer.


The crisis of liberalism

So, why do white evangelicals in the US vote for Trump? For those outside the old South, the natural home of their vote has been Republican since the civil war. However, the biggest concentration of evangelicals is in the South, and their vote moved Republican after they lost the protection of a regional Democratic party with a specific orientation to post-slavery white supremacy. Trump offers himself as the protector of the privileges of this once pre-eminent section of the electorate, the upholders (in their own eyes) of the true American Christian identity inherited from the evangelical revival, guarded by white male dominion. This group sees itself as favouring the small-state ‘liberalism’ that kept the federal state out of their business in the aftermath of the civil war. But it also wants the interventionism of the New Deal era, with social security and partially socialised medicine for those it sees as deserving. Trump caters for this range of needs – a liberal in neither the classical Republican, nor the modern Democratic, mould, but extracting the value, to this group, of each. To complicate things further, the debate between the two versions is racialised: classical small-state liberalism is the historic protector of white privilege; 'progressive' thought was at first incubated among the old white-supremacy Democrats. Now, ‘progressive liberalism’ is the correct version for those 'woke' to racial equality, and to be a ‘liberal’ (in current popular American thinking) is to be on the left.

So the current American crisis is not just a crisis of race - it is one of liberalism. The ‘classical’ liberalism of Locke and Mill has collided with the ‘progressive’ account of politics to make liberalism ‘woke’. There is a serious point to ‘wokeness’ – liberalism aspires to equality before the law and individual self-government, so it should recognise, and strive to rebalance, structural disadvantages of race, gender, class and so on. But ‘wokeness’ seems now easily to slide into strident intolerance and self-parody, projecting an authoritarian confidence in its contested vision of a moral community.

The need now is to refresh liberalism and reclaim its Christian core, and present a modern exposition of both the strengths and the proper limitations of the liberal state, where each individual is, equally, an accountable moral agent, made in the image of God.


Book list

Sarah Posner, Unholy: Why white evangelicals worship at the altar of Donald Trump (NY, Random House, 2020)

Kristin Kobes du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How white evangelicals corrupted a faith and fractured a nation (NY, Liveright, 2020)

John Fea, Believe me: the evangelical road to Donald Trump (Grand Rapids, Eerdman, 2018)

Frances Fitzgerald, The Evangelicals: the struggle to shape America (NY, Simon & Schuster. 2017)

Michael McVicar: Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American religious conservatism (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2015)


Lydia Bean, The politics of evangelical identity: Local churches and partisan divides in the US and Canada (Princeton UP, 2014)

D. G. Hart, From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2011)

Mark A. Noll, God and Race in American Politics: A short history (Princeton UP, 2008)

Chris Hedges, American Fascists: the Christian right and the war on America (London, Cape, 2007)

Francis A. Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto (Wheaton, Crossway, 1981)

Roussas John Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Philipsburg NJ, Craig Press, 1973)


© James Paul Lusk 2020. Contact: email bookATthejcan.org or telephone (44)(0)7977517334.