E.J. Dionne Jr.: The evangelicals' enforcer
Are the dominant voices of white evangelical Christianity in the United States destined to be angry and defensive? Is President Trump making sure they stay that way?
I found myself asking these questions after I read my Washington Post colleague Elizabeth Bruenig’s revealing and deeply reported essay about her journey to Texas to probe why evangelicals have been so loyal to Trump and are likely to remain so.
Hers was a venture in sympathetic understanding and empathetic listening. What she heard was a great desire to push back against the liberals, to defend a world that sees itself under siege, and to embrace Trump — not as a particularly good man but as a fighter against all the things and people and causes that they cannot abide. Even more, they believe these liberals and secularists are utterly hostile to the culture they have built and the worldview they embrace.
“I think conservatives for decades have felt bullied by the left, and the default response was to roll over and take it,” said the Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of Dallas’ First Baptist Church and one of the very earliest and most vocal leaders of Trump’s evangelical bloc.
I confess I don’t really see the “roll over” part. Conservative politicians, Fox News commentators and talk radio hosts have engaged in plenty of bullying of their own. But I have no doubt that Jeffress was telling the truth about how he and like-minded folks feel.
This means that the nastiness that makes Trump so odious to many of us comes off to his evangelical supporters (even when it makes them uneasy) as a hallowed form of militancy against what one evangelical Bruenig interviewed called “a den of vipers” engaged in what another called “spiritual warfare.”
Bruenig summarized the approach to politics she kept running into as “focused on achieving protective accommodations against a broader, more liberal national culture.” She wonders whether conservative evangelicals will “continue to favor the rise of figures such as Trump, who are willing to dispense with any hint of personal Christian virtue while promising to pause the decline of evangelical fortunes — whatever it takes.”
What struck me in reading Bruenig’s chronicle is that the undoubtedly serious faith of those she encountered was less central to their embrace of Trump than a tribal feeling of beleaguerment — remember: defending a culture is not the same as standing up for beliefs about God. Their deeply conservative views are not far removed from those of non-evangelical conservatives.
Above all, there was a Republican partisanship that has been there a long time. In some cases, it goes back to 1964, when Lyndon Johnson’s embrace of civil rights incited many white southerners, including evangelicals, to bolt the Democratic Party. In other cases, Republican loyalties were cemented by Ronald Reagan in 1980.
We keep coming back to Trump’s white evangelical base because it seems so strange that religious people with strong moral convictions could embrace someone whose behavior violates so many of the norms they uphold. But party is a big deal these days, and there was nothing extraordinary about Trump’s share of the white evangelical vote. He won what Republican presidential candidates typically win. His 80% among white evangelicals in 2016 was hardly a surge from Mitt Romney’s 78% in 2012.
In the end, party triumphed over any qualms evangelicals may have felt about the Access Hollywood candidate. Longstanding conservative desires (for sympathetic Supreme Court justices) and inclinations (a deep dislike of Hillary Clinton) reinforced what partisanship recommended.
I get why those with strongly held traditional religious views feel hostility from centers of intellectual life and the arts. More secular liberals should consider Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff’s suggestion in “Religion in the University” that religious voices be welcomed at institutions of higher learning in much the same way the once-excluded perspectives of feminists and African Americans are now welcomed. One of the academy’s purposes is to bring those with different backgrounds and experiences into reasoned dialogue. Religious people must be part of that conversation.
But reasoned dialogue is far removed from what’s happening in our politics now, and the irony is that the Trumpification of the evangelicals will only widen the gaps they mourn between themselves and other parts of our society. In her recent book “America’s Religious Wars,” Kathleen Sands, a University of Hawaii professor, writes of a longstanding conflict between “anti-modernist religion and anti-religious modernism.” Trump has every interest in aggravating and weaponizing mistrust that is already there. And judging from Bruenig’s account, he’s succeeding brilliantly.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com.