Donald Trump speaks at CPAC in February 2018. Photo by Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0
Philip Gorski

Christianity and Democracy after Trump

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Many white evangelicals seem not to realize that American democracy has also been good for American Christianity and that too close an association between worldly and spiritual power will ultimately diminish both.

A little over a year ago, I wrote an essay asking: “Why did evangelicals vote for Donald Trump?” The answer, I argued, was that Trump’s rhetoric resonated deeply with the evangelical worldview, albeit in non-obvious ways. Today, the question is: “Why do evangelicals (still) support Donald Trump?” The answer, I worry, is that Trumpism has transformed evangelicalism in a worryingly anti-democratic direction. For much of American history, Christianity and democracy have mostly reinforced one another. Today, they seem mostly at odds – and not only in the United States. One of the most important tasks for contemporary political theology is to harmonize them once again.

So, why did evangelicals vote for Trump? It is important to remember that most non-white evangelicals did not vote for Trump. The real question is why so many white evangelicals did so – four out of five, according to the exit polls. In answering that question, it is also important to remember that: (1) Trump was not the first choice of most evangelicals during the Republican primaries; (2) Trump embraced the evangelical position on key issues (e.g., abortion and gay marriage).

The real puzzle is this: why was Trump the first choice for a plurality of white evangelicals in the Spring of 2016? One possible answer is that race trumped religion – that white evangelical voters voted as whites rather than as evangelicals. That is in fact the preferred answer on the left today: the election of Donald Trump was a reassertion of “white supremacy.” My own answer is more intersectional: the white evangelicals who voted for Trump in the primaries did not vote as whites or as evangelicals but rather as white evangelicals. More specifically, they voted as white Christian nationalists who believe the United States was founded by (white) Christians, and that (white) Christians are in danger of becoming a persecuted (national) minority. For them, “making America great again” means making White Christianity culturally dominant again.

Trump himself is not really a white Christian nationalist. However, Trumpism can be understood as a secularized version of white Christian nationalism. In American Covenant, I argued that the American version of religious nationalism draws on Biblical discourses of apocalypse and blood conquest. Specifically, it draws on “premillennial dispensationalism,” a reading of the books of Daniel and Revelation to which most contemporary evangelicals now subscribe. In addition, it draws on a Protestant reading of the Jewish scriptures governed by the metaphor of blood: blood conquest, blood sacrifice, blood atonement and blood purity.

Trump’s rhetoric is devoid of the Biblical allusions that peppered George W. Bush’s and even Ronald Reagan’s. But it is rife with blood and apocalypse. Consider two examples. Who can forget his dismissive remarks about anchorwoman Megyn Kelly – “blood coming out of her whatever”? Or his incessant descriptions of “disaster” including Obamacare, immigration, the Iran deal? In both these ways, Trump’s worldview resonated powerfully with the evangelical narrative.

One of the most interesting findings to come out of the endless opinion polling in 2016 was this: amongst white evangelicals, there was an inverse correlation between churchgoing and Trump-supporting. In other words, the more often an evangelical attended, the less likely they were to prefer Trump. For #alwaysTrumpers, one suspects, “evangelical” was more of an identity marker than a faith commitment. They were not Christians so much as Christianists.

One of the more worrisome findings to come out of recent opinion polling is this: amongst white evangelicals, approval of Trump’s performance is now approaching 80%. In some ways, this is perfectly understandable. Trump has gone out of his way to shore up his (white) evangelical base. Amongst other things, he has assiduously courted (white) evangelical leaders and nominated many pro-life judges to the federal bench.

But in other ways, this continued support is completely incomprehensible. For Trump has also gone out of his way to attack the norms and institutions of American democracy. He has repeatedly lied to the American public and incessantly attacked the press and the judiciary. To say nothing of his personal and business conduct. Evidently, many American evangelicals have decided that achieving their policy goals is more important than protecting our democratic institutions.

Perhaps we should not be so surprised by this. After all, there is no necessary relationship between Christianity and democracy, either theologically or historically. The Christian scriptures are filled with talk of kingship and lordship, and Christian institutions were long conjoined with monarchical ones.

If we are surprised, then it is only because there has been a positive relationship between Christianity and democracy throughout so much of American history. In thinking about how political theology might renew that relationship, and not only in America, we might start by looking at how it was sustained here.

Let us begin where American political theology begins, namely, with the New England Puritans. They were a covenanting people. That is, they believed that a people is constituted through a shared law rather than through shared blood. At least they believed that in their better moments, when they were not at war with the native peoples.

Now consider the American Founders. Many of them believed, and almost all of them argued, that a republic was the form of government that God preferred for his peoples. Invoking I Samuel 8, they warned that monarchy was a form of idolatry in which a worldly ruler usurped the place of the divine ruler.

Or consider Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. In their civil theology, the Preamble of the Declaration, with its insistence that “all men are created equal,” overrode the three-fifths-clause in Article I of the Constitution.

Reinhold Niebuhr argued that liberal institutions are the strongest bulwark against what he took to be the original sin, namely, pride. He especially warned against the dangers of collective pride, such as “religious nationalisms,” which conjoin racial conceit with moral superiority.

Rule of law, a distrust of demagogues, a belief in equality, and an ethos of humility – these are a few of the civic supports that American Christianity has long provided for democracy in the United States. Donald Trump and his evangelical enablers are happily dismantling these supports. Many white evangelicals seem not to realize that American democracy has also been good for American Christianity and that too close an association between worldly and spiritual power will ultimately diminish both.

Gorski’s editorial appeared first in the journal and can be found, along with the rest of the issue, here

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