Are Evangelicals Sweetness and Light or Enablers of Cruelty and Racism? Gender Roles Hint at an Answer

A volunteer at an Evangelicals for Trump rally in Michigan wears a mask hanging from her ears as she talks to a pair of attendees who have no masks in sight. Image: Kristin Kobes Du Mez/RD

Have white evangelicals been unfairly demonized by scholars and pundits alike in the run-up to November’s election? True, white evangelicals have distinguished themselves by throwing their support behind a president who appears to be the antithesis of the moral values evangelicals claim to hold dear. They’ve cast their lot with a president who revels in crassness, brags about assaulting women, denigrates immigrants and refugees, and cannot bring himself to denounce white supremacy. 

Defenders of evangelicals, however, chide critics for stereotyping white evangelicals, for “lumping them together in the basket of deplorables” when in fact many evangelicals are “the salt of the earth.” Evangelicals, after all, are generous and patriotic Americans, “conscientious parents, church members and Little League coaches.” Indeed, walk through the doors of any evangelical megachurch and you’re likely to be greeted with effusive friendliness. According to evangelicalism’s defenders, much of the problem comes down to a media that persists in portraying evangelicalism in an unflattering light.  

In truth, white evangelicals are all-of-the-above. The question is not whether white evangelicals ought to be known more for their Little League coaching and charitable giving than for their support of a ruthless president and his policies, but rather how it is that salt-of-the-earth evangelicals can do all of these things at the same time. 

For many evangelicals, there is little conflict between their support for Donald Trump and the faith they profess. A softer, kinder evangelicalism has always coexisted alongside the culture wars militancy that has propelled the faithful into the arms of Trump. To understand how these seemingly conflicting impulses are complementary rather than contradictory, it helps to understand evangelical gender roles.   

In the words of bestselling evangelical author John Eldredge, every man needs “a battle to fight,” and “a beauty to rescue.” 
In my book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, I describe the rugged, militant masculinity at the heart of “family values” evangelicalism. Conservative evangelicals believe that God equipped men with testosterone to give them the strength necessary to protect women and children, church and nation. Far from representing a betrayal of evangelical values, Trump, with all his swagger, crassness, and cruelty, is perfectly equipped to do whatever it takes to protect America, and American Christians. As evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress famously quipped in 2016, “I want the meanest, toughest SOB I can find to protect this nation,” and most evangelicals appear to agree. 

Trump was the right man for the job precisely because he was uninhibited by traditional Christian virtues—by values such as loving one’s neighbor and one’s enemies, or indeed by any of the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, or self-control. 

But the rugged, even reckless masculinity championed by evangelicals has always been accompanied by a softer, feminine side. In fact, it was precisely the loveliness, purity, and vulnerability of women that required the protection of tough, masculine men. In the words of bestselling evangelical author John Eldredge, every man needs “a battle to fight,” and “a beauty to rescue.” 

Patience and kindness might be appropriate to the feminine sphere, but Christian men needed to man up; gentleness only emasculates them. And within the conservative evangelical world, it is men, not women, who have the authority to lead. Leadership requires courage, strength, and even violence when necessary. 

As with evangelical gender ideals, the softer side of evangelicalism isn’t perceived to be in conflict with its more militant side; rather, the two are complementary.

This complementarity was on full display at the Evangelicals for Trump rally I attended recently in Holland, Michigan.

This rally struck a decidedly different tone than other Trump rallies I’ve observed. Trump himself wasn’t in attendance. Instead, second lady Karen Pence presided. There were no crowds, no vendors, and no signs of any sort that a Trump rally was about to take place, apart from a muscular private security guard stationed at the parking lot entrance discreetly inquiring if I were there for “the event.” 

The venue, a white tent set up in the parking lot of the Baker Lofts (Holland’s “premier wedding venue,” a space “full of charm and urban elegance!”), created a genteel and intimate atmosphere far different from the large arenas where Trump himself tends to hold court.  

A few dozen people stood in line, in somewhat socially-distanced pairs and small groups. Apart from a quick temperature check, no security measures appeared to be taken. Inside the tent stood a table with a basket of disposable masks, and on another, an assortment of iced tea and lemonade, prompting people to remove their masks in order to sip their drinks as they mingled. 

On the opposite side of the entry tent stood another table decorated with fake succulents and a “Faith in America” sign indicating the religious nature of the event. Filled with chic black metal chairs (spaced only inches apart, making it impossible to socially distance), the entire space looked as though it had been furnished at Joanna Gaines’s Magnolia Market

Whereas Trump rallies tend to be rather boisterous affairs, this was anything but. The event opened with a welcome by Kathy Berden, the National Committeewoman of the Republican Party in Michigan. With perfectly coiffed white hair and bright red lipstick to match her striking red blazer, Berden embodied a Phyllis Schlafly-esque type of Republican femininity, one that tastefully combined feminine style with political power. In what seemed like an homage to Schlafly, Berden asked her husband to join her on the podium to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. 

To my surprise, it was a young woman who was tasked with opening the event with prayer. Wearing a casual dress topped with a jean jacket, “Katie” offered a prayer that anyone who has ever attended an evangelical youth group would recognize: “Father Jesus* we love you. Jesus I ask you to soften our hearts and open our eyes to what is true. Thank you for leaders who want to abide in you. We ask for peace over our hearts and leaders.” 

Trump Christianity, it appears, has been effortlessly enfolded into the language and liturgies of white evangelicalism.

Representative Bill Huizenga then took the stage, and the Republican congressman wasted no time in smoothing the path for Trump. Knowing the Reformed commitments of many West Michigan evangelicals, Huizenga played to the crowd: “As a good Calvinist,” he began, quickly assuring those present that it was possible to be both a good Calvinist and an evangelical, he believed that “all people are evil…flawed.” This was an election between two flawed people.  

Both men might be flawed, but only one stood for what was right. It was Democrats, after all, who had “excluded God in the Pledge of Allegiance at their convention,” and excluded the unborn from their sense of justice. And it was Trump who would protect Christians’ voice in the public square. Evangelicals owed Trump something in return: “We have a responsibility now. We have to show up.” 

To the delight of those in attendance, Huizenga dismissed those who might say, “You know, the tweets make me a little uncomfortable.” With laughter rippling through the audience, he countered forcefully: “The names Joe Biden and Kamala Harris ought to make you uncomfortable.”

He then introduced the featured speaker, Karen Pence. She was an art therapist and educator, but she also did important work “in supporting our president.” She was “a wonderful, beautiful lady in her own right.” 

“Our lovely second lady Karen Pence” then took her place behind the microphone, and she was masterful. Poised and powerful, she spoke of her “good friend Melania Trump,” and she assured those in attendance that the Trump administration “stands for the values of faith, family, and the sanctity of life.” And, she boasted, the very next day Trump would be nominating a woman to the Supreme Court. 

Pence hit key talking points, one after another: Trump defended the freedom of religion and promised to “restore the ideals on which our country was founded.” Trump protected the right to pray in public schools and to refuse to comply with Obama’s contraceptive mandate. He defended the sanctity of human life. In short, “This president has been a tireless defender of life and conscience.” He keeps his promises. 

At only one point in Pence’s speech was there any disconnect with her audience, and that was when she thanked her audience for wearing their masks and doing their part to fight the spread of Covid. Given that the majority of those in attendance were not properly wearing masks, this comment caused a number of sideways glances, sheepish smiles, and fumbling with loose masks, but the moment was fleeting and Pence continued without apparently noticing, or at least acknowledging, the awkwardness.

“I know many of you pray for us,” she shared. “Why else would we be able to sleep so well at night?…Your prayers uplift this administration. They truly do. And your prayers uplift our country. We’re not done yet. We’re just getting started. We’ll make America great again, again.” 

At first glance, there appeared to be little evidence of the militant faith and reckless masculinity that evangelicals had come to embrace and expect in their leaders. Indeed, from its keynote speaker to its Pinterest-themed décor, this event was geared toward a certain subset of evangelicals: devout white women. 

But the cruder expression of the faith was there just beneath the surface, evident in a wink about tweets and a nod toward human depravity—and perhaps also in the casual disregard for public health measures. For many evangelicals, the two expressions of the faith coexist. White evangelicals, of course, also show up to the more boisterous Trump rallies to support their president. For many evangelicals, this kinder, gentler version of the faith shouldn’t be placed in opposition to Trump’s harsher, more brutish appeal. Like evangelical manhood and womanhood, the two go hand in hand. 

*Yes, “Father Jesus” makes no sense. It is possible that I made a mistake in transcribing the prayer, or that this is a mashup of Father God/Jesus that makes sense in the distinctive prayer language that evangelicals have crafted.