The Tragedy of Evangelical Politics

How Christian ethics devolved into right-wing populism
Supporters pray as they attend a rally held by former President Donald Trump in Nevada (CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters).

Donald Trump can seemingly do no wrong in the eyes of many Evangelical voters. His support among white Evangelicals rose from 81 percent in 2016 to 84 percent in 2020 and remains strong. But, as many commentators have pointed out, both Trump’s personality and policies violate the Christian ethics of hospitality and aiding “the least of these.”

How did white Evangelicals arrive at their views? The question is important because, though declining as a percentage of the overall population, Evangelicals still make up 25 percent of the voting public and can sway domestic and foreign policy. The answer involves not just religious but also political and socio-economic concerns. In fact, Evangelicals reported the economy (62 percent) and national security (58 percent) as among the most influential factors in determining their votes in the 2016 election. Abortion ranked well behind, at 31 percent, and LGBTQ issues were a top priority for just 16 percent. In 2020, the economy was again the highest priority, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Evangelical support for right-wing populism cannot, therefore, be understood as a simple transactional gambit where Republicans pass bans on abortion in return for Evangelical support on economic policy. Rather, it must be understood in terms of both the broader right-wing populist movement—which emerges from the experience of duress over economics and rapid way-of-life changes—and in terms of specific concerns within Evangelical communities, especially since the 1960s. We must ask what in Evangelical history, theology, and present circumstances makes Trumpian right-wing populism seem like the ethical stance.

Central to the appeal of right-wing populism overall is a concern that opportunities are disappearing in a rapidly changing economy. Coupled with this economic anxiety is a broader fear of losing one’s place in society, especially for those accustomed to relatively higher social status. Psychologists Stephen Reicher and Yasemin Ulusahin call it “dominant group victimhood.” Those most attracted to the Republican party between 2010 and 2018 were white, high-school-educated, middle-income earners concerned that a new “knowledge-based” economy threatened their place in the middle class. Other way-of-life anxieties—about changing gender roles, technology, and demographics—also play into a fear of being left behind.

Populism proposes to address these concerns through us-versus-them narratives. Under duress, groups can undergo what might be called an “us-them shift”: the usual focus on one’s own group gives way to a focus on an “other” thought to be the source of the problem. “The more stressful the situation,” psychiatrist Vamik Volkan writes, “the more neighbor groups become preoccupied with each other.”

Evangelical support for right-wing populism cannot be understood as a simple transactional gambit where Republicans pass bans on abortion in return for Evangelical support on economic policy.

White Evangelical politics is a specific case of this trajectory from duress and loss to animosity toward those perceived as “others.” In addition to the broad stressors outlined above are concerns about declining church membership and cultural marginalization. White Evangelicals are America’s most aged religious group, with a median age of 56. More than two million have left the Southern Baptist Convention since 2006. In addition, there’s a pervasive sense that religious life is being demeaned and restricted by secular government in an increasingly secular, multicultural society. In 2018, an Evangelical baker argued before the Supreme Court that he could not be compelled to bake cakes for gay weddings. In the present Supreme Court term, a graphic designer is arguing much the same about websites for gay weddings.

Who do Evangelicals see as the source of these way-of-life and economic difficulties? The targets, as is always the case with populism, are drawn from historical and cultural notions of who belongs in society and what the role of government should be. Local and national traditions are key in determining “us” and “them.” You hear, for instance, a good deal about Mexican migrants in the United States and hardly a peep about the Roma. Notions of “us” and “them” feel natural and right precisely because they are embedded in a respected past.

America’s earliest ideas about government emerge from covenantal political theory, brought over by the Puritans and other “free thinkers” who didn’t conform to Europe’s state churches. Covenantalists saw society as a covenant among persons and with God for the sake of the common good. If a ruler violated a covenant with the people, he could be removed from office. Covenantalists were wary of princes, church authorities, and outsiders who might violate their covenantal way of life.

A second source was Aristotelian republicanism, which also emphasized the common good, citizen participation in running the polis, and wariness of authorities. A third source was British liberalism. Although it put greater stress on individual freedom to leave the community and pursue opportunity, liberals too were wary of authorities. Alexander Hamilton, for example, understood freedom as a means to personal advancement and protection from government overreach. This wariness of government made good sense to many American immigrants who had fled oppressive regimes. The rough frontier too advised self-reliance, trust in one's local community, and caution about authorities and outsiders.

Evangelicals are heirs of this history and have contributed substantially to it. Their covenantalist ancestors left Europe with a sense of community responsibility. As Europe’s persecuted minorities, they arrived with the dissenter’s wariness of government and outsiders. They also held to two key doctrines: the fallenness of human government and the personal responsibility to come to truth about God and world rather than follow priestly authority. Since all human hierarchies are imperfect and may not be taken for the Kingdom of God, each individual must go through her own moral reckoning.

Evangelicals became prime builders of America’s ethos of self-reliance.

Evangelicals, then, had not only a political grounding in wariness of government and outsiders, as many Americans had, but also a doctrinal one. With this double heritage, they became prime builders of America’s ethos of self-reliance. The largest government office in the antebellum United States was the postal service. By 1850, Evangelical churches had twice as many employees as the USPS, twice as many facilities, and were raising three times as much money for their projects.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, saw challenges to the status of white Evangelicalism as America’s default religion and norm-setter. The defeat of the Confederacy, Darwinism, industrialization, urbanization, changing social norms, and new immigrants of non-Protestant faiths all played a role—along with the new, scholarly historical-critical school of biblical exegesis imported from Germany. With its emphasis on ancient languages and literary theory, it threatened to unseat America’s grassroots, democratic, but untutored understanding of the Bible.

In both religious and secular arenas, white Evangelicals, who had been at the forefront of much American development, found themselves in a rearguard position. Part of the Evangelical response was to embrace apocalyptic forms of the faith, including the Keswick and Pentecostal movements, pre-millenarianism, and Dispensationalism. These movements shared a focus on end-times destruction and chaos, which reflected Evangelical anxieties about the future in a rapidly changing America. They also reinforced a sense of marginalization from the mainstream.

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In the South, an additional response was the reimagining of the Confederacy into a “lost cause” of noble resistance to interloper “Yankee vandals.” Suspicion of Washington and a Christianized white supremacy were taught in children’s catechisms and valorized in churches’ stained-glass windows, animating wariness of America’s foundational “thems”: government and perceived “outsiders.”

As the South was reintegrated into the Union, the nation assimilated something of this wariness validated by a Christianized white supremacy. It evolved into a widespread system of racial discrimination and control through Jim Crow and “color bar” law and practice. Discrimination and voting restrictions targeted Americans of African, Asian, Mexican, Catholic, and Jewish descent. The historian Francis Parkman held in 1878 that universal suffrage had become “a questionable blessing.” Voters as a percentage of the voting-age population declined from 81.8 percent in 1875 at the end of Reconstruction to 48.9 in 1924 owing to this array of racist, religious, and xenophobic restrictions.

Suspicion of Washington along with a Christianized white supremacy were taught in children’s catechisms and valorized in churches’ stained-glass windows.

In the twentieth century, Evangelical dethronement continued with the 1925 Scopes trial, which pitted the teaching of evolution in public schools against Evangelicals, who were nationally lampooned as ignorant primitives. In 1962, the Supreme Court ruled that school-led prayer was unconstitutional. Then came Lyndon Johnson’s “big-government” Civil Rights and Great Society programs, followed by the sexual revolution and the feminist and gay-rights movements. In 1973, abortion was legalized, and in 2015, the Court ruled that gay marriage is a constitutional right. Today, 79 percent of Americans and 65 percent of Republicans support anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people, furthering Evangelical fears of a pummeling by a secular state and society.

The response to these accumulating stresses, arising in both religious and secular arenas, has been self-protective us-them shift. The heritage of community commitment may become my-community-in-struggle-against-“outsiders.” Justifiable wariness of oppressive authorities may become suspicion of government and elites per se, whose activities must be limited—except when needed to constrain “outsiders.”

The irony of populism is that the very anti-authoritarianism and community-building that contributed much to American vibrancy and to Evangelical ethics have, under duress, turned into an exclusionary defense.

With Nixon’s 1968 Southern strategy to bring southerners and white Evangelicals into the Republican tent, wariness of government and “outsiders” was channeled into the “New Right.” It promoted small-government business policy, moral and religious conservativism, resistance to “outsider” disruptions of local ways (including racial integration), and an anti-communist foreign policy to defeat the biggest—and most godless—of big governments.

Understanding this as the ethical path, white Evangelicals have since 1980 given majorities to Republican candidates: 62 percent in the 1996 presidential election and 84 percent in 2020. In 1980, two-thirds of evangelicals voted for Ronald Reagan, who prioritized smaller government through tax cuts and business deregulation while exhausting the Soviet Union by outspending it on arms. White Evangelicals have supported Grover Norquist’s anti-tax oganization, Americans for Tax Reform, since its founding in 1985. In 2004, 78 percent voted for George W. Bush, whose major domestic achievements were again tax cuts and business deregulation.

 

The irony of populism is that the very anti-authoritarianism and community-building that contributed much to American vibrancy and to Evangelical ethics have, under duress, turned into an exclusionary defense.

It’s often thought that white Evangelical politics is motivated primarily by issues like abortion, while traditional Republican economic priorities remain secondary. Yet issues like small government are of central importance to many Evangelical voters. Making George W. Bush’s tax cuts permanent was a legislative priority for the Christian Coalition. Evangelical support for Bush rose 10 points between 2000 and 2004, from 68 percent in 2000 to 78 percent in 2004, without any national legislation limiting abortion, even when the Republicans controlled both the presidency and Congress. Evangelicals may not have been pleased with inaction on abortion, but they were sufficiently pleased with Bush’s economic and political policies to increase support.

Concerns following the 2008 financial crisis and the election of the country’s first African-American president further sharpened Evangelicals’ wariness of “outsiders” and government. President Obama increased the presence of people of color in positions of authority. He also expanded government’s role in social services, health care, and in promoting environmental protection and consumer and labor safety, aggravating white Evangelical resistance to “big” government. White Evangelical radio host Eric Metaxas encapsulated the increasing sense of white victimhood and animus toward the establishment laced with an emboldened white supremacy: “Beltway and Manhattan elites,” he said, perpetrate a “new and accepted tribalism and xenophobia” upon “white European ‘Christian’ varieties” of people.

This is not the voice of all white Evangelicals. Internal criticism of racism and animus against “outsiders” has become robust since the 1995 apology by the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) “to all African-Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism.” In 2010, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and the SBC, among other evangelical organizations, called for comprehensive immigration reform including a path to citizenship for undocumented residents. And in 2022, the NAE hired Mekdes Haddis, an Ethiopian immigrant, to head its new Racial Justice & Reconciliation Collaborative, providing resources and training for churches. A significant minority of white Evangelicals, like those supporting Christians Against Christian Nationalism, opposes the political Right altogether.

But it has been an uneven reckoning. The link between racist views and white Christian self-identification is strongest among faith groups that have historically been dominant: Evangelicals in the South, Catholics in the Northeast. Findings from the Public Religion Research Institute, consistent with Reicher and Ulusahin’s research, suggest that formerly dominant groups, those suffering the greatest losses, are most vulnerable to us-them shift and racist attitudes. In 2021, 75 percent of white Evangelicals held that Islam is at odds with American values, roughly 20 points higher than any other religious group. Sixty-six percent thought of newcomers as “invaders.” Fifty-seven percent preferred living in a country where most people are Christian. No other religious group comes within 20 points of this majority.

In 2016, Trump stoked this well-established, white Evangelical wariness of government and “outsiders.” Researchers John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck call Trump’s strategy of amplifying people’s anxieties to build personal power “hunting where the ducks are.” He reinforced Evangelicals’ traditional fears of the “deep state,” the D.C. “swamp” and its “fake news” elite media along with “Mexican rapists,” “Muslim terrorists,” and foreign countries who “cheat” the United States in trade. Like Bush and Reagan before him, Trump cut taxes and reduced social services, business regulation, and environmental protection on grounds of government overreach.

In their political activism and voting, white Evangelicals weigh concerns about government and “outsiders” together with religious issues, which Trump appealed to symbolically with, for instance, the photo of him holding a Bible in front of a church. When he moved the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Trump said, “That's for the Evangelicals.”

The link between racist views and white Christian self-identification is strongest among faith groups that have historically been dominant: Evangelicals in the South, Catholics in the Northeast.

It is unlikely, however, that the protection from “big government” and “outsiders” promised by Trump and others will relieve the way-of-life and economic duress confronting white Evangelicals. While the shift to us-them thinking is common and easily animated, the solutions emerging from it are tragic. They are based on the distortions that duress itself provokes—distortions that move from community-building to exclusion and from an admirable wariness of oppression to wariness of government itself. Based on distortions, such solutions cannot address and may occlude undergirding sources of distress.

For instance, many economic stressors today result not from immigration but from factors such as education gaps and automation. Immigrants and their children are disproportionately entrepreneurial job creators. As The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has concluded, “Immigrants’ children—the second generation—are among the strongest economic and fiscal contributors in the population.” Immigrants also commit fewer crimes than the native-born population. Thus, populist calls to reduce immigration or deport the undocumented address neither security concerns nor economic problems.

Where proposals born of us-them thinking are embraced, the original duress festers, to the harm of the distressed communities, provoking further rounds of anger. Yet Evangelical faith and history—the community-building in a multi-faithed, multi-racial America—point to other possibilities, which we can hear in the voices of these evangelicals:

This is but a small smattering of the many others too numerous to name here. 

Marcia Pally teaches at New York University, is an annual guest professor at the Theology Faculty of Humboldt University (Berlin), and was a 2019–2020 Fellow at the Center for Theological Inquiry (Princeton). Her books include Commonwealth and Covenant (2016) and The New Evangelicals (2011). Most recently, she edited the collection Mimesis and Sacrifice (2019).

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