Donald Trump’s bizarre rise seems to be, as new research suggests, the result of an increasing American attraction to authoritarian leadership. I’d like to suggest that if “a desire for order and a fear of outsiders” predicts Trump support, the question of why white evangelicals are backing a trash-talking billionaire can be easily answered.
Amid the consternation over white evangelicals who support Trump and whether they are “real” evangelicals, the rare attempts to understand how authoritarianism functions in conservative evangelical culture have been largely ignored.
Some have argued that evangelical voters are subordinating theology to politics—as if conservative evangelicals experience theology and politics as fundamentally separate spheres. In fact, for conservative evangelicals, Christianity is essentially “total,” permeating and defining every other aspect of life—not something you do in private, or on Sundays.
Here on RD, Daniel Miller has provided an important corrective to the notion of “politicized religion,” which implies that “real” religion is not politicized. As someone who has lived conservative evangelicalism, I agree with Miller that being conservative (and Republican) is “part of being religious” for this demographic.
And while Rob Boston has correctly observed that “there has always been an authoritarian strain in the Religious Right,” most commentators, including Boston himself, seem to be operating on the false assumption that support for Trump is somehow out of keeping with “real” conservative Christianity.
Ted Cruz and Donald Trump: Two Christian Failures, One Authoritarian Ethos
Progressive evangelical commentator David Gushee has recently described evangelical support for Ted Cruz and Trump as “two very different kinds of failures for conservative Christianity.” The difference between the two is that support for Cruz can be explained in light of prior church teaching about the evils of homosexuality, abortion, secularism, and Democrats. But as Trump’s stances on immigration, Muslims, and torture don’t derive from church teaching, Gushee concludes that evangelical leaders must simply have failed to “inoculate” their flocks against Trump’s brand of authoritarianism.
But evangelicals are, in fact, regular producers and consumers in America’s cottage industry of Islamophobia. I have heard Islam equated with terrorism from evangelical pulpits on multiple occasions. I suspect, too, that the Calvinist view of predestination—that the majority of humanity consists of “losers” consigned to eternal torture—might foster a tolerance for torture in the human social scheme. Contra Gushee, I’d argue that there is prior church teaching and theology fueling the “Trumpvangelical” version of bad religion.
It is true that the dominionist Cruz seems to be performing slightly better than Trump among white evangelical Republicans (41% vs. 38%) and that he is performing substantially better than Trump among those Republicans who attend religious services regularly (44% vs. 29%). But what’s missing on most people’s radar is that Cruz’s theocratic vision for America actually represents a more consistently authoritarian ideology than Trump’s generally vague right-wing populism.
It is equally salient, too, that pious evangelicals who do support Trump have provided justifications for that support in characteristic evangelical form, exhibiting what I call a “politics of Providentialism” by mapping Biblical references onto current events in a way that relates them to theologies of the apocalpyse.
Some evangelicals are justifying their support for Trump with a biblical analogy to Cyrus the Great, the ruler of Persia who delivered the Hebrews from Babylonian captivity, for example. The conservative desire for a “strong, even quasi-dictatorial, leader who will keep feminists, multiculturalists, secularists and ‘progressives’ in their place,” as Rob Boston puts it, has biblical echoes.
Evangelical Authoritarianism and Fear in America
That some conservative evangelicals are relaxing their ideological litmus test for presidential candidates does not mean that they have “secularized” their voting—it just means that they perceive themselves as in the political wilderness.
It remains true that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy makes it difficult at best for conservative evangelicals to reconcile themselves to a robust pluralism. This is not to say that conservative evangelicals are monolithic, but the frame for debate they recognize as legitimate is generally narrow, and there is a high expectation of conformity.
Consider the case of evangelical institutions. It is not surprising, for example, that in a moment in which evangelicals are feeling threatened by rapid social and political change, evangelical institutions of higher education, known for ideological homogeneity, are in full inquisition mode.
Administrations are policing boundaries, identifying and rejecting outsiders, and enforcing order by purging professors over evolution, same-sex marriage, and other matters, as I have written about in these pages, even as they scramble to obtain Title IX waivers so that they can continue to receive federal funding while discriminating against members of the LGBTQ community in housing and hiring.
From these cases, it is clear that the order most conservative evangelicals crave entails the unquestioning acceptance of a patriarchal, anti-LGBTQ interpretation of the Bible. In their pursuit of this order, conservative evangelicals use emotional manipulation and indoctrination—and, as is characteristic of authoritarianism in general, their defensive aggression is a product of fear.
Another critical element of evangelical authoritarianism, as of authoritarianism in general, is anti-intellectualism. When I was in high school, a pastor I talked with about my doubts suggested that if I was having difficulty reconciling the apparent contradictions in the Bible, I must be harboring sin in my life. I might be, he said, under the influence of literal demons.
Too much intellectual questioning can be deflected with scriptural passages such as I Corinthians 1:20-25, which discusses how God’s truth appears to the worldly as foolishness. I once heard a Christian singer remark from the stage that it was impossible to be too stupid to accept Christ, but it might be possible to be too smart.
Of course, there are some conservative evangelicals, like the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore, who have insisted that no true “gospel Christian” would vote for Trump.
For my own part, however, I would take this sidestepping of the question of evangelical authoritarianism from Moore with a pillar of salt. And I would suggest that we would do well not to lose sight of the effects of the Christian right’s authoritarianism simply because we live in a time when, rather than play kingmaker, its leaders are forced to contend with the allure of a worldly strongman like Trump.