If pundits paid attention to evangelicals beyond their stances on moral values the popularity of Donald Trump among them might not be quite so inexplicable.
Joining the chorus of voices from all over the political and religious maps, Peter Wehner, former deputy director of speechwriting for President George W. Bush calls the evangelical embrace of Trump discordant. He repeats another common refrain when he attributes this evangelical support to a “narrative of injury” that “is leading them to look to scapegoats to explain their growing impotence.” In effect, Wehner blames Trump’s followers for being manipulated by a “compulsive and unrepentant liar.”
While he is stunned by “how my fellow evangelicals can rally behind a man whose words and actions are so at odds with the central teachings of our faith,” it is in fact not uncommon for evangelicals to rally behind unrepentant liars.
Re-enter Mark Driscoll, former pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle and, according to his blog, future pastor of The Trinity Church in Phoenix. Last week, Driscoll had a civil racketeering lawsuit filed against him by four former Mars Hill members, which includes the misappropriation of church tithes to pay the book marketing firm ResultSource $210,000 to artificially elevate sales of his book Real Marriage in order to achieve bestselling author status.
While many “Trumpvangelicals” justify their allegiance by stating that they are electing a president not a pastor, it is in fact to a celebrity pastor such as Driscoll that we should look to understand how, rather than why, evangelicals would choose a man who bullies people then refuses to repent and who equates entrepreneurial success with perpetual expansion at all cost, among other behaviors and beliefs shared by Trump and Driscoll that appear to be incompatible with evangelical Christianity. The emotions stoked by Trump’s campaign, such as fear and intimidation, were also exploited and amplified by Driscoll in his vision to create an empire at Mars Hill.
Yet, as is the case with Trump, Driscoll’s capacity to provoke impassioned responses from his audience can’t be accurately summarized in such ugly terms. For example, Driscoll’s diatribe under the pseudonym William Wallace II against a “pussified nation” in a discussion forum on the Mars Hill website wasn’t simply an attack on those he considered “pussified James Dobson knock-off crying Promise Keeping homoerotic worship loving mama’s boy sensitive emasculated neutered exact male replica evangellyfish.” The forum also provided a platform for attracting publicity and followers. Driscoll’s pugnacious public performances online and in the pulpit weren’t only politically incorrect but generated glee, conviction and hope—the same infectious embodied affects contagiously passed along via the rally cries, raised fists and laughing faces at Trump campaign events.
Best to consider Trump and Driscoll’s seemingly paradoxical ascendance in popularity among U.S. evangelicals not as anomaly but as trend—one that signals the tenuousness of ideology or theology as moral guides. When the successful branding of authenticity is achieved by performing shamelessness, such that overt affective responses do not register as fear or anger, but as laughter, it’s time to take humor’s capacity to collectively move and politically mobilize audiences much more seriously. The laughter elicited among audiences during Trump and Driscoll’s performances garner more political pull and spiritual authority than appeals to either virtue or morality. Trump and Driscoll do not simply capitalize on people’s fears or insecurities; they also excite, agitate, and exploit a desire to believe.
Jerry Falwell Jr.’s support of Trump becomes far more understandable if you accept that moral values issues are no longer the political emphasis of some evangelical leaders—at least among those appealing to younger demographics. It isn’t that evangelicals are any less concerned with debates pertaining to the legality of gay marriage and abortion, but rather that the political clout of groups like Falwell Sr.’s Moral Majority or Jerry Dobson’s Focus on the Family—the equivalent of the center-right flank of the evangelical political establishment—has faded.
Meanwhile, the legacy left behind by Driscoll carries on in the thousands of pastors and congregations that he, Mars Hill, and Acts 29 (the global church planting network he co-founded) have trained in a style of masculine reform carried out by shamelessly shaming—or conjuring a fear of—religious, racialized, and sexualized “others.” It didn’t matter that Trump said “Two Corinthians” rather than “Second Corinthians” to Falwell Jr., who cited his business record and the strength he projects as key factors in an endorsement that echoed the “gut” appeals that Driscoll and Trump are so adept at. “All the social issues—traditional family values, abortion—are moot if ISIS blows up some of our cities or if the borders are not fortified.”
The connections between this passing of the old guard and the participatory branding process of evangelical celebrities needs to be contextualized by innovations in digital technology and shifts in the media industry. The evangelical industrial complex thrived on and stoked Driscoll’s celebrity by perpetually monitoring and amplifying his controversial remarks in order to feed itself. Like the military industrial complex, this evangelical-capitalist market requires the self-sacrifice of all-volunteer forces—congregants who serve megachurch expansion through labor that supports increases in baptisms, sermon downloads, and weekly attendees—growth metrics that index empirical proof of the Holy Spirit’s blessing on the church’s mission to multiply its facilities. At Mars Hill, this affective labor included not only volunteer work in services like children’s ministry, security, and worship band, but also uncontrollable bodily responses like a belly laugh or gut feeling. Such affective labor also promotes the celebrity pastor’s brand name as authentic while legitimizing his spiritual authority.
The long-term cultural, social and spiritual effects of Driscoll’s legacy are signaled in Trump’s surprising success among evangelical voters. Like Driscoll, Trump’s entrepreneurial drive, bullying tactics, and shameless humor primes conviction in his authenticity as followers participate in agitating fear out of hope. Even if Trump is defeated in the presidential election, and Driscoll is found guilty of racketeering charges, their campaigns on mission to U.S. and Evangelical Empire will politically resonate across secular and religious divides for years to come.