The 2016 Republican primary should have been a smashing success for the evangelical Christians who comprise the core of the Religious Right, that coalition of social and political conservatives who ground their politics in conservative faith. After being asked for years to support Episcopal, Methodist, and Mormon candidates, they finally had a roster of firmly conservative, born-again Christians to choose from: Ted Cruz, whose father preaches a prosperity gospel message, and who yearns for the apocalypse to begin; former Texas governor and megachurcher Rick Perry; Seventh Day Adventist (which is troubling for some evangelicals, though not as troubling as Mitt Romney’s LDS faith) Ben Carson, whose election would finally prove that they’re not racist; former pastor Mike Huckabee, or Southern Baptist Lindsey Graham.* And instead, they chose Donald Trump, a man whose primary interest in church has been as a place to start an extramarital affair.
Or did they?
Donald Trump’s most important experience in a church was starting an affair with his second wife, Marla Maples. They would rendezvous at Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan.
Photo from WikiCommons.
Post-primary analysis suggests that, yes, people identifying as evangelical Christians overwhelmingly voted for Trump, which gave him significant victories in states like Arkansas (where I was a primary voter), Mississippi, and Alabama. Indeed, every evangelical-heavy state except Texas (Cruz’s home), Kansas, and Oklahoma was won by Trump.
But were these voters, like, real evangelicals?
Further analysis suggests that a significant number of people who identify as born-again, evangelical Christians are pretty lousy at it. They have relatively little knowledge about their faith (or other religions too, for that matter) and are not very devout; that is, they don’t know it, and they don’t practice it. They have been derisively called “NASCAR Christians”—people who show up at church when it doesn’t interfere with a race. More thoughtful, committed evangelicals—the ones who are quick to point out that they voted for Carson or Cruz in the primary—are a bit frustrated with their co-religionists.
Philip S. Gorski is more careful with his language in contribution to The Immanent Frame. In “Why Do Evangelicals Vote for Trump?” he argues:
Trumpism is a secular form of religious nationalism. By “religious nationalism,” I mean a form of nationalism that makes religious identity the litmus test of national belonging. By “a secular form of religious nationalism,” I mean one that strips religious identity of its ethical content and transcendental reference. In Trumpism, religion functions mainly as a marker of ethnicity.
[T]he advent of Trumpism marks a worrisome turning point in the history of the already worrisome ideology. Loosed from its religious moorings, religious nationalism now floats free of the ethical tether of Christian ethics and political theology with a would-be messiah clinging to that frayed rope. Secular progressives have often wished for the demise of religious conservatism. They imagined that a reasonable form of secular conservatism would take its place. This now looks like wishful thinking.
This presidential race isn’t the first time that these folks have tarnished the image of the evangelicals who actually show up to church on Sunday. In 2014, Jennifer Glass and Philip Levchak published an article in the American Journal of Sociology that examined divorce rates in the context of religiosity. Turns out that, in general, states that were more densely conservative Protestant also had higher rates of divorce. (This, in turn, means that states that are more politically conservative also have higher rates of divorce. Indeed, states that were early adopters of same-sex marriage have, in general, have much lower rates of divorce.)
Now, in considering these results, we must avoid the ecological fallacy (assuming that the people within those highly religious states who are divorcing are themselves highly religious). It could be that the highly religious folks of Arkansas and other states are not divorcing at a fast pace but that the minority of residents who aren’t highly religious are making up for it. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that divorcing nonbelievers live in a state with a lot of believers. Indeed, conservative Christians were quick to defend themselves by saying that those who attend church regularly are less likely divorce than those who don’t, that religion, when done right, can be a protective force against divorce.
Which gets back to the divide between those evangelicals who are trying hard at faith and those who aren’t, between the faithful Cruz/Carson voters and the voters for Trumpism. They’re not “real” evangelicals just like the many divorced people of heavily born-again states aren’t–at least that is what the more pious evangelicals are arguing.
Now, I don’t feel too bad for the faithful evangelicals. Just as the GOP has relied on racists, misogynists, and other kinds of bigots to boost its power and now acts aghast at their demands for control, pious evangelicals have allowed their theology to get watered down to the lazy faith of the Sinners Prayer and lazy applications of the doctrine of once-saved-always-saved in order to wield political clout. The result is a large swaths of the evangelical population who don’t just drink your beer when no one is looking but who are confident that they all they have to do is say some magic words (“Call upon the name of Jesus, and you will be saved!”) to be a Christian. For a group that has historically criticized Catholicism for being vacuous and rote, this is a bad, bad thing. But it worked to boost their numbers—and mobilize voters whose politics are justified by faith.
But it’s bad for people as well as for faith. “Cultural evangelicals” have absorbed many of the political messages of evangelical Christianity, and those messages do influence their lives—but often in ways that are socially harmful. So, for example, the purity culture of evangelical Christianity—which teaches girls that if they have sex prior to marriage (and marriage is always the goal), they are like used pieces of chewing gum (no decent man will want them)—is inherently misogynistic, whether you are in the pew every Sunday, visit on occasionally, or never grace the door of a church. It values women only in terms of their relationship to men, simultaneously making them responsible for men’s lust (a sin) but also requiring that the be attractive (“Pretty Girls Love Jesus”). These ideas circulate beyond youth groups and Sunday school classes an infiltrate sex ed in public schools. The result is, not surprisingly, very high teen pregnancy rates (as teens still have sex—just without planning or contraception) and very young first age of marriage in heavily evangelical states. Both of these are good predictors of future divorce.
The problem isn’t that early marriage or delayed sexual activity are inherently dangerous. (I’m actually a fan of both. Well, not teen marriage, but I think the evidence is pretty solid that delaying marriage “too long” also creates its own risk.) It’s that the purity culture that springs from evangelical Christianity is damaging—and not just to evangelicals but to their neighbors, who also absorb it. And evangelical teachings about sex aren’t just the only damaging ideas that circulate among the non-evangelicals. Some lousy evangelical ideas about race, class, poverty, knowledge, and science do damage too.
Of course, it’s not the case that evangelicals produce these bad ideas and then enforce them on their neighbors. Culture is more recursive and dynamic than that. Evangelical culture’s worst elements—purity culture, racism, anti-intellectualism, etc.—belong to both evangelicals and non-evangelicals; they find sanctuary in both secular and religious culture because both cultures welcome or tolerate them.
But it is the case that evangelicals have allowed bad theology and poor discipleship–the practice of living a faithful life–to weaken their faith in order to boost their political power.
The American Catholic church has recently focused its New Evangelization efforts at its own members—people who consider themselves Catholic but who were never well-formed in the faith. This includes people who sit in the pews each week but are disconnected from or uniformed about their faith as well as people who enter the church only on Christmas or Easter or not at all. Evangelicals serious about making a political witness that doesn’t yield a lying, cheating, unfaithful, sexual assailant might consider a similar endeavor.
* Those evangelicals Trump beat out for the Republican nomination are also pretty intellectually lazy. Carson is just as unqualified as Trump, and Cruz actually appears to believe his own End Times theology, which is scary as hell. Huckabee’s politics show that a just because someone is a pastor doesn’t mean he is a decent, compassionate human being. So how should a good evangelical have voted? I’d argue for Sanders as a quality Christian choice.