Defying the Pundits

Defying the Pundits

  • Darryl G. Hart
  • March 18, 2016
  • Center for the Study of America and the West

Donald Trump shows off a Bible his mother gave him (Source: FACEBOOK / DONALD TRUMP)Donald Trump shows off a Bible his mother gave him (Source: FACEBOOK / DONALD TRUMP)


To fathom the support from Christian Americans (Evangelical and Roman Catholic) for Donald Trump, perhaps a comparison to Turkey will help.  The republic of Turkey has a long history of religious and secular rivalry.  To make Turkey a modern and western nation and to distinguish it from the Ottomans, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk embraced a French-styled secularism (laicity) that excluded Islam from politics entirely.  Only with the 2003 election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as prime minister as leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) did Islam make its way back into the Turkish government, thanks to AKP’s roots among the Turkish Muslim electorate.  Erdogan has hardly ended hostility between secularists and Muslims as the 2013 protests in Istanbul indicated – disputes that escalated from objections to police brutality to protests over Erdogan’s efforts to reappropriate Turkey’s Ottoman past.  Still, his party remains the political voice for many devout Muslims.

Imagine, then, what might happen if the Turkish equivalent of Donald Trump, a phony believer at best, a secularist at worst, sought to become the leader of the AKP. To ask the question is to concede how implausible that would be. But that is essentially what is happening in the Republican presidential primaries.  A party that for the last thirty-five years has achieved electoral success by courting Christian values voters, a party that identified itself on the divine side of the secularist-religious divide in American society, now has a candidate whose professions of faith cannot hide a life far removed from the religious circles and causes that animated the Religious Right.  Even more astounding, Trump’s appeal is not the result of the candidate’s conversion, say like George W. Bush’s later-in-life commitment to Christianity.  Instead, the conversion is on the other side of the podium.  The values voters, who used to select candidates on the basis of opposition to abortion, homosexuality, and sexual wantonness, now support a candidate who has, in the words of George Weigel and Robert P. George in their recent letter to Roman Catholics in National Review, “driven our politics down to new levels of vulgarity.”  Ironic does not capture the spectacle of pious Christians voting for an indecent Trump.  This is a mystery, but hardly a holy one on the order of the virgin birth of Christ.

Religious support for Trump is all the more dumbfounding since Christian leaders such as Weigel and George and the signers of their open letter, have overwhelmingly repudiated Trump.  From Al Mohler and Russell Moore, the two most prominent figures within the Southern Baptist Convention (which has roughly 15 million members), to Max Lucado, a best-selling Texas pastor, evangelical authorities have overwhelmingly repudiated Trump.  Trump’s only prominent religious endorsement came from Jerry Falwell, Jr. of Liberty University.  What the Trump phenomenon may be revealing is that religious leaders may no longer speak for people in the pews, or at least that the latter do not seem to be paying attention to their pastors. Perhaps this proves that religious leaders have for too long spoken more for themselves and have undermined their own leadership status. 

The most common explanation for religious support for Trump is that the Donald is giving voice to discontent, or even venting political incorrectness for people who now know in a post-Obergefell that they have no hope of making their views acceptable to the political and media elite.  On specific policy matters, immigration, nationalism, and the economy come all wrapped up in one.  According to Scott McConnell, writing at The American Conservative, Trump’s appeal is this: “much of the bipartisan establishment believes that borders are an outdated concept . . . and that human progress requires higher levels of
immigration and no real barriers to international trade. If Americans are hurt by these policies, so what? Their residual nationalism is outdated, if not actually bigoted.” Support for Trump thus is a gesture of defiance from a segment of the population that feels resentful and ignored, economically and politically as well as culturally

This makes sense of Trump’s appeal in some ways, but I can’t help but wonder where this discontent was in 2012, when the scars of the 2008 financial meltdown were far fresher and when immigration as an issue was even more pressing.  Mitt Romney was hardly the person to tap such dissatisfaction. Ron Paul or Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich could have raised these issues, however, yet they did not.  Furthermore, the primary motivation of evangelicals as a voting bloc in national politics over the past thirty years has not been economic (aside from broad endorsements of free markets and American greatness as the most affluent nation in the world.) Now we are to believe that religious voters, who once were devoted to pro-life positions and an ethic of sexual restraint in selecting a candidate have given up on all that and are turning to Trump?  What could have brought about this conversion? Is it his ability to say whatever is on his mind and not worry about offending American sensitivities?  If so, evangelicals have not identified a man who is going to voice their objections to abortion or homosexuality. He is as PC on these matters as the mainstream media and the Democrats.

Another way to try to explain affinities between Trump and evangelicals is to notice the resonance of evangelical religiosity with conservative talk radio and Trump’s status as a television celebrity (which one pundit likened more to a game-show host than a movie star). Rod Dreher at The American Conservative has emphasized the connection between Trump and talk radio by invoking a piece from 2009 by John Derbyshire about the dangers of drive-by chatter driving political debate.  Derbyshire wrote: “right-wing talk radio captures a big and useful market segment. However, if there is no thoughtful, rigorous presentation of conservative ideas, then conservatism by default becomes the raucous parochialism of Limbaugh, Savage, Hannity, and company.” Nor does connecting the dots between Trump’s performances on The Apprentice and the verdicts rendered on talk radio tax the imagination.  If Trump carved out an audience simply by saying what comes easy for most people only in their imaginations – “you’re fired” – people who follow American politics through the lens of such talk-show host denunciations of Jimmy Carter as a “war criminal” or the nation’s leading dailies as the New York Slimes and Washington Compost may well think Trump is their candidate.  Whether these same people want Tourette-Syndrome like outbursts when a president is conducting the affairs of state is another matter.  Imagine the strain in EU/US relations if Trump were to say about Angela Merkel what he did about Carly Fiorina’s face.

The aspect of evangelical faith that connects with celebrity (evangelicals do have more celebrity pastors than Major League Baseball has teams) and outrageous radio commentary is a distrust of institutions and authority.  For born-again Protestants, a personal encounter with God is essential to faith.  Having “Jesus in my heart” is one way to put this.  And such an emphasis on experience has meant that for evangelicals the structures or hierarchies that have typically defined and regulated Christianity – clergy, creeds, liturgy – are impositions that come between a believer and God.  Taken to extremes, of course, this impulse leaves evangelicals without any institutions or organizations (or even a Bible). So it has rarely been taken to its logical conclusion, which is an average evangelical at home, alone which Jesus in her heart.  But such an understanding of authentic faith has left evangelicals with a deep distrust of authorities who come between them and what they believe is genuine. 

George Whitefield, the evangelist who put “great” in the First Great Awakening (circa 1740), was one of the first to tap the significance of personal experience.  In his 1740 sermon, “The Kingdom of God,” he warned against identifying Christianity with the institutional church.  “True and undefiled religion, doth not consist in being of this or that particular sect or communion.”  If someone said to Whitefield he belonged to a church where they worshiped “in the same way” his parents did, the evangelist concluded that such a nominal Christian had placed the kingdom of God in “that in which does not consist.”  Charles Finney, the celebrity evangelist of the Second Great Awakening (1820s) took the personal nature of Christianity and applied it in a way that undercut the authority of denominational structures.  Of the highest body among American Presbyterians, Finney wrote, “No doubt there is a jubilee in hell every year about the time of meeting of the General Assembly.”  Billy Sunday, another celebrity evangelist in the early twentieth century showed what evangelical attitudes to religious experience could mean for theology or formal study of religious truth.  He boasted that he did “not know any more about theology than a jack rabbit does about ping pong.”  But as long as he had a conversion experience he was qualified to preach.

H. L. Mencken, who covered some of Sunday’s exploits, put his finger on the appeal of evangelicalism and traced it directly to the anti-institutional, informal character of its devotion:

Even setting aside his painstaking avoidance of anything suggesting clerical garb and his indulgence in obviously unclerical gyration on his sacred stump, he comes down so palpably to the level of his audience, both in the matter and the manner of his discourse, that he quickly disarms the old suspicion of the holy clerk and gets the discussion going on the familiar and easy terms of a debate in a barroom.  The raciness of his slang is not the whole story by any means; his attitude of mind lies behind it, and is more important. . . . It is marked, above all, by a contemptuous disregard of the theoretical and mystifying; an angry casting aside of what may be called the ecclesiastical mask, an eagerness to reduce all the abstrusities of Christian theology to a few and simple and (to the ingenuous) self-evident propositions, a violent determination to make of religion a practical, an imminent, an everyday concern.

Donald Trump is the Billy Sunday of Republican politics.  For fifty years the conservative movement – from Barry Goldwater to Rick Santorum – has pushed for ideological consistency and encouraged its candidates to rattle the establishment’s cage.  But Trump is the first to jettison the decorum and relative dignity that still govern candidates in their dress, use of titles, and policy proposals.  None of these conventions hamper Trump.  As Mencken said of Sunday, Trump “comes down palpably to the level of his audience.”  And for the evangelical part of that audience, Trump finally represents a politician willing to get the discussion of national security and the economy “going on the familiar and easy terms of debate in a barroom.”