After the Trump Tapes: Evangelical Authoritarianism Revisited

Trump apologized via his Facebook page for lewd remarks he made in 2005

Back during the primaries, when the head scratching among the chattering classes over white evangelical support for Donald Trump began to appear, I argued here on RD that white evangelical support for Trump doesn’t represent subordination of religion to politics. Neither is it the result of a mere failure of evangelical churches to inoculate their flocks against Trumpism, as David Gushee suggested in the spring. It is, rather, an expression of authoritarian attitudes that are not only prominent in the white evangelical subculture I grew up in, but reinforced by evangelicals’ approach to the Bible.

While my own reading of the gospel certainly comports with that of progressive Christians who can see only hypocrisy in Christians supporting Trump, as a former conservative evangelical I understand from the inside the mental gymnastics necessary to reconcile evangelical faith with support for a vile, abusive strongman. And bad religion—is still religion.

My earlier analysis suggested that, should Trump become the Republican nominee for president instead of the more typical (but no less authoritarian) evangelical choice, Ted Cruz, white evangelicals would on the whole support Trump, finding ample justifications through their Providentialist and apocalyptic approach to politics. Trump could be flawed like King David, or a modern-day Cyrus the Great, or a “baby Christian.” And so it’s gone. Pew data from July placed white evangelical Trump support at 78%. More recent PRRI data gathered after the first presidential debate (but before the Trump tape scandal broke) placed white evangelical Trump support at 69%.

With most prominent Christian right leaders reaffirming their support for Trump after the release of footage showing Trump bragging about committing sexual assault, pundits are scratching their heads again. PRRI data gathered since the breaking of the Trump tapes scandal has white evangelical support for Trump holding at 65%, which would seem to indicate that reports that evangelical Trump support is “plummeting,” based on a new Reuters/Ipsos poll, are exaggerated at best. Of course, Christianity Today did publish a scathing takedown of Trump, although it painted Hillary Clinton in an equally negative light in an obvious case of false equivalence.

But Ralph Reed? James Dobson? Jerry Falwell, Jr.? They are all ready to go down with the Trump ship, and so, apparently, is evangelical “intellectual,” Eric Metaxas. Despite having written a glowing biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Metaxas is willing to join forces with the anti-Semitic alt-right that Trumpism has unleashed to disastrous effect. In their authoritarian “desire for order and fear of outsiders,” this is how unwilling most supposedly philo-Semitic white evangelicals are to reconcile themselves to pluralism. In the hopes of banning abortion and rescinding the legalization of gay marriage, they will align themselves with out and out anti-Semites, consequences be damned.

And Ralph Reed and Jerry Falwell, Jr. are not “shepherds without a flock,” even if some Liberty University students (it is unclear how many) have taken a stand against Falwell’s continued devotion to Trump. While I want to believe that Russell Moore is correct to suggest that there’s a generation of evangelicals rising who are less interested in culture wars, when it comes to white evangelicals, the statistics continue to show that there is no sea change in their attitudes and politics. If we want to know why, we need look no further than the authoritarianism exhibited in evangelical communities as a key explanatory factor.

While we may be seeing white evangelical support for Trump fall a bit in response to the Trump tapes, I agree with RD’s own Paul Harvey that it’s unlikely to drop all that much. And I would suggest that if we want to understand why, beyond examining the factors Harvey lays out, we have to understand the mechanisms through which evangelical authoritarianism operates. We have to take the type of thinking associated with white evangelicals’ “Biblical worldview” seriously. In that respect, my earlier article remains relevant.