Donald Trump’s Evangelical Coalition, and What It Means to Represent the Christian Vote

I usually don’t write about the same topic twice in a row (there’s lots of stuff that falls within the intersection of religion, identity and politics, after all), but the ongoing debates and consternation within (white) American Evangelical Christianity concerning President Trump merits a follow-up. Less than a week after the outgoing editor-in-chief of Christianity Today wrote a scathing editorial calling for the removal of the Commander-in-Chief, President Donald Trump, the media (traditional and social) has been filled with all kind of Christian drama (if anyone tries to convince you that Christians, even well meaning ones, don’t have drama, tell them to just look in the Bible).

Evangelicals. Trump, and the Persecution Complex

Trump unsurprisingly went on a Twitter tirade against CT (or, as he dubbed the magazine, ET, who did make a comeback this year but isn’t really relevant to this debate). A bunch of pro-Trump Evangelicals wrote a letter that came out in support of the President and criticized Christianity Today (without actually, you know, addressing any of the magazine’s points). The latest bit of drama comes from another Evangelical publication, the Christian Post, which recently published its own pro-Trump editorial. That article prompted editor Napp Nazworth to resign from the publication, saying that he couldn’t get on board with its “Team Trump” slant.

Now, this is all elite level stuff. Most Evangelicals probably never read either Christianity Today or the Christian Post; Trump’s Christian supporters are unlikely to change their mind because of CT’s editorial, nor will the Post’s pro-Trump writings sway many of the President’s detractors.  But the battles within and between these top Christian publications are important as bellwethers of the larger divisions within American white Evangelical Christianity over Donald Trump.

Trump’s Evangelical supporters see the President as their staunchest defender against an oppressive culture that has an agenda to persecute and exclude them. If America has indeed been persecuting white Evangelical Christians, it’s done a very bad job of it. Since the emergence of the Moral Majority, the Evangelical vote has been instrumental in electing every president other than Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. Assuming Trump makes it to the end of his current term, the Evangelical-backed candidate will have been in the White House 24 of the last 40 years.

And yet, white Evangelicals have successfully painted themselves as a persecuted minority, an image that various Republicans have used to their advantage (which isn’t surprising, especially given how much Trump paints himself as a victim of relentless persecution). Watch clips of Trump talking about how he’s winning an imagined war against Christmas. Or listen to Evangelicals praise Trump for defending (Christian) religious freedom at home and abroad, as if the actual persecution faced by Christians in the Middle East or China is comparable to the situation in which every American president in recent memory, including the Democrats, have been self-espoused, church-going, self-professed Bible-believing Christians. Indeed, every US President, with the possible exception of Thomas Jefferson (and whether you consider his deism to be Christian or not) has identified as Christian. And yet, particularly within recent years, white Evangelical Christians have consistently portrayed themselves as underrepresented in the American political system, a political tactic that has been used by the Republican Party to push a conservative agenda in the name of “religious freedom.”

What Does Representation Mean? Evangelical Confused on the Matter

Besides the partisan politics of the moment, this idea of Christian underrepresentation ties into a more long-standing debate within politics and political science about how political representation should work. On one side are advocates of what’s called substantive representation, the idea that representatives (elected officials and whatnot) should be chosen based on their ability, or at least the perception of their ability, to represent the ideas and interests of their constituents. In this view, it doesn’t matter whether or not the representative comes from the same communities as their constituents, shares an identity with their constituents, or even shares their constituents’ beliefs or interests.  All that matters is that they effectively advocate for these interests.

On the other hand, proponents of descriptive representation argue that it is important for elected officials to look like or have shared experiences with the people they represent. This is not an example of substituting identity for substance, as critics would argue (the labeling of “substantive” vs. “descriptive” is therefore somewhat misleading), but rather the idea that the most effective advocates will be people who experientially understand the lives of those they represent.  This view was the basis for now Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s criticized “wise Latina” remarks. Excerpted soundbite notwithstanding, Sotomayor’s larger point was that a judiciary composed solely or predominantly of one slice of the American population (white men) could not adequately understand, yet alone make informed rulings concerning the wide swath of legal issues facing the American population as a whole.

So how does this all relate to Evangelicals and Trump? The funny thing about white Evangelical Christians in America has been that they have often espoused the descriptive version of representation while practicing the substantive (non-descriptive) form.  And it’s this confusion that feeds into the idea that they are not being adequately represented.What do I mean? Evangelicals will often say “we need more Christians in Washington” (here’s Franklin Graham saying just that on Fox News).  So, how has that looked in practice? Well, if you flash back to the emergence of the Religious Right, it achieved its biggest victory when it spearheaded the election of Ronald Reagan, which helped usher in a decade of conservatism in America (and across the pond, where his political soulmate Margaret Thatcher was in charge, but that’s a whole other discussion).

Remember who Reagan defeated in that 1980 election? That’s right, Jimmy Carter, the best “ex-President” we’ve ever had, and the guy whose 1976 election year was hailed “the year of the Evangelicals!” Ronald Reagan was a divorced Hollywood actor who, while president, rarely attended church. Jimmy Carter, by contrast, is literally a Sunday school teacher (as a matter of fact, just last month, the 95 year old Carter returned to teaching Sunday school less than two weeks after breaking is pelvis).  But Carter did not politically oppose abortion rights, and he was seen as insufficiently hard against communism, and so (white) Evangelicals jumped ship for Reagan and never looked back.

When Evangelicals have gotten a candidate who toed the party line and displayed signs of being a true believe, like George W. Bush – the Republican President that so many people seem to miss nowadays – all the better. But despite their rhetoric of wanting genuine Christian leadership in the halls of power, when there’s been an apparent tradeoff between conviction and politics, politics has won. Let’s remember Barack Obama (please remember Barack Obama during these trying times, and have some hope for our future). Obama, despite the fake news and attempted slurs from the far right, is a “born again” Christian who’s biggest political “scandal” involved him going to church. (Well, that or the tan suit). Yet white Evangelicals non only voted for his Republican opponents, but they gave Obama the lowest approval rating of any American social group.

Now, most of the very same white Evangelicals who opposed Obama have latched onto Donald Trump (who barely pretends to believe in or practice any of the Christian faith) with a death grip.  Perhaps that grip is beginning to loosen, as I’ve suggested before and as the drama at Christianity Today and the Christian Post may suggest.  But as long as Trump continues to appoint the right (Right) judges and give lip service to religious freedom (for Christians), many white Evangelical supporters seem willing to stick with him no matter what – that “what” apparently including the seemingly forgotten “what would Jesus do?”  With all this drama about Evangelical support for President Trump unfolding over the last week, perhaps Trump’s Christian supporters will take this Christmas holiday to ask themselves that question once more.

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