Tomorrow, Hillary Clinton is likely to clinch the U.S. Presidency. Before we progressives return to our pre-election routines, we might take a few moments to pause and reflect on the mysterious cadre of white evangelicals who nearly changed the course of the vote. To confirm that Donald Trump’s biggest pool of supporters are white and evangelical Protestants, check out this recent Public Religion Research Institute poll: http://www.prri.org/spotlight/religion-vote-2016/.
Forgetting about these evangelicals for the next few years is an option. To pretend they don’t exist is all too easy—otherwise, we wouldn’t be feeling as if we’ve been yanked out of our can’t-we-all-get-along, rational bubble. We’ve been forced, by some of them, to confront what seems like a new reality of racism, sexism, and more. Many of us are shaking our heads, muttering “I don’t understand my fellow Americans any more.”
Were we aware of such white evangelicals but didn’t realize there were so many? True, most evangelical Protestants don’t live where we live—on the internet or out in the actual world. We tend to maintain a strict wall of separation between “us” and “them,” defriending or refusing Facebook friend requests from those with unacceptable religious or political views. We also tend to live in cities while, since the Civil War (see Casanova in the Reference section), evangelical Protestants, finding the city a “largely foreign, unregenerate, and dangerous environment,” prefer to live in rural areas, hence giving rise to the whole blue state, red state business. Evangelical Protestants, often by choice, remain or settle in the fringes of cities or in the hinterlands, out of the sight and mind of progressive urban folk.
Or, did we pretend they don’t exist because some of their views are alien or so horrid that we, progressive urbanites, can’t fathom that they really really mean what they say when they say it? Were we in denial?
In denial or not, ‘those’ people will return to the public square in a mere two years for the 2018 mid-term elections. As Peter Wehner (a Republican!) pointed out in a NYT op-ed today, “tens of millions of Americans will vote for [Trump] and believe deeply in him. But if these forces are not defeated, what happened this year will be replicated in one form or another…” Clearly, progressives are not the only ones who are worried.
At least two questions should continue to demand our attention and that of moderate Republicans long after we’ve caught our breath, recovered from watching the polls, and are finally able to get a decent night’s sleep.
First question: why did white evangelical Protestants vote for Trump, a candidate who is casual about his religious faith?
The answer: such accommodations are nothing new. Almost 250 years ago, dissenting Baptists allied themselves with America’s deist “fathers” to put an end to the vestiges of established churches in the newly minted United States. The Baptists wanted to practice their own religion and were anxious to cast off any demands that the established church might make of them. In addition, they balked at the idea that their tax dollars should be used by the state to support congregations other than their own. No surprise there. Like most people, they were driven by self-interest.
Today, the problem to be resisted at all cost by some white evangelical Protestants is the perceived destruction of their way of life by liberal intellectuals with their “secular prejudice” (see Casanova). The object of their ire—which causes these evangelicals to lose sleep at night—is the “deestablishment” of their brand of Protestant public morality and the establishment of choice-of-conduct along with pluralistic sets of norms and ways of life.
If asked to explain what the proper brand of Protestant public morality in the United States should look like, they would describe something akin to the traditional gender roles and family structures of the 1950s. This kind of “right living,” in the words of Jerry Falwell, “must be re-established as an American way of life… The authority of Bible morality must once again be recognized as the legitimate guiding principle of our nation.”
Protestant public morality, for some evangelicals (not all!) is under siege; it is under attack; everywhere forces are at work undermining Biblically-grounded right living. Falwell writes: “[We advocate the passage of family protection legislation which would] counteract disruptive federal intervention into family life and encourage the restoration of the family unit, parental authority, and a climate of traditional authority…and reinforce traditional husband-and-wife relationships.”
State and secular civil society, some evangelicals believe, penetrates into their homes, schools, neighborhoods and impose norms and ways of life to which they are categorically opposed. No wonder they have mobilized against these attempts to colonize their communities.
The bottom line: For some white evangelicals, especially fundamentalists, this a time of dire emergency! And desperate times call for desperate measures. Trump may not have roots in their community but he talks their language, understands their values, and promises, with the authority of a messiah (“I am your voice” he says), to mobilize against the forces and communities that threaten right living and the “authority of Bible morality” (Falwell again).
Second, why did white evangelicals buy into Trump’s message to “Make America Great Again” when, by plenty of objective measures, America is already great?
Given the analysis above, the answer to this question may now seem obvious. The United States, for white evangelicals, is certainly not doing better. They tend to be blind, Casanova explains, to the threats of the market. But they are, and they likely will continue to be drawn to candidates who promise to re-establish their brand of Protestant ethics and end, in Casanova’s words, “the legally protected pluralistic system of norms in the public sphere of American civil society.”
By the end of Tuesday, there will likely be cause for progressives to celebrate. White evangelical supporters of Trump, in contrast, will see his defeat as yet another indication of just how pervasive and how intractable are the forces that they believe are arrayed against them.
Peter Wehner. “Is There Life After Trump?” New York Times, November 5, 2016, The Opinion Pages.
Jerry Falwell, Listen America!, The Conservative Blueprint for America’s Moral Rebirth. New York: Bantam Books, 1980.
José Casanova. Public Religions in the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.