On Christianity and Donald Trump

When Mark Galli, the conservative evangelical editor of Christianity Today, made the argument recently that Donald Trump should be impeached because he has violated the very norms of morality upheld by conservative Christians, the backlash was immediate and fierce.

Trump, not surprisingly, tweeted insults about Galli; his evangelical enablers promptly came to his defense and labelled Galli a “liberal.”  After a group of over 170 evangelical pastors and leaders signed a letter to Christianity Today challenging the editorial, a group of black church leaders and allies published an open letter in response expressing gratitude for the piece. “What we’re seeing today in 21st century evangelicalism,” they argued, “a broken marriage between a radical faction of the local church and the extreme right-wing faction of the Republican Party.”

The fissure highlights differences among evangelicals.

Most of the left remained baffled by evangelical support for Trump and the ineffectiveness of Galli’s editorial in reaching the vast majority of white evangelicals who still strongly support Trump. Many on them may be surprised to find that some evangelicals embrace progressive ideals such as gender equality and environmental responsibility. They take seriously the challenges of postmodernism and ask hard questions of their faith. While they still embrace a high view of scripture and a commitment to witnessing to their faith in order to bring others to conversion, they try to be more inclusive and to engage with the secular world in kindness and respect.

They are part of the 20 percent or so of white evangelicals who do not support Trump—and now they have been cast as part of the left, which, to the left, probably makes no sense at all.

To understand the behavior of that 80 percent or so of white evangelicals who support Trump, we really need to understand Christian fundamentalism. While all fundamentalist Christians are evangelicals, not all evangelicals are fundamentalists, but most are.

An examination of fundamentalism may help us understand one reason why white evangelicals overwhelmingly support Trump. Fundamentalism is not a theological description, but a sociological one. It’s an orientation toward the world that is characterized by sharp subcultural boundaries, charismatic authoritarian leaders, fear of the other, a sense of besiegement, nostalgia for an imagined past, a sense of engagement in a cosmic battle between good and evil, little preparation for engaging with diverse people or diverse ideas and rigid gender beliefs and roles.

We find fundamentalists not only among Christians, but also among Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and even Leftists. The specific operations of fundamentalism across different religions varies, but these core sociological observations are the same. And Christian fundamentalism in its current form among white evangelicals in the U.S. is the perfect recipe for support for Trump. 

Many of us on the left have struggled to understand the disconnect between what white evangelicals profess to believe and their support of Trump and his policies that are in direct conflict with those beliefs, such as child separation at the border or refusal of refugees. We may have focused on the wrong things. Theology is not at the center of their support of Trump; fundamentalism is. The disconnect between evangelical Christian beliefs and Trump and his policies is not a problem for them, because Trump and his policies align perfectly with their fundamentalist orientation.

Trump appeals to the “us vs. them” mentality of fundamentalism—in his world, people are either with him or they’re enemies, “human scum.” His sense of being under attack, the victim of a “witch hunt,” parallels fundamentalists’ feeling of besiegement by the forces of liberalism and postmodernism in a divine struggle between good and evil. Fundamentalist Christians can identify with Trump’s assertion of persecution because they, too, feel persecuted in a secular world. So when Trump offers to protect their religious liberties, they welcome him as one of their own, their champion in the face of liberalism’s attacks on their faith. 

Because fundamentalists live mostly within very clearly demarcated subcultural boundaries, they often have little experience interacting in meaningful ways with people who differ from themselves—in race, ethnicity, nationality or religion, or in ideas. They are often suspicious of education because it offers challenges to their deeply felt but largely unexamined beliefs, and it engages them in consequential interaction and dialogue with diverse people.

Thus, fundamentalist Christians have not often interacted with liberal or progressive people. Because they do not have meaningful experiences of people different from themselves, they are susceptible to the stereotypes an immoral authoritarian like Trump wields to solicit cheers and votes. They already believe that liberals and progressives are evil and the enemy. Trump simply reinforces those notions, increasing divisions.

On the left, we often also wonder why white evangelical women support Trump, given his abysmal record with women. If we consider fundamentalism’s need to control women—Karen McCarthy Brown describes women as “the Other” within fundamentalism—that support makes sense. Fundamentalist Christians believe in women’s submission. They believe that God has created a divinely ordained hierarchy in which men and women have separate roles, and, while they may be equal in value to God, they are not equal in authority and power in the church or home. Husbands rule over their wives, and male pastors rule over their churches.

Trump’s treatment of women isn’t disqualifying for fundamentalist Christians because it aligns with their ideologies of gender. Within purity culture, which has taken deep hold within fundamentalist Christianity, women are solely responsible for sexual purity, and, if men act in impure ways, that is the fault of the women who tempted them. While fundamentalist Christians may find Trump’s treatment of women distasteful and crass, they do not blame him because the blame for sexual impurity lies with women.

Trump also supports policies dear to fundamentalist Christians because they control women, such as the global gag order; he appoints anti-choice judges (including a Supreme Court justice credibly accused of sexual harassment); he revoked the 2014 Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces; his administration changed the definition of domestic violence; and he has repeatedly attacked queer and transgender communities. 

Trump’s white nationalism also converges with fundamentalism’s Christian nationalism. White Christian fundamentalists are aggrieved at their perception of their loss of status as white and Christian people in an increasingly diverse nation. They believe that the U.S. is supposed to be a Christian nation, and implied in that belief is whiteness. They are not, therefore, uncomfortable with Trump’s clear embrace of white supremacy because it furthers their own grievances and hopes for a white Christian nation. In a response to Galli’s editorial, religion professor J. Kameron Carter calls this phenomenon “the religion of whiteness.”

All this means that white evangelical support of Trump is not as surprising at it may seem at first glance, because that support is not about theology or the Bible—both of which would argue against Trump, as Mark Galli did in his editorial—but is about a fundamentalist orientation that closely aligns with Trump. What progressive Christians and conservative, but not fundamentalist, evangelicals find outrageous in Trump’s behavior actually works to his advantage with white Christian fundamentalists, because his world views align with theirs—all in support of a white patriarchal theocracy.

About

Susan M. Shaw, Ph.D., is a Professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Oregon State University.