What’s the Problem? The Ethics of Populism
The increasingly likely possibility that Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade has many saying—with hope or anger—that white evangelicals have finally gotten what they want. Though in 1973 the Baptist Press supported Roe, writing “Religious liberty, human equality, and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision,” eliminating the right to abortion has been a banner evangelical cause since the 1980s. So it’s widely thought that abortion drives the white evangelical vote.
Not so. The white evangelical vote– 25 percent of the American total vote–is a composite, motivated by a menu of issues. In fact, 46 percent of white evangelicals oppose the overturn of Roe. In the 2016 presidential election, the factors most important in determining evangelical choice of candidate were the economy and national security. Abortion was most important for half as many evangelicals; LGBTQI matters, for roughly a quarter. In 2020, the economy was again the highest priority, followed by the covid-19 pandemic.
To get a sense of all the issues that motivate white evangelical politics, we could look at other recent news. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R. GA) lambasted Catholic aid to immigrants as “Satan running the church.” The Ohio GOP claimed without evidence that undocumented residents are fraudulently corrupting the vote, and the Michigan GOP nominated two Trump-backed candidates running on false claims of the 2020 election “steal.”
Each of these is meant to appeal to white evangelicals and other right-wing populists by targeting a supposedly corrupt government and “outsiders” (new immigrants and minorities). But why are these targets appealing? Why is populism persuasive and specifically persuasive to these religious Christians? Said another way, what makes right-wing populism seem, to deeply religious people, like the ethical stance?
We can begin with a minimal definition, which understands populism as a response to way-of-life, status loss, and economic duresses that finds solution to these problems in us-them worldviews. These worldviews in turn draw in complex ways from historical and cultural notions of society (who’s “us,” who’s “them”) and government (its proper size and role).
White evangelical politics can be traced through this trajectory beginning with duresses, some of which are like those confronting other Americans—concern that economic horizons are dimming or concern about changing gender roles, demographics, and importantly, status loss. Those most attracted to the Republican party between 2010 and 2018 were white, high-school only, middle income earners concerned that their place in the middle-class was under threat.
In addition to these are stressors bearing specifically on white evangelicals, including membership loss and fear of religious life being trounced by secular government in an increasingly secular, multicultural society. Think evangelical bakers and gay weddings. 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.
But as psychologist Carol Gilligan and political scientists Amira et al. explain, under duress, the usual focus on one’s own group shifts self-protectively to constrain an “other” thought to be the source of duress. “The more stressful the situation,” psychiatrist Vamik Volkan writes, “the more neighbor groups become preoccupied with each other.”
Us-Them Shift & Its Historical Resources
But which neighbor to become preoccupied with? That begins with historico-cultural notions of society and government. In America, the longstanding “them”s have been government itself and “outsiders,” new immigrants and African-Americans, seen as radically “other” since the colonial period. You could say America came by its “them”s honestly, from history, and here’s where things get interesting.
The earliest piece of America’s political culture was Covenantal Political Theory, brought 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. If a ruler violated covenant with the people, he could be removed from office. Covenantalists were wary of princes, church authorities, and outsiders who might muddy the covenant. Aristotelian republicanism also emphasized community, the polis, and citizen participation in running it. It too was wary of tyrants. Liberalism put greater stress on individual freedom to leave community and pursue opportunity but it too was wary of authorities. Think Alexander Hamilton. Wariness of government was especially persuasive in America as many immigrants 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 contributed to it. As covenantalists, their ancestors also 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 personal responsibility to come to truth (rather than following priestly authority). As all governments are imperfect, each individual must work out her own moral reckoning, a belief that again encouraged wariness of authorities and outsiders.
In short, evangelicals had not only a political grounding in government/outsider wariness but also a doctrinal one. With this double caution, they became prime builders of America’s self-reliant ethos and republic. The largest U.S. government office in ante-bellum America was the postal service. By 1850 evangelical churches had double the employees, twice as many facilities, and raised three times as much money.
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 political and societal pressures began accumulating with industrialization, urbanization, multi-faithed immigration, Darwinism, and the new, scholarly Historical-Critical school of biblical exegesis, which threatened to unseat America’s grassroots, democratic but untutored understanding of Scripture.
Part of the evangelical response was the embrace of apocalyptic forms of the faith (Pre-millenarianism, Dispensationalism, the Keswick and Pentecostal movements), whose image of End Times chaos reflected evangelical anxieties about the future in a changing America. They also reinforced the sense of marginalization from the mainstream. Another response, in the South, was the re-imagining of the Confederacy into a “lost cause” of noble resistance to interloper Washington and of Christianized white supremacy, taught in children’s catechisms and valorized in church stained glass windows. As the South was re-integrated into the Union, the nation assimilated something of this ethos, effecting a widespread system of racialized discrimination against blacks, Mexicans, Italians, and Jews. Voters as a percentage of the voting-age population declined from 81.8 percent in 1875 to 48.9 in 1924 owing to an array of racist and xenophobic restrictions.
In the twentieth century, evangelical dethronement continued with the 1925 Supreme Court ruling that teaching evolution was constitutional and the 1962 Court ruling that school-led prayer was unconstitutional. Then came Lyndon Johnson’s “big government” Civil Rights and Great Society anti-poverty programs followed by the sexual revolution and the feminist and gay right movements. In 1973, abortion was legalized. In 2015, the Court ruled gay marriage 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 drubbing by a secular state and society
With accumulating stresses comes us-them shift. The heritage of community may become self-protective, my-community-in-struggle-against-“outsiders.” Wariness of oppressive government/elites may become suspicion of government/elites per se, whose activities should be limited – except to constrain “outsiders.”
The Tragic Irony
The tragic irony of populism is that the very anti-authoritarianism and community building that contributed much to American vibrancy and that are bequeathed to evangelicals by history and doctrine as the ethical life may under distress turn to exclusionary, us-them defense.
In the 1970s, much of this anxiety-prodded energy was channeled into the “New Right,” advocating small-government-ism, religio-moral conservativism, resistance to “outsider” disruptions of local ways (including racial integration), and an anti-communist foreign policy to defeat the biggest of big (atheistic) governments. Understanding this as the ethical path, white evangelicals have given majorities to the GOP since 1980, from a low of 62 percent in the 1996 presidential race to a high of 84 percent in 2020.
This is not an anti-abortion vote that gets Republican small-government-ism as a tag-along. It’s a small-government political and economic stance. Making George W. Bush’s 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent was a legislative priority for the Christian Coalition, the largest evangelical umbrella group of the day. Evangelical support for Bush rose 10 points between 2000 and 2004 with no national legislation limiting abortion even when the Republicans controlled the presidency and Congress.
Government/“outsider” wariness sharpened with twenty-first century anxieties and more so with the election of the country’s first African-American president. Obama not only increased the presence of people of color in positions of authority but expanded government’s role in social services, health care, and environmental protection. Evangelical radio-host Eric Metaxas responded with traditional animus towards Washington and “outsiders” laced with Christianized white supremacy: “Beltway [Washington D.C.] 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. Critique of “outsider” animus and racism 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.” A significant minority of white evangelicals, like those in Christians Against Christian Nationalism, opposes the political right altogether. In 2022, the NAE hired Mekdes Haddis, an Ethiopian immigrant, to head its new its Racial Justice & Reconciliation Collaborative, providing churches with resources and training.
But it has been an uneven reckoning. 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. Fifty-seven percent preferred living in a country where most people are Christian. No other religious group comes within 20 points of this majority.
Hunting Where the Ducks Are
When Trump first ran for president, white evangelical government-and “outsider”-wariness was not new. But it was enlivened by him and others who tapped into and reinforced suspicion of America’s traditional “them”s: the “deep state,” the D.C. “swamp” and its “fake news” elite media, “Mexican rapists,” “Muslim terrorists,” and foreigners who cheat us in trade. Trump cut taxes, social services, business regulation, and environmental protection all as government overreach.
White evangelicals triage concerns about government and “outsiders” with religious issues, which the populist right also appeals to. On moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, Trump said, “That’s is for the evangelicals.”
Researchers Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck, call Trump’s tactics of fanning people’s anxieties for personal power “hunting where the ducks are.” Other populist leaders now follow his technique, stoking people’s concerns to animate fear of longstanding “them”s and promising protection.
The tragic cast of evangelical populism is that the promised protection is unlikely to relieve the original duress. While us-them shift is a common response to distress or threat, the solutions emerging from it are based on the distortions that duress itself prods—from community to exclusion and from wariness of oppression to wariness of government itself. Based on distortions, such solutions rarely address the undergirding realities and sources of duress. The original duresses remain, to the harm of the distressed communities and to prod further rounds of us-them anger.