They’ve always been on the side of controlling other people.
For months, observers of American religion have been trying to make sense of the support Donald Trump was given by white evangelical Christians. We made excuses for them as they went for Trump over their conservative Christian brethren, Cruz and Carson, in the primary, saying that “real” evangelicals—well-formed in their faith and pious in its expression and, of course, Republicans—voted for the Texas Senator or the neurosurgeon and that was NASCAR Christians (those who can’t be bothered with church if there is a race on) who gave the nomination to the most un-Christian candidate of primary options (including Sanders, a secular Jew, who has no faith obligation to behave like a Christian ought.).
We blamed Democrats for failing to give morally-grounded white evangelicals an option they could vote for, picking Clinton, who, unfairly or not, was going to be remembered by them not as a candidate who supported “safe, legal, and rare” abortion but as a someone who defended “partial-birth” abortion. Their comfort in patriarchy and their overt misogyny and unconscious sexism made the struggle harder, but there was so much baggage that Clinton herself brought that it would have taken a miracle, not easily procured in her mainstream Methodism, to sell her to white evangelicals. Additionally, her run may have picked on the scab of Bill Clinton’s defeats of George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole, both dignified elders of the Republican establishment and World War II heroes who lost to a slick, manipulative, media-savvy horndog. It’s easy to see voting for Trump as a kind of revenge against Hillary Clinton for her husband’s successes.
These debates also exposed real fractures in what we’ve long known isn’t a monolithic white evangelical bloc. Albert Mohler and Russell Moore, men I’m not accustomed to praising, in particular, shared consistent, principled opposition to Trump and Trumpism and warned of the undermining of the conservative Christian witness in domains far beyond politics if evangelicals lent their strength to Trump’s victory. The Christian Post, certainly not a beacon of progressive evangelicalism, repeatedly argued that evangelical Christianity would be disgraced for its support of Trump—and it seems to have had some power to shape readers’ opinions. In contrast, Jerry Falwell, Jr., James Dobson, Tony Perkins, and other opportunistic charlatans embraced Trump, sometimes (but only sometimes) decrying his abuses of power and people, inserting him into the Biblical narrative as the unexpected hero of persecuted Christians.
Southern Baptist theologians, left to right, Albert Mohler, Richard Land, and Russell Moore have long called Trump-supporting evangelical voters out for their support for their damage to evangelical Christianity. It is, says Moore, inspired by a “doctrinally vacuous resentment over a lost regime of nominal, cultural ‘Christian America.’”
In the end, white evangelicals provided the most impressive support in Trump’s election: 81% of white voters self-identifying as evangelicals voted for him, higher than the numbers who voted for Romney, McCain, or George W. Bush in 2004. These are not all, of course, enthusiastic Trump supporters, but all of them decided to vote for him rather than to vote their consciences for a conservative or libertarian who couldn’t win (McMillan or Johnson), and all of them were willing to allow violence to be inflicted upon women, immigrants, religious minorities, and people of color rather than to use their vote to elect someone they personally disliked. Their behavior has embarrassed the white evangelicals who didn’t select Trump and angered and frightened progressive Christians, plus the rest of the world, minus Putin and ISIS.
What changed, researchers are asking, about Christian voters? Since emerging as a reliable Republican bloc in the election of Ronald Reagan, they have spent nearly 40 years screaming about personal morality, sexual ethics, abortion, and LGBT rights. A 2011 PRRI poll indicated that they had the highest level of support for the claim that a candidate’s private morality mattered; in a survey held shortly before they 2016 election, they reversed course, with 72% of them—again, the highest among all groups surveyed—saying that character didn’t necessarily matter. Of course, the Republican candidate in front of them was sexually violent, thrice-married, serially unfaithful porn-booster who publicly wished that his second wife had terminated the pregnancy that resulted in the birth of his daughter Tiffany and humiliated his current wife for political gain. But they were already going to vote for him, and so to make sense of that choice, they had to throw decades of feigned insistence upon personal morality out the window.
That has led to some speculation that Trump has done something to white evangelical voters—not only changing their thinking about politics but doing it so well that he’s garnered more of their support that George W. Bush, a man who actually had a born-again experience, turned away from a life of addiction, respected his marriage, and dedicated himself to the work of raising his daughters to be people of integrity.
But this misunderstands white evangelical voters.
It was never about having a moral candidate. It was never about what that person could do to promote a moral agenda.
It was always about getting power.
Jimmy Carter was more moral, on every count that white evangelicals say that matters, than Reagan. Carter was a Baptist Sunday school teacher; in fact, he still is. Reagan was, eventually, a nominal mainline Presbyterian. Carter was a salt-of-the-earth peanut farmer, Reagan a Hollywood actor whose experiences there made him hesitate to vocally condemn gay people even as he abdicated his responsibility to lead on HIV/AIDS. Reagan came to office our only divorced president—marrying Nancy, a woman who practiced astrology in the White House, only after she was pregnant.
But it didn’t matter, because Reagan promised white evangelical voters a return to power, power they felt entitled to because of their historic dominance. And, to be clear, they were still the powerful in the U.S. when Reagan was speaking to them. But they were already afraid of the change that was coming: increasing religious, racial, and ethnic diversity; diminishing support for a vision of America as special in the eyes of God; and an increasing expectation that minorities should be treated with respect and dignity (ironically termed “political correctness” by its opponents, though it is clear that the winning politics appeal to political cruelty).
Speaking to an audience of Christian broadcasters, Reagan famously wooed them by saying, “I know that you cannot endorse me, but… I endorse you.” He affirmed the white evangelical vision of America as a “city upon a hill.” And in these symbolic ways—by declaring 1983 “The Year of the Bible,” for example—he soothed white evangelicals. They still mattered. And they did—in terms of winning elections. But by most other measures—in terms of delivering on his promises of returning religion to public schools, reversing Roe v. Wade, or appointing conservative Supreme Court Justices—he failed his white evangelical supporters.
On the right, Ronald Reagan. On the left, Jimmy Carter, in his 90s, on a Habitat for Humanity job site. The election of Reagan over Carter was the first major Religious Right “win”–and also when you knew that white evangelicals did not care about private morality or even the politics of morality.
Unless, of course, what they really wanted was a drug war that decimated inner cities, welfare policies that killed the poor and undermined black families, and a tax plan that benefited the rich while putting the most vulnerable at greater and greater risk. [Answer: Yes. This is actually what they really wanted. But that is a post for another day.]
But white evangelicals kept coming back, for George H. W. Bush, for Dole, for George W. Bush, McCain, and Romney. These were decent men, in terms of their personal morality—one-wife husbands who didn’t run bikini contests, build casinos, or grab women by their vaginas just because they could get away with it. (Yes, they were indecent in their attacks on Middle Eastern Muslims, their efforts to bomb Viet Nam, and their disgusting concern for the 1% over everyone else. And, FWIW, I’m not a huge Jimmy Carter booster, either; there is ample blood from the bodies of brown-skinned people on his hands.) Collectively, they did relatively little to advance an explicitly white evangelical religious agenda. GWB’s major contribution was the creation of the fairly innocuous Office of Faith-Based Initiatives (which, while problematic for some of us, hasn’t provoked enough outrage to prompt the Obama administration to dismantle it).
But still white evangelicals continue their support for the Republican Party.
That is only surprising if you think that white evangelicals vote for a candidate they think will actually do something about their religious concerns—things like prayer in public school, the public display of Christian symbols, abortion rights, LGBT rights, no-fault divorce, and other “pro-family” policies.
If you believe that, then you will see their support of Trump as hypocrisy.
But do not believe it.
White evangelicals have never cared—not really—about a candidate’s faith, as Reagan’s win over Carter proved and Trump’s over Cruz and Carson proved again.
And they do not even care about what a candidate will do in support of their faith. They do not actually care about a president installing a white evangelical agenda on the rest of the nation. We must give them credit: they are not stupid enough to believe that Trump will act on their behalf.
For the most part, they care about moral issues to the extent that they care about controlling other people, particularly those they see as potential threats to their power. For same-sex couples not to get married. For women not to have access to contraceptives. For kids to be forced to bow their heads at school in Christian—that is, Protestant Christian—prayer. For those who marry to have to stay married even if they don’t want to do so. For Muslims to have to register.
If you say see that power, not morality, is what they’ve always wanted, you will see that white evangelicals who voted for Trump are not hypocrites at all. They’ve always voted in their own best interest, which is in the interest of more state control over the bodies and experiences of people who threaten their dominance.
*I am bracketing abortion here because I think that there are evangelical reasons to oppose abortion—but not contraception—that are not necessarily linked to a desire to control other people’s bodies. But that does not mean that anti-abortion white evangelicals are not motivated by a desire to control women’s bodies to some degree—and some of them are wholly motivated by that desire.