As I recently observed here on RD, the Democratic faith outreach discussion in America’s 2020 presidential election cycle seems muted relative to previous election cycles, particularly when it comes to potential efforts aimed at white evangelical votes. “Maybe, just maybe,” I opined, “three years of observing white evangelicals’ unwavering support for an amoral authoritarian demagogue who can’t keep from running his mouth has led the chattering classes to conclude, sensibly, that this demographic is a lost cause.”
I’m not ready to say that I spoke too soon. I never meant, after all, that we would go an entire election cycle with no terrible punditry regarding the conservative Christian vote, a possibility so remote that I would no sooner presume to predict it than I would the date of the apocalypse. And while my general cautious conclusion seems to be holding for the time being, this week in The Independent Northern Ireland-based writer Patrick Geddis delivered some of the flimsiest commentary on Christianity and politics in the United States to be printed this year. I often appreciate the perspectives that foreign newspapers bring to U.S. politics, given how myopic our own coverage can be. In this piece, however, The Independent has egregiously failed at due diligence
Remarking on “Vice President Mike Pence trying to shore up support especially among non-white evangelical voters,” Geddis informs us that, “It must feel like an uphill fight.” But then, departing from the realm of the obvious into that of the clearly uninformed, Geddis adds, “one made that much harder by Trump’s association with proponents of the prosperity gospel.” Geddis doesn’t seem to realize that the tiny proportion of African-American Protestants who do support Trump tend to be associated with the very prosperity gospel he argues will hurt Trump’s reelection chances.
Indeed, for an article devoting so much space to President Donald Trump’s spiritual advisor Paula White—herself a prominent neo-charismatic prosperity preacher—it seems careless at best to omit the fact that the congregation of the church White pastored until May 2019 is predominantly black.
In general, Geddis’s remarks on race are hopelessly muddled. At the outset, he seems to be commenting on white evangelicals, with his references to Trump’s base, which inarguably consists of white evangelicals. But toward the end he reveals that he’s been conflating them with a category some have called “evangelicals by belief” of color (many of whom do not call themselves evangelicals). Intentionally or not, in this conflation Geddis is employing a sleight-of-hand tactic used and encouraged by evangelical outfit Lifeway Research. Lifeway deploys the category “evangelicals by belief” (Geddis does not use the term) in order to make white evangelicals appear more moderate than they are. Geddis also inexplicably brings up a letter to Christianity Today from black church leaders who take care in the letter to distinguish themselves from evangelicalism. Geddis seems to think this helps bolster his narrative of cracks forming in Trump’s support, when it does nothing of the sort.
When Geddis does subsequently mention “black, born again Christians,” he writes that among that group “Trump’s average approval rating is now just 7 percent” (emphasis mine). Of course if you read the very next sentence in the article he links to, it reads: “These figures are pretty much unchanged from the percentage of these groups who voted for Trump in 2016.” While Trump’s favorability among African-Americans has reached as high as 13% on occasion, the figure Geddis invokes shows no diminishing support among Trump’s base.
In addition, Geddis writes as if he’s only just become aware of the prosperity gospel, which, if true, would probably be a good reason not to write a piece of commentary around the (demonstrably false) conceit that Trump’s intimate connections with prosperity preachers are likely to cause problems with the evangelical electorate. His article calls Trump’s association with prosperity preaching a “recent pivot” when in fact it is nothing new. Bafflingly, Geddis cites the president’s promotion of Paula White as a problem for evangelical supporters, without noting that White was deeply and prominently involved in Trump’s campaign; she was the chair of his evangelical advisory board and “helped orchestrate his meeting with hundreds of evangelical leaders,” according to the Washington Post’s Julie Zauzmer. Interestingly, the Post’s article on this 2016 meeting included numerous quotes from Christians and experts warning that Trump’s association with White and the prosperity gospel would be a problem. And we all know how the 2016 election turned out.
Apart from his association with White, which predates his campaign, the president’s fondness for Norman Vincent Peale and his close ties to prosperity preachers have been noted frequently in the press since 2016. More importantly, perhaps, Geddis is apparently oblivious to the decades-long shift of the American evangelical mainstream toward the embrace of charismatic beliefs and practices, fueled by the popularization of the spiritual warfare motif in evangelical media in the 1980s and 1990s.
Most of Geddis’s commentary is conveniently free of data, which allows him to imply that “conventional evangelical pastors” and “typical evangelical organisations” are politically at odds with neo-charismatics. Geddis’s examples in fact illustrate the opposite; that is, that the neo-charismatics have been welcomed into the fold by today’s leading evangelical power brokers, such as First Baptist – Dallas Pastor Robert Jeffress, which Geddis notably misspells as “Jeffers” throughout his commentary.
For example, when, in discussing evangelical pushback against outgoing Christianity Today editor Mark Galli’s December 2019 op-ed, “Trump Should Be Removed from Office,” Geddis remarks, “That letter rebuking the Christianity Today editorial was signed not only by leaders of typical evangelical organisations, but also by political figures such as former Republican Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and a number of prosperity-gospel televangelists.”
Meanwhile, Geddis’s contention that Trump’s comment on the use of bleach to “cure” coronavirus “may prove problematic in November, as … [it] chips away at Trump’s image as a shrewd operator Republicans can place their trust in,” is remarkably naïve. To be sure, even among white evangelicals, approval of Trump’s crisis response in the face of the coronavirus pandemic has fallen, from 81% to 75% according to new data from PRRI. But even on this measure, white evangelicals remain far and away Trump’s most supportive demographic. Let’s also not forget that, although their support has dipped slightly from time to time, it has consistently ticked back up, and we cannot assume that merely holding unfavorable views of the president’s performance would automatically lead a white evangelical voter to vote against him.
The center of gravity among white evangelicals has clearly shifted away from “typical evangelical” outlets like Christianity Today, which would now seem to be less “typical” of white evangelical opinion than, say, The Christian Post or even Charisma News. Any pundit who isn’t ready to confront this shift is one who has little to nothing of value to say about white evangelicals and the 2020 election, in which it is almost certain that at least 80% of their vote will go to Trump again, as he continues to deliver on their culture wars agenda. To quote Westley from the 1987 cult classic film The Princess Bride, “Anyone who says differently is selling something.”