‘Politicized Religion’ Doesn’t Explain Evangelical Support of Donald Trump

Why do so many American evangelicals support the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump? Stephen Prothero, writing for Politico, recently added his voice to the chorus of analysts considering this question.

Why, Prothero asks, are evangelical voters flocking in droves to support Trump, the seeming antithesis of Christian values? As he effectively highlights, Trump

curses like a bond trader…mocks the disabled…expresses no need for God’s forgiveness…seems about as familiar with the Bible (“Two Corinthians”) as ordinary Americans are with the loopholes of the IRS tax code…‘The Art of the Deal,’ his campaign biography by default, is a human billboard for pride and lust…‘I’m a greedy person,’ he told an Iowa audience, ‘I’ve always been greedy.’

Prothero’s explanation is structured around the notion of evangelicals’ loss of their fundamental religious identity through politicization. In supporting Trump, Prothero insists, evangelicals “are saying that their political identity has trumped their religious identity. They are saying that they are conservatives first and Christians second.” Evangelical support of Trump is evidence of the undermining of authentic evangelical identity: “efforts by the Religious Right to break down the wall of separation between church and state have not only politicized Christianity, they have undermined it as well….”

The Republican Party has, in Prothero’s view, co-opted evangelicals. As he states the issue, while “it’s common to talk about the Republican Party having been captured by white evangelical activists,” it is more accurate to say that “evangelicals have been captured by the Republican Party.” The end result is “a population of self-identified ‘evangelicals’ who find it harder and harder to see the difference between the teachings of the Bible and the policies of their beloved candidates.”

On this account, evangelicals have gained political power and influence by sacrificing the birthright of their religious identity. Or as Prothero sums up: “evangelicals just aren’t that evangelical anymore.”

Prothero’s assessment is noteworthy for its intuitive appeal. The idea of “politicized religion” is everywhere in both journalistic and academic discussion of everything from evangelical Trump supporters to Islamic extremism and beyond. But is this common understanding of the relation of religion and politics truly useful?

In critiquing the “politicizing” of evangelical Christianity, for example, Prothero implies that evangelicals’ authentic or essential identity is something other than “political,” which is to say, of course, that it is properly “religious.” The notion of “politicized religion” relies on the assumption that religion is apolitical in nature, and that religion and politics are fundamentally distinct social spheres.

A particular understanding of social identity, as it relates to religion and politics, follows from these points. In saying that evangelicals’ “political identity has trumped their religious identity,” Prothero suggests that social actors’ identities can be fundamentally oriented toward religion, or politics, but not both. At best, it seems, one’s identity can related to many domains, but these must be properly, and hierarchically, ordered. A religious social agent will be one whose religious identity supersedes her political identity, and vice-versa.

Reflecting this logic, in his critique of presidential candidate and self-professed evangelical Ted Cruz, Prothero writes, “it seems plain that Cruz is a conservative first, an American second, a Republican third, and a Christian fourth.”

As a legion of contemporary scholars (e.g., Talal Asad, José Casanova, Charles Taylor, Saba Mahmood, and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd) have argued, the delimitation of the social spheres of religion and politics, and the boundary between them, is socially-constituted, variable, and constantly contested.

This does not mean that “there is no such thing” as religion or politics, or that one term can simply be collapsed into the other; it means that what counts as religion and politics will vary from one time period or culture to another, certainly, but also among diverse groups within a common culture or political state.

Analysts decrying “politicized religion” fail to recognize that what one group might view as narrowly political and non-religious (or even irreligious) might well be considered a part of religion by another.

To approach issues in terms of politicized religion tells us only that the investigator understands religion, politics, and their demarcation differently from the people or groups being studied—to focus on “politicized religion,” therefore, is to miss the point.

What we need to attend to is how these two domains—the religious and the political—are delineated in a culture or society. How are these distinctions reinforced or challenged? And how do particular, very different and historically variable demarcations of religion and politics become “naturalized” within a person or group’s experience?

Like the categories of religion and politics, social identity is also not fixed and given, nor is it defined by the purity of its orientation (i.e., religious or political). Rather, social identity is fluid, changing, emergent, and, perhaps most of all, messy. Individuals living in diverse, multicultural, and heterogeneous societies such as the United States are inevitably confronted with diverse and divergent demands for social identification.

For Americans, as we know, social identity is rarely constituted along a single axis. On the contrary, incredibly complex social identities take shape, not through single-axis identification, but through the construction of equivalences between those diverse axes.

But Prothero presupposes a hierarchical model of social identity. As he writes: “Cruz’s own hierarchy of identities is not easy to sort out, because like other white evangelicals he interprets his four identity markers—as a Christian, an American, a conservative, and a Republican—as roughly equivalent.”

But by decrying the “equivalence” of these social identities in the person of Cruz, Prothero inadvertently hits the theoretical nail on the head. For millions of evangelical Christians, these four “identity markers” are, simply, equivalent. To be a good, Bible-believing Christian, one must be a political conservative; to be a good political conservative, one must be Republican; being conservative, Republican, and Christian are the markers of being a good American, and so on.

What Prothero does not acknowledge is that these “markers” are not hierarchically ordered, nor are they mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they are the material from which complex social identities are formed. What evangelicals like Cruz illustrate is not that evangelicals supporting Trump have ceased to be properly religious, but simply that they represent a different kind of religious social actor from those envisioned by Prothero (as well as the dismayed evangelical thinkers, as he also notes).

The issue is precisely that being Republican, conservative, American, etc. is part of being religious for the social actors in question.

Given these considerations, evangelical support of Trump is not surprising, given their disillusionment with the Republican “establishment,” a feature shared with other Trump supporters. Any analysis of the “Trump phenomenon” in its relation to evangelicalism is off from the start if it begins with the assumption that evangelical support of Trump is rooted in a wrong ordering of religious and political identities.

The proper question to ask is not, for example, how to explain the purported contradictions of adhering to diverse, mutually exclusive identities. The better question is, why do so many self-proclaimed evangelicals not experience these elements of their religious identity as contradictory in the first place? How has the kind of complex religio-political identity embodied in these social actors come to be so prominent? And if one shares (as I do) Prothero’s concern about the potential dangers of such social identity, how might it be “de-naturalized” for those who are defined by it?

The all-too-common notion of “politicized religion” is simply not going to get us far enough in answering these questions.