(Part One of a Series)
White Evangelicals are the largest demographic group voting for and sticking with Donald Trump no matter what he does. Trump won 81% of their votes and 72% still aren’t ashamed to say that they support him.
Trump’s “Religious Advisory Council,” made up mostly of leaders of this same demographic, has held firm even while members of other councils abandoned ship.
So the question many keep asking is: with Evangelicals’ constant insistence on sexual purity for others and their so-called “family values” trope, why do these Evangelicals cling to Trump when he blatantly embodies almost everything that a person could say and do that flaunts those values? On top of that, he displays a clear ignorance of, and past hostility to, Evangelical beliefs themselves.
Those Evangelicals respond with denial and ignorance and remain willing to be used for whatever Trump’s con is. Meanwhile, liberals act astonished at what seems to be the hypocrisy of these Evangelicals for what they usually say about character, sexuality, and ethics when they act with such fidelity to Trump and his Party.
More progressive believers read calls for quite different responses to this president and his party in this Bible that Evangelicals flaunt as their authority. It’s as if those Evangelical claims that they’re just following the Bible as it is don’t hold up unless you’re viewing the Bible through a certain, specific lens that Evangelicals use.
And that’s a clue to what’s really going on. Different people down through history came to that old book with different assumptions – Martin Luther King Jr., vs. Pat Robertson, for example - and they therefore find in the Bible (as well as “tradition”) what supports those assumptions.
No one takes the smorgasbord that is the Bible “literally.” Everyone interprets. They take literally what works for them and employ some interpretive scheme for taking other passages that would disagree (“seemingly”) in other ways.
In Evangelical circles there are numerous theories of interpretation even though they’ll insist that they “believe the Bible from cover to cover, and even believe the covers.” Denying that they interpret is part of their use of the Bible in the manner of a religion addiction.
It’s not the Bible and any literalism that decides why they support Trump or come out against “sexual impurity” for other people. It’s other deeply ingrained interpretive assumptions that they’ve internalized from the culture in which they’ve grown up.
Threats to these internalized assumptions feel like persecution and provocations to battle. They see these assumptions and themselves (as people who’ve built their self-definitions on these assumptions), then, as victims of a changing culture around them and feel cornered like rats who must fight “Culture Wars.”
These six assumptions aren’t exclusive to these Evangelicals, but their combination is crucial to their worldview, the lens they use to see reality and their scriptures. These assumptions are the key to understanding what they see in life and the Bible when they claim that they’re righteously following God and the Bible:
(1) Nationalism. America is an exceptional nation with a Divine mission.
From the words of the earliest Christians in America, this country’s religious leaders characterized it as “a city on a hill.” It was called the New Israel and the location of the New Covenant community. Many leaders and presidents from then on embraced American exceptionalism.
But it’s a basic, often quite explicit, unquestionable tenet for these Evangelicals. Many so equate American exceptionalism and Biblical teachings that their churches must have an American flag standing near the pulpit. They’ll worry about saving America from threats both internally and externally.
America must always be first and foremost among the nations. Talk of being a “world citizen” is a threat unless it starts with America saving the world.
They might struggle creatively to find America in the Bible itself, but, at the very least, nothing in the Bible can be seen to be anti-America as an essential ideal. That means, of course, that their American Christianity is the version that finally gets it right again and is supposed to be uniquely true.
Historically, all religions adapt to their cultures and adopt dominant cultural symbols and assumptions. European Christianity is not like American – hence American Evangelicals are convinced that Europe needs American Christian missionaries to help them see the true version.
(2) Patriarchy. The Bible must teach “traditional” American gender roles.
As American culture began to accept equality for women through women’s suffrage and various waves of feminism, these Evangelicals became convinced that they must protect patriarchy and male privilege.
Even conservative churches that had women ministers were criticized. Before the latest waves of feminism scared them even further, a leading Evangelical leader in 1941, John R. Rice, for example, wrote of threats to Biblical Christianity in his Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers: Significant Questions for Honest Christian Women Settled by the Word of God.
Again and again, Evangelists and leading right-wing preachers shamed churches for being effeminate. “Muscular Christianity” came to the United States as a movement pushed by popular evangelist Dwight L. Moody as early as the end of the 19th century to masculinize the church.
The idea of a “biblical chain of command” with the man of the house just below God and in charge of everyone below him swept up Evangelicals in the 1960s with home-school advocate Bill Gothard touring the country. In 1991 the “Promise Keepers” emerged to pack football stadiums by advising Evangelical men to take back the authority they were losing in their own homes.
In fact, the threat of LGBTQ equality and the Evangelical fight against marriage equality were premised on how this would destroy the traditional patriarchal (“straight”) gender roles. And “traditional family values” rhetoric was built on the man being in charge of his very White Evangelical family.
Next month: Part Two, with two more of the six key elements of the lens that explains their support for religious and political leaders even if they’re hypocrites. l