Ever since Donald Trump was elected with 81% of the White Evangelical vote, media and scholarship alike have been bewildered by an apparent anomaly: why does so-called “value voters” support a thrice-wed, corrupt casino owner; a New York playboy with limited-to-no familiarity with Christianity?
This question becomes all the more puzzling if one considers the Evangelical critique of the then President Clinton during the Lewinsky affair in 1998-99. During President Clinton’s impeachment, Evangelical pastors and media consistently argued that the President’s moral character is instrumental in his ability to perform his presidential duties. Lack of personal moral qualities was inherently disqualifying. This line of argumentation, in fact, continued from the Evangelical camp right up to the point when Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, in 2011 only around 30% of White Evangelicals said that it was possible for a leader live an immoral life in private and still be able to fulfill their public presidential duties; in 2016 72% of White Evangelicals had decided that this type of inconsistency was no longer a problem.
Apparent anomalies, however, are exactly what academic research should try to resolve. In recent years, much ink has been spilled on the question of Evangelical value voters under the Trumpian spell. To simplify the debate, there are basically two ways to approach the conundrum: The first approach is to dismiss the question of values altogether and instead focus on the profound amount of hypocrisy of the avatars of contemporary American Evangelicalism and the Republican party. (The recent fall from grace of Jerry Falwell Jr. – one of the President’s first and staunchest Evangelical allies – is here a case in point.) Nothing Evangelicals said prior to the election of Trump holds any value in the current Trumpian maelstrom. This is power politics pure and simple, and what matters to them is very real political victories that Trump delivers, particularly in the area of the Supreme court, and lower court appointments. This aspect – both the hypocrisy and the focus on the court – is especially visible following the recent passing of long-time Supreme Court judge, and champion of gender equality, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The second approach would be to zoom in on the question of value politics: If Evangelicals are indeed “value voters”, what values – precisely – do they share with President Trump? One of the most thorough examinations of this question, to date, is Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry’s Taking America Back for God(2020). According to them, statistically speaking, the most significant predictor of support for Trump is what they call “Christian nationalism”. This category is obviously not synonymous with Evangelicalism but it has significant overlap with Evangelical Christianity. Christian nationalism, to Whitehead and Perry, is “an ideology” with explicit and implicit content that “idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture” (p. ix-x). This ideology is not necessarily doctrinally Christian in a strict sense, rather it is a cultural framework that organizes symbols and values into some kind of organic whole. If one explores the kind of values, beliefs and myths that are associated with Christian nationalism, it becomes clear that this identity brings together a lot of features that were prominent in Trump’s 2016 campaign, and that historically have been significant within American Evangelicalism. For instance, Christian nationalism is positively associated with prejudice towards minority groups (p. 4), identifying as “bible-believing” (p. 12), and with an experience of America as on the brink of moral decay which is often understood in apocalyptic terms (p. 12). Furthermore, it is negatively associated with a belief that one need to “take care of the sick and needy” and “actively seek social and economic justice” in order to be a good person (p.13). In other words, Christian nationalism appears to be a racially charged evangelicalism conspicuously void of Evangelicalism’s historically significant social responsibility.
The emergence of the Christian Right
The research on American Christian nationalism has also found support in new historical research on the emergence of the Christian Right. The traditional scholarly narrative explained the political awakening of Fundamentalism in relation to 1973s Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion in the US, and the resulting moral outrage of Evangelical Christians. In this story, Jerry Falwell Sr. and others responded to the sexually liberal 70s and channeled a conservative majority into the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. There is a problem with this story however, when Roe was passed this decision was largely welcomed by mainstream Evangelical Pastors and institutions, including the conservative Southern Baptist Convention. At the time, abortion was viewed as a Catholic, not an Evangelical, issue. However, as Evangelical historian Randall Balmer has shown the question of abortion was a smoke screen to hide the real reason for the emergence of the religious right: resistance towards the desegregation of private academies as formalized in Green v. Kennedy in 1970. From 1970 onwards, private institutions could no longer hold a tax-exempt status if they continued to be segregated. Here, in the question of race, not in the question of abortion, lies the origin of the religious right according to Balmer.
Not an anomaly
Following this more recent research, the Evangelical support for Trump appears not to be an anomaly at all: it is consistent with the norms and values of Christian nationalism (shared by many Evangelicals) and it flows from a history of support for racial segregation and white supremacy. This suggests that the values that Evangelicals share with President Trump have less to do with “family values” as they have traditionally been understood, and more to do with a resistance towards racial equality, and a fear of losing white (particularly Protestant) privileges in American cultural life. No matter how one views it – the term “value voter” has to be simultaneously one of the most disingenuous, and most successful brandings in modern American politics. By the explicit focus on so-called “traditional values” Evangelicals since the 1970s onwards could hide their resistance towards sexual and racial equality and their fear of losing their privileges behind a veil of religious language.