Last weekend, the Conference on Faith and History held its biennial conference at Regent University. This year’s theme was “Christian Historians and the Challenges of Race, Gender, and Identity.”
“In today’s political and social climate,” the CFH website explained, “issues of race, gender, and identity continually polarize public discourse and historical scholarship. As Christian historians, we must address these issues in ways that responsibly deal with contemporary events, with the past, and with our faith.”
Donald Trump crashed the CFH’s party. On Saturday, the Republican presidential candidate held a rally on the campus of Regent, which was founded by televangelist Pat Robertson.
I took a break from the conference to check out the event. Suffice it to say that Trump’s rally did not “responsibly deal” with “issues of race, gender, and identity.”
Again and again, the speakers hit on a few predictable talking points: Hillary Clinton is corrupt and should be in prison, Obamacare is a failure, undocumented workers are raping and killing innocent Americans, the Iran nuclear deal is a disaster, Trump will appoint conservative Supreme Court justices, and radical Muslim terrorists are infiltrating U.S. soil.
This stuff I expected. What caught me off guard was the tone of the event, which felt more like a religious revival than a political rally. Yes, the rally was held at Regent, one of the largest and most conservative evangelical universities in the nation. But it was still jarring to hear speakers like Ralph Reed invoke the name of Jesus Christ to say that Hillary Clinton supports “evil.”
I was also struck by the relationship between the conference’s theme and Trump’s candidacy. While a group of about 250 professional historians, most of whom identify as evangelical, were discussing how their scholarship can shed light on the history of gender, race, and identity in the United States, Donald Trump and his evangelical lackeys were outside giving a master’s course in how to appeal to a southern white evangelical identity.
This being Virginia, State Senator Frank Wagner invoked Robert E. Lee, a prime example of a southern white Christian gentleman. The Senator praised Lee for his bravery at the 1864 Battle of the Wilderness; though Lee knew his chances of winning were next to none, Wagner said, “he ran to the sound of the gunfire.”
Comparing Trump’s campaign to the Battle of the Wilderness may seem like odd imagery for a campaign on the brink of disaster (earlier that day, a speaker compared it to the even more devastating Pickett’s Charge). But I think the analogy works. As with Lee, many evangelical voters see Trump as a powerful man who is leading the fight against an entrenched political establishment, and who will defend the innocent (in this case, the unborn) and Christian Americans from an evil federal government and a potent threat to their way of life.
The type of identity politics that Trump has tapped into doesn’t seem to require any sort of serious self-reflection, nuance, or even knowledge of basic facts. One event in particular summed up the vibe. At one point in this speech, Trump said that he was going to overturn the Johnson Amendment (which threatens religious institutions with the loss of tax-exempt status if they advocate for specific political candidates).
Predictably, the crowd went wild. Once things had quieted down, one of those near me who’d cheered loudly turned to his companions and said, “What’s the Johnson Amendment?”