Blogs > Steve Hochstadt > The Evangelical Error

Aug 19, 2020

The Evangelical Error

tags: Christianity,religious right,evangelicals,Donald Trump

Steve Hochstadt has been writing weekly op-eds since 2009. His collection, Freedom of the Press in Small-Town America: My Opinions, will be published this fall. He taught history at Bates College and Illinois College for 37 years.

The latest Pew Research poll shows that 72% of white evangelical Protestants approved of Donald Trump’s work as president in June, and 59% strongly approved. That number was slightly lower than his approval earlier in the year. But about 82% of white evangelicals said they would vote for Trump, even higher than the proportion who voted for him in 2016. 35% say that Trump has been a “great President” and 34% say he has been “good”. No other religious subgrouprates Trump positively.

His pronounced support for the evangelical political agenda has been obvious since he became a candidate. In January 2016, he told Iowa evangelicals at Dordt University, a Christian college in Sioux Center, in his typically egotistical phrasing, “We don’t exert the power that we should have. Christianity will have power. If I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power, you don’t need anybody else.”

Why didn’t an irreligious and publicly immoral candidate present moral difficulties to a religious group which has traditionally emphasized the close connection of faith and character? Many skilled researchers and analysts have tried to understand how people who profess such devotion to Jesus and the Bible could see Trump as their prophet. I have no better explanation than anyone else. 

Matthew Avery Sutton in the New Republic explained the Christian nationalism behind the evangelical political program, embodying “assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism.” Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a historian at Calvin University, minimizes any contradiction between evangelical Christianity and Trump. In her book Jesus and John Wayne she similarly argues that evangelicals embrace a militantly white patriarchy. Thus the revelations of Trump’s Access Hollywood tapes in 2016 made only a ripple among his evangelical supporters.

My own reading of many evangelical statements of support for Trump is that they universally deny his personal moral failings, by focusing, for example, on hoping that he would tweet less, rather than paying attention to his long-standing behavioral patterns and policy initiatives.

I believe that evangelicals have become increasingly desperate, as their more appropriate religious and political leaders failed to preserve the white Christian world they imagine is their birthright. Public opinion polls show that the evangelical agenda continues to lose popular support in America. One political scientist estimates that the “public mood” in 2018 was the most liberal since 1961. That measurement from two years ago does not reflect the further shift towards the left in 2020. On issues of race, gender, government regulation, and taxation, evangelicals have become an even smaller minority. That might explain why they are so eager to attach themselves to a leader with authoritarian tendencies who is systematically dismantling our traditional democratic processes and norms. Democracy has not been favorable to hatred of homosexuals, white supremacy, and traditional gender norms.

But let’s put side for the moment the conflict between the white evangelical political agenda and the

narrowness of the white evangelical understanding of how to be a good Christian and a good person. Even in their own self-interest, I see the white evangelical community’s political strategy as a major error. Their “victories” during Trump’s presidency and their continued adulation of Trump as their political savior come at great costs they have not reckoned with.

If this minority ever really believed in their own moral transcendence, they have given that argument away by hitching themselves to a remarkably amoral and immoral personality. Their defense of Trump reveals how many supposedly bedrock Christian principles they willingly sacrifice to achieve their political agenda. The self-proclaimed “Moral Majority” has become a frankly political minority, a partisan interest group shorn of the trappings of ethical righteousness.

I never accepted the Christian right’s claims to the moral superiority of their religious teachings. My family’s immersion in and escape from the Holocaust, my young life in a still Christian supremacist society, and my close study of the past thousand years of white Christian persecution of Jews, made me skeptical of Christian contentions that they practiced a unique path to grace. But that was a powerful internal argument for all believers, perhaps the fundamental argument for them.

If loving someone of your own sex is so sinful that the practice must be forbidden, what should one think of a man who loves and grabs and insults random members of the other sex? The concept of sin itself has been so politicized that it can only be transmitted to the next generation as dogma, despite Jesus and the Bible.

Separating white right-wing Christian political ideology from their theology will forever impair their incessant proselytizing, even among their own children. While 26% of Americans older than 65 were white evangelicals in 2017, that was true of only 14% of 30- to 49-year-olds, and 8% of 18- to 29-year olds.

Externally, this evangelical error threatens the very nature of American politics and society, in which such an ideological minority could flourish. White evangelicals have tolerated the undemocratic politics of the Republican Party for decades, but kept some distance from it. In these last weeks, Trump has escalated his open warfare on the traditional American political system, the system that evangelicals have so vociferously defended against the modern willingness to talk about white supremacy instead of American exceptionalism. All the basic lessons of middle school civics courses and high school history textbooks are being violated in public by the man of whom they so overwhelmingly approve. Proclaiming hypocrisy is beside my point: if their champion wins, the democratic structure they count on may be damaged beyond repair. Unless most evangelicals actually believe that our nation and our world are about to go up in smoke and that Jesus will smile on their part in destroying it, their short-term strategy of taking whatever Trump gives them may doom them in the long run.

I hope the white evangelical political program fails. I look forward to an America where race and gender are no longer political categories; where religion is a personal choice, not a national prescription; where particular interpretations of ancient texts do not damage the lives of people who do not accept them.

My understanding of American politics during my lifetime encourages that hope. The conventional thinking I grew up with about racial differences and gender norms based on centuries of Christian teaching is no longer dominant. I’m sad that so many Americans choose to hate homosexuals, shun people with different skin color, and condemn other kinds of believers to eternal damnation. My allegiance to personal and political freedom in our democracy is stronger, though. I would defend their right to believe as they wish.

The white evangelical subculture appears to me to be drifting into outer space, as QAnon spreads its nonsensical “discoveries.” It is possible that more evangelicals believe in QAnon than in mainstream media. They are not America at its best, yet America at its best protects their rights.

Trump is trying to destroy that America in his own interest. His allegiance to the evangelical cause is purely transactional. If white evangelicals do not recognize the difference between waving a Bible and believing in it, their long-term future will be just as dire as ours.

Steve Hochstadt

Springbrook WI

August 18, 2020

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