In September of last year, I weighed in on the debate over whether evangelicals really do support Donald Trump in large numbers.
I bring it back up because, since I wrote that first piece, a spate of articles have emerged making essentially the same point. Just this month, Vox reported on some findings from a recent Barna poll that found evangelicals who regularly attend church are far less likely to vote for Trump than those who don’t. As Ruth Graham noted in The Atlantic, “This suggests a difference between those who are committed believers and those who could be considered ‘culturally evangelical.’”
The most recent iteration of this argument, laid out by Darren Patrick Guerra at Christianity Today, cites a plethora of polls showing that most evangelical voters are opting for candidates other than Trump.
Guerra’s piece stands out not because of his impressive command of polling data, but primarily because of how he accounts for the substantial minority of self-identified evangelicals who do support Trump. “Trumpism is not an evangelical phenomenon at all,” Guerra argues, “but rather a Jacksonian one.”
NPR’s Steve Inskeep recently delved into the parallels between Trump and former president Andrew Jackson in an op-ed for the New York Times:
What Mr. Trump borrows from Jackson is not an issue, but a way of thinking about the world. Mr. Trump promises to fix his supporters’ problems, no matter who else is hurt. He’s a wealthy celebrity always ready for a fight, a superpatriot who says he will make America great again. He vows to attack government corruption and defend the common man.
If only Trump’s Jacksonian resemblance ended here! Alas, the two are alike in another, more insidious way. Inskeep continues:
Needless to say, Jackson and his Democratic Party enforced a certain idea of America — an America for white people. Jackson was personally cordial to people of other races, but their rights did not concern him. When white Southerners grew tired of Indian nations in their midst, Jackson forced them into internal exile in the West… Mr. Trump’s proposal for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States until the government “can figure out what is going on” has a brutal simplicity that echoes Jackson… The people Mr. Trump favors are to be protected from all harm. Nobody else matters.
It’s a fascinating thesis, and one which, on its surface, encourages me. After all, if it’s not “real evangelicals” who are buoying Trump’s brutish bid for the presidency, then perhaps my faith community is off the hook. We “committed believers” can turn to the rest of the nation, throw our hands in the air, and proclaim our innocence. It’s not us, it’s those damn Jacksonians!
But it’s not that simple.
This business of distinguishing between “real” believers and “cultural” or “Jacksonian” ones brings up an age-old question: what classifies someone as an evangelical?
Many pollsters rely on self-identification — if someone says they’re evangelical or “born again,” then they are. But this method allows a great number of “Jacksonians” to slip into the “evangelical” category. Groups like Barna address this by asking their subjects a series of questions about their religious beliefs. Issuing this kind of theological litmus test ostensibly separates the wheat from the chaff—or the truly faithful from the vaguely Jacksonian.
Scholars of American evangelicalism, however, have long disputed the usefulness of such overt, dogmatic methods of classification.
For Molly Worthen, for example, an “evangelical” is someone oriented—perhaps unknowingly—around a specific set of questions: how does one reconcile faith and reason? What does it mean to encounter Jesus and ensure one’s salvation? And finally, how does one reconcile one’s own private faith with a diverse, pluralistic public square?
We evangelicals have no central, magisterial authority to arbitrate questions of theology and identity—but if these queries drive your social, political and theological thought, the thinking goes, you are an “evangelical.”
So, what does this tell us about Trump’s ambivalent relationship with the evangelical community?
Namely, that we shouldn’t be expending so much energy arguing that “real” evangelicals aren’t supporting Trump. As Neil J. Young has noted, the very idea of “real evangelicalism” presumes a level of internal unity that has never characterized the evangelical movement. After all, who am I to say that Jerry Falwell, Jr.—president of American evangelicalism’s flagship educational institution—isn’t a “real” evangelical? And while Trump-friendly evangelicals may not be card-carrying theology buffs, they are still oriented towards Worthen’s three questions. In other words, like it or not, they are part of “us.”
During the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, the phrase “Actually Existing Socialism” became popular with social and political theorists trying to describe the social, economic and political arrangements of various Soviet countries—arrangements which had deviated sharply from the ideal society envisioned by Marx and Engels. But this was socialism as it actually existed in the material world, not simply as it was dreamt up in the minds of intellectuals.
Those trying to understand American evangelicalism in the age of Trump would be wise to appropriate this concept. For evangelicalism, just as with mid-twentieth century socialism, there is an ideal of what the movement could be, best exemplified in the musings of evangelicalism’s thought leaders. Indeed, this group contains some of Donald Trump’s most vehement opposition. Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC’s) public policy arm, has written passionately and persistently against Trump for months now. Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, argued that voting for Trump is something “Jesus Wouldn’t Do.” Most surprisingly, Max Lucado, a notoriously apolitical evangelical pastor and author, penned an op-ed denouncing Trump’s lack of decency.
Evangelicals of this stripe have spent years in the shadow of culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, ideating a more winsome form of Christian engagement in the public square.
And yet, despite all their hard work, Trumpvangelicals dominate the political landscape. All of this points to the chasm between elite evangelicals’ vision for the movement and the on-the-ground reality—between ideal evangelicalism and evangelicalism as it “actually exists,” at least in certain pockets of the country.
Simply excluding those whose evangelical faith we deem illegitimate is not an adequate response to the problem of Trumpvangelicalism. It’s not as though formulating a better theological litmus test, one which Trump’s evangelical backers will inevitably fail, gets our tradition off the hook. After all, the very foundation of Trump’s platform was built by some of evangelicalism’s most public personalities years before this election season began.
I wholeheartedly agree with Neil J. Young’s assertion that our current moment necessitates a different kind of response: it demands repentance. We need to repent for the role our movement, and the political party too commonly associated with it, have played in laying the ideological groundwork for Trump’s campaign.