Theories abound to explain why so many evangelicals are now signing up to support Trump, even if they are doing so with about as much enthusiasm as Paul Ryan. Certainly the politics of resentment have much to do with it—especially as these overlap with race, racism, xenophobia, and prejudice against Muslims. Authoritarianism is also a factor, as is the contingent of hate group members who love and endorse him. Evangelicals are often authority-minded, with a history of racism. Not surprisingly, racist evangelicals especially like Trump. And since Trump has always polled well with poorer whites with lower education levels who live in places where racial resentment has long burned, it only makes sense that evangelicals—who are often poorer whites with lower education levels and who also live in those places of long-simmering racial tensions—vote for him. They often perceive themselves as being losers. And, realistically, life under an Obama presidency hasn’t staunched the dissolution of their economic and social lives.
Could it be that white evangelicals look to Trump and see themselves in him, as he suggested when he told them, invoking Ronald Reagan, “I’m with you”?
No. No, it’s not. They know full well that Trump isn’t like them. In January, evangelical voters identified him as the least religious candidate among the Republicans. No one could look at Trump, a man more intimate with the early speeches of Hitler than the Bible, and think, “The Holy Spirit is really working in him!” Even Dobson’s claim that Trump is a “baby Christian” is insulting to “baby Christians” (whoever they are).
Is Trump trying to pass as a Christian in order to bring evangelical voters to him—like the photuris genus of fireflies, which imitate the light signals of the females of other lighting bug species in order to lure males close to them, then kill and eat them? Is he another in a long line of presidential candidates who is trying to harness the power of white evangelical votes with promises to support their policies, only to abandon them after he’s elected, as Reagan and George W. Bush (on abortion and a federal marriage amendment respectively) did in some regards?
No. Not that either.
He’s not even pretending to be a Christian, not really. Reagan was an actor and did it well. George W. Bush could dog whistle evangelicals. No one seriously believes that Trump’s “born again” experience was authentic (“[T]hey can’t possibly be that stupid,” in the words of Paul Waldman.). It was simply a hurdle he needed to jump to be acceptable to white evangelicals as a candidate, and he did it. Historian John Fea describes it as “the theo-political equivalent of money laundering…, making Trump clean so that he is worthy of evangelical votes.” (Fea is generous in refusing to comment on the validity of Trump’s conversion. Dobson warns that “[o]nly the Lord knows the condition of a person’s heart.” I am less generous. The condition of “Trump’s heart” (evangelically-speaking) is irrelevant to his competency to be president (White evangelical voters seem to agree, which is why, in fact, they could say both that he is the least religious and the best candidate) and, in fact, is only modestly important to his faith. What matters is those fruits of the spirit. In other words, we can doubt his change of heart because there has been no change of anything that would flow from his heart.
The conversion was humiliating all around. Trump’s association with a prosperity gospel minister shows how little he knows about the etiquette or pecking-order of American Christianity. His appointment of White, whose nonprofit ministries have long supported her lavish lifestyle, and other prosperity gospel ministers to his Evangelical Executive Advisory Board, illustrates what he thinks of American evangelicals: suckers.
Worse, the quick acceptance of Trump as a candidate now that the business of being “born again” was accomplished shows how little evangelicals actually care about their faith, how cheap it is to them. Trump didn’t do anything except, it seems, chant some magic words, the kind printed on the back of religious tracts left at the laundromat: “God, I believe that Jesus Christ died for my sins, was resurrected from the dead, is alive, and hears my prayer. I invite Jesus to become the Lord of my life, to rule and reign in my heart from this day forward. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” Whew! Now that that’s done, Trump can go back to being the lyingest candidate of the election.
Here I am reminded of the commandment “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord Your God,” from the New International Version translation of Exodus 20:7. Trump has done nothing in response to his new-found faith except use it to reel in voters. I’m not suggesting he should go knocking door to door, “soul winning.” I mean he hasn’t used the platform he is on to promote or care for the concerns of Christians. He hasn’t come up with a plan to end the world-wide persecution of Christians. He hasn’t suggested a plan to end human trafficking. He hasn’t put together a strategy to combat human slavery. He hasn’t paid back the debtors he owed in his company’s many bankruptcies. He hasn’t renounced his work in gambling or his role in the continued pornification of beauty pageants. In other words, his “born again” experience is of no consequence.