Trumpist Strain Among Evangelicals Predates Religious Right

In the space of a few days, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump has picked public fights with Elizabeth Warren, Paul Ryan, and Russell Moore. The first two are well-known, the latter is getting there quickly. Moore, the successor to ideological culture warrior Richard Land as head of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has quickly established a public presence with sharply worded statements about the Confederate flag (“the cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire”), and more recently, in the New York Times, on the racially diverse future of evangelicalism (“The man on the throne in heaven is a dark-skinned, Aramaic-speaking “foreigner” who is probably not all that impressed by chants of “Make America great again”).

There’s something happening here with American evangelicalism; what it is, however, ain’t exactly clear—yet. Trump clearly has drawn substantial numbers of evangelical voters, and some support from evangelical spokesmen (including Jerry Falwell, Jr., and who knows how many local ministers or lay leaders). While Moore and others are on the front lines of the #NeverTrump movement, the Pew Research Center suggests that at least half of white American evangelicals think he would be a good President.

Theories abound. The history scholar and blogger John Fea has speculated that it’s because the anti-intellectual evangelical tradition identified by Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind has resurfaced; “we have reaped what we have sown,” Fea concludes. Stephen Prothero has suggested it’s because evangelicals aren’t really all that evangelical anymore. He writes, “it can seem like there aren’t any evangelicals left in the Republican Party; there are just Republicans who happen to go to church.”

Others have pointed out that evangelicals flocked to Ronald Reagan, himself far from a personal upholder of evangelical mores, because evangelical voters respond to issues other than the “values” that a candidate does or does not seem to embody. Perhaps evangelical Trump supporters think America can be made great again, even if the vehicle for doing so is flawed—essentially the position that Bobby Jindal has taken in announcing his support for Trump.

For me, the answer comes with a deeper historical perspective on the role of nostalgia in the shaping of Christian conservatism. The nationalist and nativist right has a long history, traced long ago in John Higham’s Strangers in the Land, and Trump has emerged as its most recent champion. This is a political tradition older than the religious right.

In fact, Trump (probably accidentally) invoked it in his reference to “America First” in a recent “serious” foreign policy speech. The America First campaign of the late 1930s, of course, sought to keep the United States out of foreign conflicts (an understandable impulse after the disillusionments of World War I), but came together with a sympathy for fascist-style political leaders and a nativist revulsion towards immigrants. Pearl Harbor destroyed that specific movement, but the deeper strain of nationalist and nativist populism has threaded together movements and groups over the decades. Moore’s attempt to swim upstream against that tradition is notable, even admirable. But for this political cycle, the resistance to racial Christian nationalism may be futile.