Did Pope Francis just throw a wrench into Donald Trump’s machinations to win the evangelical vote? Referring to Trump’s “plan” to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, the Pope suggested that Trump is “not Christian.”
In Francis’ words, “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the gospel.”
Trump was quick to strike back, calling the Pope’s remarks “disgraceful,” and adding:
If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’s ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been President because this would not have happened.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Trump’s Christian values have been questioned. In fact, his appeal to a large swathe of evangelical voters has vexed some Christian commentators.
As Jonathan Merritt writes in the Atlantic: “Donald Trump is immodest, arrogant, foul-mouthed, money-obsessed, thrice-married, and until recently, pro-choice. By conventional standards, evangelical Christians should despise him.”
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has also wondered whether evangelicals have “lost their values” in their support of Trump. And earlier this week, Ed Rogers urged evangelicals not to vote for Trump:
“How can they reconcile fidelity to their faith with a vote for Trump? How do they overlook Trump’s personal qualities and behavior? What about the morality of entrusting the presidency to someone with the temperament and questionable judgment we have all witnessed from Trump?
I understand the theological conundrum that evangelical support for Trump poses, along with the desire to distance so-called evangelical values—and, in the case of the Pope, Christianity itself—from his campaign. But these warnings don’t appear to have dissuaded anyone. Indeed, Trump’s numbers continue to rise among evangelical voters.
Pitting support for Trump against a religious ideal ignores the fact that many evangelicals do support Trump and don’t see a conflict in doing so. That’s not because those who support Trump are especially ignorant about their religious beliefs, or somehow hypocritical. Rather, how people understand, practice, and live their religion on a daily basis doesn’t always correspond to sanctioned doctrines, teachings, and values.
Religion is not primarily a matter of the intellect, of assent to certain beliefs from which our actions inevitably follow, but it is a material, bodily endeavor.
For example, in his recent book Religious Affects, Donovan Schaefer has sought to understand religion not in terms of human language and propositional beliefs but in light of the affective and emotional forces that engulf and ultimately shape individuals. In an interview with RD, Schaefer notes that affective forces “make us what we are, and our decisions come from that rather than from this linguistic layer, which is actually constituted by that more fundamental cluster of forces.”
Language is secondary, in Schaefer’s understanding. When it comes to stated religious beliefs, then, that means that the latter should be understood in light of the affective forces that constitute individuals, and not the other way around.
If we want to understand why many evangelicals are flocking to Trump, if we want to grasp his appeal, we should look at the affective attraction of his candidacy.
Schaefer himself has drawn attention to how fear and hatred function affectively to foster political identifications—and this seems clearly at work here. Just think of the candidate’s response to Pope Francis: the appeal is to ISIS, to the threat of terror. This is the kind of theme Trump is building his campaign on, and he took the opportunity today to hammer it home.
But we should also make another move, interpreting evangelical beliefs and values—at least as they are held by some—in light of such affective identification, that is, in light of support for Trump. The question, then, is not how and to what extent evangelical support for Trump falls short of some ideal but, rather, how to understand that ideal in light of evangelical support for Trump.
For instance, one of the main criticisms of Trump is that he lacks a “moral compass.” As Russell Moore points out, Trump is “a casino and real estate mogul who has built his career off gambling, a moral vice and an economic swindle that oppresses the poorest and most desperate.” For Moore that should be enough to disqualify Trump from evangelical consideration. And yet Jerry Falwell, Jr. can say about Trump that he’s “seen his generosity to strangers, to his employees, his warm relationship with his children . . . I’m convinced he’s a Christian. I believe he has faith in Jesus Christ.”
The point is that we can’t determine what counts as a “moral compass” in advance: what evangelicals take as moral ideals, and how they adjudicate apparent deviations from them, have to be understood contextually, in light of prior, affective dispositions.
What evangelicals (or anyone else) believe can’t be separated from what they do. That might be uncomfortable from a theological perspective, but it’s a more fruitful approach, I think, to parsing this election and the function of religion in it.