Understanding Trump's evangelicals

Campaign 2016 | An angry group wants its 1950s America back
by Anthony Bradley

Posted on Friday, February 26, 2016, at 12:11 pm

Why are evangelicals supporting Donald Trump? Exit polling during last Saturday’s South Carolina primary revealed that evangelicals voted 33 percent for Trump, 27 percent for Ted Cruz, and 22 percent for Marco Rubio. In an interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo following last night’s Republican debate, Trump once again tried to align himself with evangelicals by suggesting the IRS was repeatedly auditing him because he is “a strong Christian.” 

Should Trump be considered a member of the evangelical world? While others seem puzzled with this phenomenon, I’m actually glad to see it because it exposes the heart and reality of a core group of American evangelicals today.

When Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. officially endorsed Trump, Russell Moore, who heads the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, asked if evangelical Trump supporters had “lost their values.” Given Trump’s clear lack of moral character, Moore asserted, “To back Mr. Trump, these voters must repudiate everything they believe.” The Gospel Coalition’s Trevin Wax questioned the true faith of South Carolina evangelicals, suspecting that they may not be “real” Christians because their church attendance lags behind bona fide evangelicals.

Regardless of whether Trump-favoring evangelicals are “real” Christians or not, it’s worth noting that Trump’s personal life does not look very different than the lives of many people who call themselves “evangelical.” Worse than that, Andrew Shain of The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., noted that many evangelical Christians in South Carolina are not looking for a religious person to be president. 

Many of these evangelicals are angry and distrustful of politics in Washington, worried about America’s debt, fearful of more jobs being exported overseas, and convinced there is a liberal/progressive war against Christians. Trump evangelicals want their 1950s America back. They want working class jobs back in America. They want straight shooters who aren’t influenced by lobbyists and who haven’t made politics a career. Combine this with the fact that many pastors regularly preach apocalyptically about America’s imminent decline, and one can see why Trump’s rhetoric is a Bach concerto to his evangelical supporters.

Perhaps this is what institutional and establishment evangelicals like Moore may not understand: Donald Trump really is speaking to the core concerns of a group of marginalized American evangelicals who have been ignored in recent years because they warmly embrace an America that no longer exists. Trump evangelicals are evangelicals who are not involved in or care too much about the evangelical tradition. They aren’t looking for a president to be a moral leader or to represent traditional evangelical values. They want a president who can return to them an America they feel they’ve lost because of globalization, liberal social agendas, judicial activism, the Obama administration, lax immigration policy, terrorism, and Islam. 

Neither Ted Cruz nor Marco Rubio have any personal experience with this culture of predominantly white working- and middle-class Americans who are culturally evangelical but disconnected from rooted evangelicalism. We can no longer pretend this group of evangelicals is merely a fringe minority, which means it’s time to ask about the weaknesses in American evangelicalism that have led us to this point. 

Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

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