Any social phenomenon is going to have several causes. If you’re going to say “The sole cause of this political trend is X,” then you’re already wrong, no matter what you substitute for X. I have a lifetime of experience with the American Evangelical community in the Midwest, and I think I have a reasonable grip on at least one of the causal factors of this particular social phenomenon. Enduring Evangelical approval of Trump has caused some to wonder why such an un-Christlike figure can reliably count on Evangelical Christians, but I don’t think their stubborn support for Trump is the enigma some have made it out to be.
“The president won four-fifths of the votes of white evangelical Christians. This was a higher level of support than either Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, an outspoken evangelical himself, ever received.”
According to Jerry Falwell Jr., Christians have “found their dream president.” To those who insist that Trump doesn’t act like a Christian — perhaps you should take Falwell at his word and look into what Trump and Falwell’s flock have in common. If you think Trump isn’t an Evangelical superhero, you don’t understand American Evangelical Christianity.
Evangelical Christianity is not just a religion; at least, not in the sense that anyone can be a Christian and also believe whatever they want with regard to other subjects. It’s a broader religion. As my mother says, “I don’t understand how a Christian could ever vote Democratic.” How is voting for a Democrat un-Christian? It’s not as if the Democrats are a party of atheists. A web of seemingly unrelated issues are effectively unified under a particular version of religion, one that I happened to be raised in. Real Christians are Republicans, only watch Fox News, don’t believe in climate change, hate communism, and reject evolution. What the hell does deregulating big business have to do with loving Jesus?
Christianity is totalitarian. Evangelical Christianity is a particularly authoritarian and fundamentalist strain of Christianity, and its theology is far more wide-ranging and all-encompassing. It’s a package deal — being an Evangelical Christian means that there is a narrow range of acceptable political opinion, a narrow range of acceptable music, a narrow range of acceptable vehicles to drive, and so on. The politics and all the rest of it comes with the religion, because that is the nature of a totalitarian institution. It’s not just that you’re always being watched and have no identity outside of the institution, you’re also micro-managed to an absurd degree and told what you’ll think and how you’ll behave in both important and unimportant areas. As Christopher Hitchens used to say, “Religion is totalitarian in both it’s theory and it’s practice.”
The inerrancy of capitalism is just as much a tenet of their religion as the inerrancy of the Bible. A rigid pro-life position has the same dogmatic status as the divinity of Jesus. Believing that Christians are oppressed in the U.S. is just as important as adopting substance dualism, which is just as important as being against gun control. Evolution is a liberal hoax, and so is the view that the constitution mandates church-state separation. These are all doctrines of Evangelical Christianity. If you reject too many of these tenets, you’re no longer a member of the tribe, and they doubt if you ever really were.
In the minds of Evangelicals, these views are all symbiotic. They try to square their strictly Christian theology with the other articles of faith in their broader religion. They have a whole library of bending-over-backward apologetics to nullify Jesus’ railings against the rich and the commune the early church established. The current doctrines of Evangelical Christianity have a centuries-long history, and that history is well-detailed in a recent Atlantic article (though it’s absurdly selective in order to make past Christians look like progressive heroes).
While Trump fails in what uninformed outsiders see as “Christian,” he excels in the other tenets of Evangelical Christianity. He indulges their persecution fantasies. He acts as if he re-legalized saying “Merry Christmas”. He’s a successful businessman. He wants to deregulate everything and lower taxes. He’s tried to weaken church-state separation on numerous occasions. He tried to ban transgender troops from the military. He hates President Obama. He only trusts Fox News. He’s pushed abstinence-only sex education. He’s illiterate and inarticulate — there’s a deep anti-intellectualism that resonates with many Evangelicals, who routinely reject the consensus of experts and have felt the heat for doing so. He also pretends to be pro-life, the importance of which you almost can’t overestimate.
If Trump isn’t an Evangelical Christian, he’s an honorary Evangelical Christian. To Trump, it’s probably more of a transactional relationship. To them, he really is their “dream president.”