When in December 2019 Mark Galli, then editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, published a measured editorial supporting Donald Trump’s removal from office, the piece brought 50 times the normal amount of traffic to the CT website, crashed its server, and provoked a range of responses: some positive, some negative, and others middling.
In the aftermath, many wondered whether this editorial would drive a wedge between Trump and those evangelicals who had supported him for three long years. Butits ultimate ineffectiveness points to aspects of evangelicalism which have gotten little attention in the press: characteristics which comprise what might be termed evangelicals’ “disrespectability politics.”
But Trump’s tough guy, vulgar manner appealed to the heirs of a different, older and persistent evangelical tradition: that of raucous, snarky political disrespect. While evangelical institutional leaders tend to minimize it, or even forget it, rank-and-file evangelicals perpetuate a strain of evangelicalism that deploys disrespect for political purposes and enjoys laughing in the process. Articles like John Fea’s, which assert that displays of proud mockery are, for evangelicals, “unprecedented in American history” are mistaken: disrespectful mockery is an enduring trait of U.S. evangelicalism.
America’s Protestants first got a taste for openly disrespecting their supposed “betters” during the revolutionary era. As historian Nathan Hatch notes, though evangelicals today have their share of “respectable” leaders and institutions, like Billy Graham and Wheaton College, the movement’s older tradition is anti-hierarchical and anti-elitist in favor of “the people.” This strain Hatch convincingly chronicled in The Democratization of American Christianity (1989).
Though Amanda Porterfield has rightly questioned how well American Christianity, in fact, democratized, there is no question it was revolutionized. Hatch’s work incontrovertibly demonstrates how revolutionary era culture changed the character and content of American Christianity. In the aftermath of the American revolution, the common person became the only rightful protagonist in cultural discourse. Having already deposed kings, Americans set targets on other elites.
These revolutionary sensibilities bled into and then reshaped the church in America. Between 1790 and 1820, charismatic lower class preachers toured the country preaching liberation, equality, and sharply criticizing all manner of elitism as dangerous to the American project. A newly populist version of Christianity catalyzed the exponential growth of America’s Methodist and Baptist ranks, as it shrank the ranks of all other Christian traditions.
Well-to-do, elite persons of this period suffered critique from manifold sources in American culture. Specifically religious populists’ critique of elites could sound pointed and serious, like a jeremiad that warns,“ The Lord hath declared his intention and purpose to exalt the humble whilst he will pull down high looks!”
But we won’t understand the American evangelical ethos if we only imagine it anxious, nostalgic, angry or suspicious. Instead, proto-evangelicals were shaped by America’s enduring populist strain of antagonistic humor. Accordingly, they developed a taste and value for jokes told at elites’ expense.
We’re not used to appraising traditions of humor. Russian folklorist Mikhail Bakhtin admonishes, “Laughter and its forms represent the least scrutinized sphere of the people’s creation.” But as cultural historians Lynn Avery Hunt and James C. Scott have masterfully shown, humor traditions often serve as mediums of resistance to domination. Early American radical evangelical humor aimed to undo elites’ perceived advantages and authority through derision. Like their fellow revolutionaries, they made jokes of the monarchy, of lawyers—and of clergymen in particular. One revolution-era example of populist antagonism, “Anti-Calvinist verse,” took aim at Calvinist preachers using mangled versions of their own hymns. In a song they titled, “Priest Craft Float Away,” religious revolutionaries taunted:
“Why are we in such slavery, to men of that degree;
Bound to support their knavery when we might all be free;
They’re nothing but a canker, we can with boldness say;
So let us hoist the anchor, let Priest-craft float away.”
(That last line is a play on the idea of “priest craft”—i.e. the doing of priestly duties. But herein “craft” becomes a boat the singers are wanting to let forever go to sea!)
Crucially, the heckling did not end there.
Roughly one hundred years later, evangelicals targeted a burgeoning professional class with uncannily similar jesting. Sociologist Magali Sarfatti Larson charts the rise of the professions we know today during the period from 1840 to 1900. Engineers, lawyers, and doctors of this era struggled to transform their labor into recognized professions—a hard sell given the potent anti-elitism of revolutionary America. After years of sustained efforts, prevailing attitudes toward “professionals” shifted during the period from 1890 to 1920.
During this timeframe, Protestant clergy also worked to turn their vocations into professions.
In response to all this professionalizing, populism flared up across the south and southwest—especially religious populism. Religious populists of this period set to work creating a camp meeting circuit to keep their religion free from the “tyranny” of clerical domination, while they forcefully challenged political tyranny in public affairs. Joe Creech notes this to have been a twinning of restorationisms: one for the church, drawn from the anti-hierarchy of the New Testament and a second for politics, explicitly drawn from the Jeffersonian discourse of the nascent nation.
It was partially from these campgrounds that American Pentecostalism first sprang up. Early Pentecostals are remembered for speaking in tongues, interracial worship, and a gender-inclusive approach to ministry. But many were also, like their radical evangelical forebears and contemporaries, cantankerously anti-elitist and anti-clerical. Toward. Other. White. People. It is important to understand their anti-clericalism as their hatred of elitism inside the church, though weirdly, religious scholars tended to depict this as straight-forward anti-intellectualism or religious competitor drama. No, early American Pentecostals harangued (white) professionals, tsars, kaisers, and the pope: all of them, hierarchs.
They, too, packaged their anti-elitism in biting humor. American historian of religion Grant Wacker observes,“Poking fun, albeit bitter fun, at one’s ecclesiastical betters had long been a staple in radical evangelical circles and remained so among pentecostals” (emphasis mine). In popular Pentecostal comeuppance narratives, “[p]roud well dressed preachers come into investigate” a revival, only to find that “soon their high looks are replaced with wonder, then conviction comes, and very often [one] will find them in a short time wallowing on the dirty floor, asking God to forgive them.” Pentecostals relished stories in which doctors, lawyers, and well-heeled preachers end up humbled before the Pentecostal crowd. While such populist energies had circulated within radical evangelical camps since the revolution, Pentecostals’ Jeffersonian-inflected Holy Spirit “pulled down high looks,” by force. Yes, early Pentecostals’ Holy Spirit united black, brown, and white believers into famously scandalous fervid embraces at the altar—but elites got smacked down first.
Since then, a new guild of scholars had come to think of evangelicals as uptight values voters. But the snark and anti-institutionalism of President Trump reveals instead the persistence of anti-elitist affinities in a group of people who have demonstrated, over hundreds of years, an appetite for disrupting genteel politics. Trump’s election effectively displaced mannered elites—families like the Bushes and the Clintons—via a performance peppered with populist rancor and humor. Over time, pundits realized Trump hadn’t been a hard choice for evangelicals after all. In “The Cruelty is the Point,” Adam Serwer notes, Trump “owns the libs’ and [evangelicals] love it. He’ll bring a Glock to a cultural knife fight, and they relish that.”
At this point in American history, elites use their control over the official means of cultural and intellectual production to produce a steady stream of vehement disapproval of populist humor. Take, for example, the recent derogation of Joe Rogan. Rogan’s podcast is downloaded a whopping 200 million times per month and earned him 30 million dollars last year. The popularity of “The Joe Rogan Experience” demonstrates the persistence of humor based in older notions of “common sense,” even as it rapidly grows more foul by elite definition. (“You can never be woke enough—that’s the problem,” Mr. Rogan complains.) Though Rogan’s humor routinely transgresses new cultural orthodoxies, he just inked a deal with Spotify worth $100M; Dave Chappelle was a recent guest! It remains to be seen whether Spotify can be pressured to limit Rogan’s speech; it doesn’t have the same rationale that Twitter did to limit Trump’s.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s depiction of Sophie Lennon is a recent depiction of America’s historical populist tradition. It also features a now-familiar counter-critique of the populist humor tradition. Jane Lynch’s Sophie loves to quip, “Put that on your plate!” but she lives in a mansion. Elites love to imagine that people who became rich off populist work were themselves, all along, con-populists! But what gives populist comedians their power is not their authenticity per se. Instead power lies in their ability to elaborate what otherwise cannot be said, what James Scott has called the revealing of the “hidden transcript.” Trump, Rogan, and Chappelle all have the kind of money and audiences that set them free from institutional orthodoxies and constraints.
Amber A’Lee Frost, sometime cohost of popular, populist Chapo Trap House, cautions against failing to understand the value of political vulgarity, writing that “to deny the importance of vulgarity is to reject the revolutionary tradition.” She admonishes, “Vulgarity is the rejection of the norms of civilized discourse; to be vulgar is to flout the set of implicit conventions that create our social decorum. The vulgar person uses swears and shouts where reasoned discourse is called for. Someone like Saul Alinsky for example, might be considered vulgar, for considering protest tactics like his famously unrealized “fart-in” at the Rochester Philharmonic.”
But if evangelicals’ connection to American revolutionary humor traditions is little factored in analysis of their affinity for Trump, more overlooked is the fact that Mexican arrivals at the turn of the 20th century were, themselves, fleeing the Mexican revolution—which period saw the rise of Mexican resentment of Catholic priests. I didn’t learn of this enduring resentment from my classes in Christian History. Instead, I learned it first-hand, in the 90s, at fifteen, when I was about to walk down an aisle as a bridesmaid in my older cousins’ Catholic wedding. Suddenly, my mom ran over to me, grabbed my hand and forcefully instructed me, “Do not kiss that priests’ ring!”
I hadn’t thought of kissing the wedding officiant’s ring, but I was still very caught off guard when my Pentecostal mom forbade me to do so. One minute later I was walking down the aisle. I had no idea what was expected of me as I approached the priest—and my mother’s semi-panicked directions had so confused me, I didn’t gather much of my wits on the short walk to the altar. Once there, I did the best I could, and curtsied.
In writing this essay, I mentioned this story to the historian Daniel Ramirez, who frequently writes about Mexican Apostolic Pentecostalism. In response, he relayed to me a similar situation involving a highly respected Mexican Apostolic Pentecostal leader who accepted an invitation to meet with notable Mexican Catholic leaders. After this meeting, competitor preachers circulated the rumor (another unofficial techne) that this Mexican Apostolic leader had kissed the ring of an arch-priest! Such anti-hierarchical gesture policing isn’t restricted to Catholics, Mexicans, or history. In 2009, then-president Obama faced criticism for “bowing” to the Saudi King Abdullah.
Anti-establishment, anti-clerical commitment has been little noted by historians of Mexican conversion to Protestantism, where much of said conversions (“leaks”) were at first attributed to the desire to assimilate to the US and later attributed to the desire to maintain their own Mexican folk practices. But we should avoid imagining this anti-elite attitude, in Latinx evangelicals, is one simply siphoned off from white American evangelicals after their (assumed) assimilation into white churches. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 forced the separation of the Catholic church from the Mexican state and circulated plenty of anti-pope, anti-establishment sentiments of its own. Critically, the formational period of American Pentecostalism, at Los Angeles’ Azusa Street Mission from 1906-09, is also the exact time frame Ricardo Flores Magón, the Mexican anarchist nearly as notable as Emiliano Zapata, moved to Los Angeles and helped agitate the Partido Liberal Mexicano uprisings that would land him in an American jail. I recently learned from leading Mexican journalist Carlos Martinez García that some Protestants of the period supported PLM.
This means that, while some white American converts to Pentecostalism in the early 1900s were experiencing a resurgence of Jeffersonian populism of that era, Mexican nationals were living through revolutionary upheaval of their own. And like the older populism of American evangelical lines, the Mexican revolution’s radical populism was also agrarian, influenced by Jacobinism, and hostile to establishment elites (for good reason: the Catholic Church owned 70% of Mexican land at the time). Simply put, when Mexican Americans with tenure that goes back to the early 1900s perpetuate anti-elitist, anti-clerical humor traditions, there is no good reason to assume they are simply “acting white”—even if they are Protestants, especially if they are Protestants! (As you might predict, these historic communities didn’t suddenly divest themselves of their anti-Catholicism to embrace liberationist theology in the 1970s.) To wit, when my fourth generation Mexican American, evangelical cousin warned me he was voting for Trump, he quipped that he would do so in spite of the fact that “everyone says that Trump eats babies.” (His brother almost went to the Capitol on January 6, sans plans to storm.)
Given the historical rooting of evangelicalism in the revolutionary era, Trump’s demeanor didn’t hijack or single-handedly corrupt the tradition. Trump’s rhetoric assailed the very kinds of people that populist evangelicals have long ridiculed. There’s little wonder his “swamp” discourse resonated or why they liked to chant “lock her up!” This tradition has simply been buried. Trump’s rhetoric intensified a strain of evangelical political humor that its leaders and readers could hardly promote: they could easily find themselves the target of it.
Accordingly, Galli’s attempts accomplished almost nothing. Instead, Richard Land and John Grano problematized, “CT’s disdainful, dismissive, elitist posture toward their fellow Christians,” and at First Things, Carl Trueman offers that Galli’s editorial is clearly “out of touch with the populist evangelical base.” Ironically, Galli responded by promptly becoming a Catholic.
No matter. Galli’s comments were always for the choir. They are a record of the evangelical elite trying to discipline their populist brothers, sisters, cousins. His most receptive audience was other kinds of elites: scholars, exvangelical public intellectuals, liberal pundits, mainline Protestant types only too happy to lampoon their evangelical competitors, empty as their pews increasingly are.
In the court of elite opinion, it doesn’t matter that early Pentecostalism was profoundly interracial, that its megachurches are often still interracial, and that female mega-ministry was born and most strongly persists in Pentecostal and charismatic cultures. As “evangelicals,” Pentecostals are now represented in the press by the notoriously gender hierarchical and pro-segregationist Southern Baptist Convention, yes the largest US denomination with 16 million, but one that should not stand in for Pentecostalism (by one estimate, in the US, 76 million), and which counts 644 million (to Baptists’ 100 million) strong globally. Just like the Democratic party chose the populist they preferred to deal with in Trump—not Bernie!—so too culture critics choose wisely when they over-identify evangelicals with Southern Baptists. Trump and the SBC are so much easier to condemn as racists and misogynists.
But the notion that we are living in an age of growing elite dominance has been argued by persons as different as Bernie Sanders, Chris Hayes, and Thomas Pinketty. Like Richard Reeves’ Dream Hoarders (2018), Matthew Stewart’s The 9.9 Percent (2021) argues that professionals have problematically become the new aristocracy. Like early Pentecostals, this cohort of thinkers believes this new “merit-based” aristocracy is spoiling the democratic project. In an essay for The Atlantic’s special series on “How to Stop a Civil War,” Harvard’s Danielle Allen recently offered,
“The kinds of economists involved most intimately with government and financial institutions by and large don’t notice real people in real places—people who may be losing jobs and falling into despondency, addiction, and suicide. They tend not to see as relevant to their domains of expertise the millions of people on the move and the impact of mass migration on cultural cohesion. In recent years, they overlooked the warning signs indicating limits to the acceptance of their worldview, notably in the very communities suffering because of their economic policies. Elites on both the left and the right, with their well-thumbed passports and multicultural outlook, were no less blind.”
Allen ties today’s cultural strife, in part, to the late 20th century, when “economics established itself firmly as the queen of the policy-making sciences.” She ties it to elites. In a recent Q&A for The Nation, Daniel Steinmets-Jenkins burdens philosopher Martha Nussbaum with relating her post-cosmopolitanism to contemporary political stakes. He writes, “Earlier this year, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri gave a keynote address at the National Conservatism Conference in which he blamed ‘the cosmopolitan elite’ of this country for selling out the middle class to multinational corporations.” He asked Nussbaum whether Hawley was right to problematize her as just such an elite. Nussbaum replied, in part: “I was defending transnational moral ideals, not the greed of multinationals,” but she admits, “I did disparage patriotism—he’s right about that. And I now defend instead a globally sensitive patriotism.” Once at the vanguard of the idea of world citizenship, today Nussbaum has developed her own positive account of the nation-state and its responsibilities, in which “the implementation of human rights norms ought to be at the national level.”
If Nussbaum, Allen, Stewart, Reeves, Sanders, Hayes, and Pinketty, to name a few, are duly convinced that our nation’s woes have foremost to do with elites, I’m not sure we can blame evangelical voters for feeling the same. Moreover, if we are living in an age of elite dominance, it makes good historical sense to anticipate a retort from evangelicals. Per this cast of erudite scholars, it may even make good sociological sense to do so. We have already seen the rise of other populisms, including evangelical ones, around the globe.