Everyone has a theory about why overwhelming numbers of evangelicals and other long-time right-wing Christians supported, and continue to support, the presidency of Donald J. Trump. Trump received 80% of their vote in November, a higher share than George W. Bush – who is, unlike Trump, an avowed evangelical. And they have stuck with him in similar numbers for the first 200 days of his presidency. Everyone has an explanation that accounts for this — but no one has my explanation.
Before we go there, here’s what they’re saying. The Atlantic and The Economist both claim that Trump is chiefly a successful “prosperity preacher,” a type of gilded-estate sermonizer that evangelicals have had 40 years to get used to. The Hill credits an emergent “civil religion.” The Daily Beast says “the most important factor at all” is “the recent marriage between extreme laissez-faire capitalism and extreme social conservatism.” The Guardian, and others, explore the idea that Christians see Trump as a modern Cyrus or David. New York Magazine credits his “apparent immunity from Bush-style “compassionate conservatism.”” and his rhetoric about being “under siege.” ThinkProgress, like many, emphasize the Supreme Court, support for Israel, and Trump’s choice of social conservative Mike Pence as Vice President.
A USA Today article written right after the election interviewed Trump voters who emphasized their hatred of Hillary Clinton. Clinton, according to one Trump voter, supported “abortion on demand and the gay agenda.” Another Trump voter worried about “government subsidized college loans” and “tax exempt status for churches,” probably issues that would have factored into voting for any old Republican, be he McCain, Romney, Cruz, Rubio, or even Kasich. (This doesn’t speak well for an election that supposedly upended the two-party system.) Such defensive posturing may be why Newsweek believes that evangelicals are “elevating pragmatism over strict principle.”
(As a side note, my issue with the endless encomiums for the elevation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court – on Bill Maher’s show the other day, Ralph Reed defended Trump’s Christian bona fides by bringing up Gorsuch – is that the situation was gift-wrapped with crinoline and tied up with a three-tone Tiffany ribbon by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Praising Trump for Gorsuch is like praising your kid for ten layups in a row…after you’ve lowered the hoop to the height of his head. It’s like praising your dog for pooping on the sidewalk…when you and the dog spent the whole day on the sidewalk. It’s like praising the Golden State Warriors for winning the conference after spotting them Kevin Durant. Of course Trump nominated Gorsuch to McConnell’s stolen seat. What was he gonna do, nominate Merrick Garland? Nobody extolling Gorsuch’s nomination talks about the future long-term consequences of the politicization of Supreme Court seats – no more nominations until the executive and legislative branch are of the same party, severely diminished public trust of the partisan-ized Court – but hey, whatever.)
Back to the main point: one shouldn’t see all evangelicals, much less all Christians, as monolithic. Some have sounded alarms. Rod Dreher, whose book “The Benedict Option” is pretty much the must-read Christian advice of the decade, warns his fellow Christians about extreme blowback if they continue to be associated with Trump. Andy Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today, warns his pew-mates not to compare Trump to the relatively pious King David or to hesitate to condemn Trump. Michael Gerson at the Washington Post believes Trump has “presented a secular version of evangelical eschatology…And they have gotten a leader who shows contempt for those who hold them in contempt — which is emotionally satisfying…And a movement that should be known for grace is now known for its seething resentments.”
I don’t disagree with any of the linked articles. But I think something glaring is missing. Unlike all those linked authors, I’m not paid for my sterling opinions. But let me throw out a word that you won’t find if you “F5” (or search) any of those linked pieces: “forgiveness.” (Or “forgive.”)
Aren’t hardcore Christians known for their capacity to forgive? Maybe the thrice-married serial liar who once supported Hillary Clinton and exemplifies each of the seven sins, Donald Trump, is simply a target-rich environment.
If you’re like me, and you get most of your news from The New York Times and the kind of sites that the Times recommends, in 2017 you’ve been reading about the few members of the Trump team who have demonstrated some kind of limited independence from Trump (like Jeff Sessions). But when Vice President Mike Pence’s name has come up, it’s been as a loyal contrast: your media has described him as the ultimate loyal soldier (including the other day when he publicly shot down a front-page Times piece that declared Pence interested in running for President in 2020). Thus, you’ve probably forgotten that Mike Pence ever stood on a podium at Liberty University and asked Christians to forgive Donald Trump. Yes, this was right after the “Access Hollywood” tape came out, but hey, you ever notice how nobody in the media or politics ever seems to get over Fall 2016?
I strongly suspect that the punditocracy has under-discussed forgiveness as a theme of the Trump presidency. And one reason evangelicals and right-wingers want to forgive Trump is that they want forgiveness for themselves. Their list of sins appeared to increase exponentially during the last decade, with the emergence of political correctness as America’s dominant ideology (something I have written about at length). There’s now so, so, much to forgive. Every time they complimented a little boy on his toughness but a little girl on her looks. Every time their upbringing kicked in and they felt a flicker of mistrust when a person of color walked near them in a 7-11. Every time they reverted to, you know, the mindset of the Obamas and Clintons of six years ago, and found themselves opposing same-sex marriage. Every time they had a thought like: “When I see Mexican flags waved at pro-immigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment. When I’m forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my car, I feel a certain frustration.” (That’s a 2006 quote from Barack Obama.) LOT to forgive, particularly in a world where the “PC” often act as though they don’t forgive.
Clearly, I’m suggesting that forgiveness is influenced by, and influences, culture. The cultural changes of the last ten years are real. As a tiny example, no mainstream site is going to write today, as Entertainment Weekly did eight years ago, speculating about a possible all-female Ghostbusters:
“Megan Fox (The Sexpot)
Let’s be honest — pretty much any movie in town would kill to get the foxy Transformers star (pictured). But wouldn’t we all love to see how she’d look in that brown jumpsuit?”
The paid media writers aren’t really allowed to say this, but I truly believe that Obama’s support of same-sex marriage, which began in 2012, was a tipping point. The 2012 election itself was weird (Romney came from a polygamist sect, and avoided discussing PC or the LGBT), but beginning in 2013, when the Supreme Court overturned most of the Defense of Marriage Act, evangelicals felt, well, “under siege” as never before. My friends will hate me writing this, but prior to 2012, religious conservatives could count on African-American allies against LGBT rights (as in the case of California’s Proposition 8). I believe that only a black President could have convinced most African-Americans to fully support LGBT rights.
Perhaps evangelicals and the religious right, in reaction to PC dominance, would have allied themselves to any of the 17 people who were once running for the GOP nomination. But there’s something both deeper and more inexplicable about their connection to Trump. Some of my liberal friends will claim that they just want a strong (if hypocritical) daddy figure; I don’t agree. Part of it is that he was direct (if actually elliptical) about confronting political correctness; unlike the other GOP nominees, “political correctness” was a category on his site. (The link featured a video of Trump saying “We don’t have time for it!”)
Another part of it is Trump’s victim complex, a bug that Trump has made into a feature. From a white evangelical perspective, women and POC have been “playing the victim” for the last ten years – very effectively, as the culture has clearly moved their way. When leftists turn their labeling around and call right-wing snowflakes “bro-flakes” who need “safe spaces,” evangelicals may well be thinking, hey, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. President Cruz or President Rubio (or even President Romney, in a sense) would have simply confirmed liberal platitudes about strength in diversity; Trump, an unapologetically privileged white man who incessantly whines about how badly he’s treated, personifies a certain “revenge,” or “reverse victimhood.”
Now, THAT suggests consonance with evangelicals and the religious right.
Look, I’m not claiming to paint the entire picture here. Hillary Clinton, who goes to church, was unfairly demonized by right-wingers for decades before Trump, who doesn’t attend church, came along. Fox News and its ecosystem is all the news a lot of evangelicals ever get, which nurtures a “grievance industry” that affects everything. So no, this is not a complete explanation of the evangelical/religious-right love for the 45th President.
This is me saying: hey pundits, next time you get paid to write about this, consider exploring themes of forgiveness, culture, and victimhood. Just saying.