Rodeo in the Rain – American Politics and Religion in the 2016 Presidential Race

Current Events

Every July when I was a kid, my dad hauled my brother and me all the way from Southern California to the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo in Wyoming.  It was (and still is) a bona fide festival of Americana, complete with a sticky midway, tight Wranglers, a gushy opening prayer, and Old Glory waving over three acres’ worth of hungry cowboys and fresh, feisty livestock.

Frontier Days was never dull, but the years when the monsoons swung through and turned the arena into an enormous mud slick altered the spectacle entirely. Watch a Brahma bull pitch, buck and spin, then lose his footing, slam his 2,000 pounds into the mud, shake it off and keep going with the rag-doll cowboy still on him, and you’ll be paying attention.

The 2016 presidential election is a rodeo in the rain.

Over on the right we’ve got, depending on your perspective, a bold political maverick or a billionaire maniac running roughshod over the delicate coalition the GOP has strung together through a patchwork of trickle-down economics, religion, nationalism and dog-whistle racist appeals for upwards of four decades. My colleagues over in the mainstream institutional wing of political science are puzzling over delegate count strategies, the slow, ambivalent effort of party elites to contain the front-runner, and the likely possibility of not just a contested convention but a collapse of the party that will take years to rebuild. To sweeten the irony, a Tea Party agitator, widely loathed in his own party, has become the  best chance of the establishment to stop the reality-show-gone-awry candidate.

On the Democrat side a seventy-four year-old democratic socialist Pied Piper leads a raucous, multi-generational stampede to chase down Wall Street rats and the mainstream Democrats who they believe do their bidding. Sanders’ current strategy for winning enough delegates to challenge Clinton is a hail-Mary, but in terms of giving her a hard nudge to the left, he’s already won.

Whatever else happens before the general election, the final showdown promises to be riveting.

The place of religion in political discourse this primary season has been exceptional as well. Storms have a way of breaking up the crust, stirring the seeds in the soil. A few long-developing trends have crystallized in the last few months and are worth tracking, as they reflect shifts that will resonate past this election.

Galvanized by Donald Trump, one wing of American evangelicalism has broken out the hard-core nationalism that, as I wrote in December, is an old but under-recognized aspect of its identity.  Yes, Ted Cruz, who many evangelical elites had selected as their putative candidate back in September 2015, taps nationalist themes and talks about surveiling Muslims and building a wall against Mexico, but he largely plays by the traditional Christian Right playbook of faith, family and free-market economics. By January, though, self-described evangelicals were flooding past Cruz to support the least identifiably Christian candidate in the mix despite his repeated religious gaffes.

A number of explanations have been floated for Trump’s support among evangelicals. An old analytic called the “authoritarian hypothesis” has been revived for the current moment. It holds that folks inclined toward a desire for order and hostility toward out-groups lean toward more authoritarian (as opposed to libertarian or egalitarian) leadership styles. One recent study finds authoritarian orientations converting to support for Trump when traditionalist Republican, conservative Christian, and white identities overlap—which basically describes most white evangelicals.

Bracketing the authoritarian hypothesis, Pew and other pollsters find evangelical voters to be motivated by deep anxieties about the demographic and cultural decentering of white, Christian identity. White working-class evangelicals and those without a college degree are especially “worried and wistful” about social change and the economy. This translates into what Robert Jones at the Public Religion Research Institute calls a “nostalgia” vote for Trump.

Though I think their theology is rich with options for more productive ways to integrate newcomers and non-Christians than Trump or Cruz’s candidacies admit, evangelicals’ fear of losing the status that cultural centrality and sheer numbers historically gave them is not just paranoia. In the past ten years, nonwhite Christians, as a combined group, and the religiously unaffiliated or “nones” have eclipsed evangelicals numerically; today white Christians represent just 45% of the country. Both the Clinton and Sanders candidacies channel aspects of these shifts.

As the centrist Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton attracts mainstream Protestants, moderate and progressive Catholics, and many evangelicals of color almost by default. (The latter are not entirely “captured,” of course; in this cycle she’s has had to work to retain some Christians of color who might be inclined to swing toward Bernie.)  She continues to deftly tap her Methodist upbringing when called to articulate how faith informs her politics.  In the rodeo metaphor, she’s a decorated barrel racer—a focused pro, but not riveting.

To me, the Sanders phenomenon is more interesting, less because Sanders is Jewish and more because of the appeal of his secularism among his supporters.  Like many American Jews, he is more culturally than religiously Jewish—but professed irreligiosity does make him anathema to many Christians.  So far his religion talk has been limited to the language of the interconnectedness of all life. On Jimmy Kimmel Live he commented, “I think everyone believes in God in their own ways. To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.” Evangelicals will balk, but the quarter of Americans who have peeled away from religion but might still identify as spiritual in some way may find those refreshing words, indeed.

We’ve still got a long way to go in this election, and the political rain shows no sign of letting up. The arena is a mess, mud is flying, and the spectators are drenched, but we’re getting some great glimpses of an America passionately engaged in the rodeo.

American political culture, social movements, politics of race and religion, political theory, and reconciliation and forgiveness processes.

Nancy Wadsworth teaches American political culture and social movements, political theory, and the politics of race and religion at the University of Denver.   She has taught at Eugene Lang College, and at the University of Colorado at Boulder, before coming to the University of Denver in 2004.  She is author of Ambivalent Miracles: Evangelicals and the Politics of Racial Healing (U of Virginia Press, 2014) and co-editor of Faith and Race in American Political Life (University of Virginia Press, 2012).

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