Evangelicals, Right-wing Populism, Trump: Not a Faustian Bargain

Evangelicals, Right-wing Populism, Trump: Not a Faustian Bargain

Published in Theologische Literaturzeitung, Nov. 2019, pp 1084-1102.

Introduction

The 81 percent of white American evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump in 20161 drew substantial attention as it seemed that one of America’s most devout faith groups supported a politician who was not only twice divorced but had a reputation for fornication, sexual harassment, and consorting with porn stars – not to mention belligerence, unfairness in business, and not paying his workers.2 The well-known »Access Hollywood« tape,3 showing Trump boasting about groping women, and his financial payoffs to hide his affairs with adult film actress Stephanie Clifford4 and Playboy model Karen McDougal5 did not dissuade most white evangelicals of Trump’s preparedness for leadership. He earned the votes of 81 percent of white evangelical males, 71 percent of white evangelical females, 68 percent of college-educated white evangelicals, and 78 percent of those without a college degree. Since his inauguration in 2017, white evangelical support for Trump has not dropp-ed below 65 percent,6 and as of this writing, evangelical loyalty to Trump through the impeachment process is not yet known.

Numbers like these argue for some important affinity between Trump’s platform and evangelical beliefs. On this view, evangelicals support Trump out of belief that he will bring about a better society however much his character is flawed – in the way that God has worked through other flawed persons to better the world. To understand what that affinity might be, we must begin with a me­thodological problem so that we understand what it is not.

First is the difficulty in determining the reasons behind the white evangelical vote. As American evangelicals are Americans, their voting is shaped by the many factors that affect all American voters. Is the lever-pull in the voting booth propelled by religious concerns or by politics, economics, or a combination of these – and in what proportion for each voter? Survey research has significant difficulties distinguishing between religious and other motives as unlike field research, it is not sensitive to motive and worldview.7 It also does not distinguish between »think« and »thin« engagement with evangelical life – between those who check »evangelical« on survey forms because religious tenets and practices form a large part of their thought and living or because, though they are only loosely connected to evangelicalism, they feel they are even more evangelical than any other option on the form.

This reality yields a distortion in the data, where, once a respondent checks »evangelical,« all other positions are taken to be motivated by religious, not other, beliefs. For example, during the primaries, »Trump did best among evangelicals who are never, almost never or only occasionally in the pews.«8 But because of religious belief, economics, or something else?, frequent-church-attenders were more concerned about moral issues and more disapproving of Trump’s private life, thus leading to support for candidates like Ted Cruz. But they were also more likely to have college degrees and higher incomes, placing them in the demographic with more varied, less populist, views on the economy, job loss, and immigration. Infrequent-attenders were less conservative on moral issues and so less concerned about Trump’s private life, abortion, and gay marriage. But they also had lower incomes, less education, and rated Trump’s promises to boost jobs and reduce immigration as priorities. In the main election, high percentages of both groups supported Trump. Though they may have voted for him for different reasons, most survey data records this as an »evangelical« vote os­tensibly emerg-ing from evangelical belief, this is not a warranted assumption.

Field and ethnographic research (my own and that of other re­searchers) suggests that some evangelical adhesion to Trump is motivated by religious matters (abortion, gay marriage, support of Israel’s right wing), yet much also reflects economic and demographic concerns. In this article, I add that evangelical belief in small-government-ism – reducing government’s footprint in society by reduc-ing regulation of business and shrinking federal social assistance through tax cuts – is a substantial factor in their voting choices.

I’ll first explain why small-government-ism is a right-populist position in the US, beginning with a rubric for identifying groups as populist and continuing with the historico-cultural experience that contours right populism in the U. S. I will then look at how evangelicals came by their own wariness of government and so find the right-populism of Trump’s platform appealing. Finally, I will look at the small minority of evangelicals who oppose Trump.

I Right-wing Populism

The term »right wing populism« requires definition of both »right wing« and »populism.« Because political affiliation today no lon-ger divides along classic left-right lines,9 for analytic clarity, I use popu­list »right« to refer to those who feel that society is economically and demographically changing in unwanted ways but can be fixed by protectionist trade and immigration policies. In the U. S., right populism is often accompanied by »small government-ism,« as described above. Federal government itself (not a particular administration or party) is seen as an »outsider« to be constrained. This differs in emphasis from German, French, or Scandinavian populisms, where the state is likely considered the actor responsible for addressing societal problems, even when the particular party in power is seen as wrongheaded. Thus, French, German, and Scandinavian populist groups are more likely to claim governmental services for themselves over »outsider« groups, seen as illegitimate or undeserving. »Neo-nationalist parties,« Maureen Eger and Sarah Valdez write about the European political landscape, »seek to limit access to the nation – and its affiliated benefits – to certain groups of ethnic minorities.«10

Though left populism is not the present focus, a few words about it may help to highlight features of the right. Populist »left« marks those who also feel the economy is changing in unwanted ways, but hold that it can be fixed by civil society and government efforts, notably those that broaden access to resources and opportunity, but not by reductions in government services or by nativist policies.

As »populism« has been much written about, yielding a variety of definitions and perspectives, I will try to clear away some of the brush by using a slim rubric to justify identifying a group or party as populist:11

– Populism is a way of presenting solutions to economic and way-of-life duress. Way-of-life duress refers to a sense of threat to the »way things should go,«12 to knowing what’s fair, what’s due you and others. It may be prompted by demographic or other societal shifts such as technology or gender roles changes.13 Economic duress includes current poverty and un- or under-employment but also the sense that opportunity is unfairly distributed and familiar paths to self-betterment are disappearing. Both duresses may be present or anticipated, fear of future duress for oneself or children. Analyzing eight hundred elections and one hundred financial crises in twenty advanced democracies from the 1870s to the present, Funke et al. found that »financial crises put a strain on democracies […] farright parties see strong political gains.«14 The left also sees gains as economist Adam Tooze notes, »the financial and economic crisis of 2007–2012 morphed between 2013 and 2017 into a compre-hensive political and geopolitical crisis […] Europe witnessed a dramatic mobilization of both Left and Right.«15

– Populist solutions aim at answering:

(a) who is under unfair duress – the »emotionalized us« in Andre

Gingrich’s apt phrase16

(b) why and how »we« have been wronged

(c) by whom – »them«.

– These questions/answers are binary in form. »Us« does not mark any school, work, or church group but the binary of my group in struggle against those who are unfairly doing »us« harm. The sense of »struggle« and »unfair harm« are salient features.

– The degree of binarity locates a movement along a continuum from strong to weak populism. Degree of binarity depends on:

– The possibilities for understanding »them« as a »worthy opposition«, part of the vox populi with whom »we« negotiate

– How inclusive »we« are of a variety of societal groups

– The permanence of the us-them »struggle«

– The ability to work with what Else Frenkel-Brunswick called »ambiguity tolerance.«17 Can groups have multiple or conflicting interests (e. g., environmental protection and maintaining fuel extraction jobs)?

– In order to »feel right« and be thought effective, populist solutions must be understandable. While new ideas are not precluded from understandability, the most easily grasped solutions are often familiar. That is, a society’s historico-cultural experience grounds the pool of ideas about society (who’s in and out) and government (its composition and responsibilities) from which »us-them« formations and populist solutions are drawn.

Historico-cultural materièl includes foundation narratives, symbologies, history, normative ways of thinking, myths18 and other cultural and religious tropes – what Matthew Engelke19 and Catherine Wanner20 call quasi religious/civil religious »ambient faith.« Judith Butler in Excitable Speech explains that »performa-tive« speech that accomplishes something (like bolstering a sense of »us«) works »because that action echoes prior actions, and accumulates the force of authority through the repetition or citation of a prior and authoritative set of practices.«21

As I continue, I will focus on the role of historico-cultural ex-perience in right populism rather than on cultic leaders. Though Donatella della Porta suggests that right populism is characterized by »strong, personalized leadership rather than citizen participation. This clearly differentiates it from progressive movements,«22 this inadequately applies to many current populisms. The US Tea Parties, the AfD, UKIP, and the Dutch and Scandinavian populist right are strongly grassroots and endure without cult-type leadership. Moreover in the 2016 presidential election, the left-populist Bernie Sanders was as much a cult figure as the right-wing Donald Trump, hailing to cheering, chanting crowds.

If we combine our understanding of »right wing« and »populism,« we find that it is: a way of presenting solutions to eco-nomic and way-of-life duress that relies on an »us-them« binary. In American right populism, foreign people and products and federal government are the »them« who are unfairly harming »us« hardworking ordinary folk. Thus, protectionist trade and immigration policies and small governmentism are reasonable solutions. Thus, the question before us is: how did this notion of »us« and »them« develop? What in America’s historico-cultural experience renders the specific combination of government and immigrants the un­fair and dangerous »other«? It is to this issue that we now turn.

II America’s historic-cultural experience: Covenant, republicanism, liberalism, localism

American ideas about society (who’s in and out) and government (its composition and responsibilities) are grounded in the liberal covenantal republic. This hybrid begins with Heinrich Bullinger (First and Second Helvetic Conventions, 1536, 1566) and the Re-formed Protestant political theory that built upon his work. It traced covenant from the reciprocal bonds between God and Adam and God and Noah to the reciprocal bond between God and the Hebrew patriarchs. This covenant was universalist, »for the blessing of all the nations,« and more controversially – Calvin wouldn’t hear of it – was the same covenant taught by Jesus and Paul.23

On this view, covenant is a reciprocal commitment between parties where each gives for the flourishing of the other. The First Testament covenant was studied, usually in Hebrew and often with rabbis, by early Reformed theologians, among the most political of whom was Johannes Althusius (1563–1638). He held that persons have a »symbiotic« nature so that we live in covenant with God and each other.24 The »fundamental law« of the commonwealth »is nothing other than certain covenants by which many cities and provinces come together and agree to establish and defend one and the same commonwealth by common work, counsel, and aid«. The law of the Ten Commandments is the core of covenantal morality, interpreted into »proper laws« by each community for the com-munity.

Written more than half a century before John Locke’s social contractarianism, covenantal politics was the foundation for the Massachusetts Mayflower Compact (1620), declaring: »We … covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick.« John Winthrop’s »A Model of Christian Charity« (1630) held that community hangs together by »mutual consent« in bond with God and among persons »so that,« echoing Althusius, »every man might have need of others.«25 To ensure that no power overtakes these bonds, Massachusetts enacted the Body of Liberties (1641), establishing protections of the common good against the rich and politically ambitious. As for them, Winthrop explains, »The care of the public must oversway all private respects.«26

Protecting the covenanted community from exploitative power was among the aims of the U. S. Declaration of Independence, which relies on Althusius’s idea (before Locke’s iteration) that rulers may be deposed for violating covenant with the governed. Provisions from the 1641 Body of Liberties were written into the U. S. Bill of Rights. The checks and balances of the U. S. tri-partite government (executive, legislative, judicial) and the federal-state system aim at preventing abuses of power over the sovereign covenanted states and »We, the People.«

The second tradition funding American ideas of society and government is the Aristotelian republic. Aristotle too understood human beings as social,27 as living in networks of networks (families amid communities, communities amid republics). Indeed, we achieve our fullest development through commitment to and participation in the polis.28 Philip Petit writes, freedom for Aristotle was the freedom of political self-determination to participate in the polis, not the »freedom of the heath«29 to roam alone. As with Althusius and Winthrop, the unjust person shirks responsibilities to the commons and grabs an unfair portion of societal benefits.30 Thus, the republic is successful insofar as it educates its citizens in civic virtue and care for the commons.31

By mid-eighteenth century, a meld of covenantal and republican thinking had emerged in the colonies. Samuel Langdon, pastor and president of Harvard, wrote in 1775, »the [ancient] Jewish government« was »divinely established« as a »perfect republic« (emphasis mine).32 Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, was succinct: »Republican forms of government are the best repositories of the Gospel.«33

Unlike covenantal and republican theory, liberalism sees the individual not so much networked as free to leave the polis to pursue opportunity. Her freedom is freedom from constraint. This notion of the individual is recognizable in Kant’s autonomously moral person and in the Protestant sola scriptura mandate to individualist Bible reading and emphasis on individual inner faith, especially among the pietist confessions. »The Pietists,« Stanley Grenz writes, »shifted the locus of true Christianity from baptism to personal conversion, from the objective to the subjective, from the external to the internal … a move that opened the way for the eventual advent of the modern self.«34

With remarkable trust in the individual, preachers of the First Great Awakening (the grassroots religious revival movement of the 1730s–1740s) declared the »absolute necessity for every Person to act singly.«35 And they did, inventing new forms of worship and icono-clastic theological tenets.36 They experimented most consequent-ly with Arminianism, with its accent on the individual’s role in salvation. While free will allows sin, prevenient grace (grace in this life) allows us also to choose the moral path and thus salvation. The critical step inheres in the individual soul. In the tellingly titled »On Working Out Our Own Salvation,« John Wesley wrote, »He will not save us unless we ›save ourselves.«37 In nineteenth century America, Arminian Methodism was the nation’s prevailing faith with influence far beyond its churches, whose numbers rose from 20 in 1770 to 19,883 in 1860.38

The idea of the separable individual was persuasive in America because of its early Protestantism but also because of immigration and the frontier. As many immigrants were fleeing persecutory or oppressive states, their flight reinforced the advantages of separability. Escaping the centralization struggles between Charles I and parliament, they were already wary of »outside« central government and other aliens that could threaten local values and self-rule. »The settlers departed England,« T. H. Breen writes, »determined to maintain their local attachments against outside interference … to preserve in America what had been threatened in the mother country.«39 The uprooting experience of immigration and harsh frontier conditions further boosted the advisability of self-reliance, trust in one’s local community, and wariness of far-away federal authorities, which, when it did act, was seen as bringing interfering regulations and taxes. The Shays (1786–1787) and Whiskey (1791–1794) Rebellions against federal taxation began almost as soon as the country did. Two generations later, Tocqueville in Democracy in America admiringly described grassroots localism and suspicion of government:

what political power could ever carry on the vast multitude of lesser under-takings which the American citizens perform every day, with the assistance of the principle of association? … No sooner does a government attempt to go beyond its political sphere and to enter upon this new track than it exercises, even unintentionally, an insupportable tyranny.40

In synergy and synthesis, these religious and geo-political factors yielded America’s liberalism and localism. The U. S. Constitution is a document constraining Washington and leaving much to state and non-governmental actors. The Bill of Rights protects indi-viduals and groups from government. Alexander Hamilton spoke forcefully for this position, defining liberty as »common privileges« and »natural rights« that must be shielded from government interference.41 He understood freedom as a means to private ambition and a check on government over-reach rather than a pre-condition for participation in the polis.

Covenantalism, republicanism, and liberalism together run through American history and notions of society and government. Rough settlement made both individual self-reliance and close-knit communities advisable. The religious dissenter’s concern for individual freedom also bonded like-minded groups together. Protestantism both emphasized individual inner faith and built communities to bolster one’s moral compass. Anthony Smith concludes that America’s »union was based on national ideologies with sig-nificant covenantal and civic components […] the earlier covenantal example of English parliamentarian revolt and the Puritan commonwealth, and adapting it to a civic tradition of public culture, modelling their republic on that of republican Rome.«42

III America’s historic-cultural experience: Grounding the pool of ideas from which populism draws

As America’s liberal covenanted republic is concerned with individual flourishing within the republic, a great deal hangs on who is inscribed into it. Since an immigrant nation cannot rely on common descent, ethnicity, or faith as societal glue, this inscription is key to American understandings of society (who’s in and not) and the role of government. Is government itself one of »us« or is it suspect and in need of constraint?

Left and right populism have answered these questions drawing from different aspects of America’s historico-cultural experience. As the focus here is on right populism and its appeal to evangelicals, I’ll turn to liberal/localist thought, which has been important in the background resources from which right populism draws its worldview and platform. That is, right-populism draws the covenanted republic more closely, culling from the »ambient faith« that civil society, the market, and local and state-level institutions are best equipped to advance society while a distant federal government and other non-locals are interfering, disruptive, and poten-tially tyrannical.

While national government grew as did the country, liberalism and localism undergirded much of the best in America, including a democratic critique of central authority and development of civil society. Moreover, localism has been vital across the spectrum of American politics, today grounding strong and weak state environmental protections, lax and tight state gun control, and both co­operation with federal deportation agencies and local »sanctuary movements.«

Yet under economic and/or way-of-life duress (present or anticipated), as people seek solutions in more binary frameworks, local community becomes my-community-in-unfair-struggle against »them,« traditionally understood as national government and other »outsiders,« immigrants and racial and religious minorities. Thus, in a populist turn: (a) commitment to community may be-come the determination that »outsiders« are not merely different but threats to be constrained, and (b) wariness of oppressive govern-ment may become suspicion of government per se, whose activities should be limited – except to implement the constraints on out-siders required by (a), such as border controls, or national secur-ity. Philip Zelikow adds that wariness of government is linked with resentment of associated elites such as intellectuals, bankers, and »cosmopolitanism.«43

There is stronger and greater permanence of binarity and less notion of a »worthy opposition« where »them« is identified on essentialist criteria such as race or the non-locality of national government. That is, immigrants and minorities are seen as taking an unfair share of societal resources (in crime and reliance on social services) much as the populist left sees wealthy businesses taking an unfair share. But the populist left binarity is weaker as »them« are identified on mutable business positions rather than essentialist traits. Business and wealthy individuals are not unalterably »them« but are evaluated on policies that may be debated and changed. On the right, because the immigrant and government »them« are iden-tified on essentialist criteria, the binary allows for less ambiguity tolerance and is more enduring.

One finds iterations of right populism in the ante-bellum Know Nothing Party, which, with its anti-immigrant, anti-(Irish) Catholic platform, won 22 percent of the House of Representatives in the 1854/5 election. Given that this was a five-party race, the number is significant. In response to populist anti-immigrant fervor during the recessions of the 1873 and 1893, discriminatory laws limiting immigration from southern and eastern Europe were passed in 1875, 1882, and 1924 during the xenophobic uproar of the Red Scare. The Ku Klux Klan is a right populist movement, and in an irony worth noting, »covenant« was the legal term for restrictive agreements that barred blacks and Jews from purchasing property in white Christian areas until the 1964 Civil Rights Act declared them illegal. When the courts voided such agreements, in the experience of those who used them, it was the interfering national government that violated local covenant.

Today, wariness of government as interloper and incipiently tyrannical is observed in the gun rights movement. David French wrote in the National Review that, »an assault-weapon ban […] would gut the concept of an armed citizenry as a final, emergency bulwark against [government] tyranny.«44 Three-quarters of gun owners say gun ownership is associated with freedom.45 Small government-ism is sufficiently compelling to some to prod rejec-tion of government programs that they and their families use. Those who, under the Republican replacement for the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), would have lost $ 5000 or more in government subsidies voted for Trump by 59 to 36 percentage points.46 Arlie Hochschild, in her research on populism in Louisiana,47 calls this the Great Paradox: rejecting government assistance that you yourself need. Describing similar findings, Binyamin Applebaum and Robert Gebeloff write, »they say they want to reduce the role of government in their own lives. They are frustrated that they need help, feel guilty for taking it and resent the government for pro-viding it.«48

Hochschild describes the view of politics in which both government and other »outsiders« are suspect. In this »deep story,« minor-ities and immigrants are »cutting in the job line« ahead of »us« (white, Christian Americans) – and worse, cutting in with the help of a government that gives these outsiders aid. While reliance on government programs rose from 7 percent of average income in 1969 to 17 percent in 2014, animus against such programs has also risen, owing, Suzanne Mettler notes in The Government-Citizen-Disconnect, to the perception that »other people« are using them unfairly, taking advantage of »our« tax dollars.49 Thus »we,« who have worked hard and deserve fair reward, should: shrink government regulations and programs by reducing taxes, return the money to »us,« and close borders to alien people and products.

Anxieties about immigration were equally or more decisive than economics in support for Trump among white working-class vot­ers.50 These anxieties hold though the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine finds that immigrants spur innovation and new businesses, increase employment, contribute $ 30 billion to the tax pool in the second generation and $ 223 bil-lion in the third, and are »integral to the nation’s economic growth.«51 Low-skill immigrants depress job hours, though not job availability itself, only for teenagers without a high school diploma. Anti-immigrant anxieties hold also though immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-borns52 and though, »Over the next 20 to 25 years,« Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, notes, »a labor shortage is going to put a binding constraint on growth« at all skill levels.53

Fifty-five percent of American whites hold that government »is treating them unfairly compared with other racial groups«54 – a resentment echoed in the alt-right cry, »you will not replace us,« in the resurgence of the Civil War Confederacy as a symbol of white pride, and in the »Latino Threat Narrative« about »loud, lazy, and lawless« newcomers. It is a persuasive explanation for economic ills, Jamie Longazel notes in Undocumented Fears,55 though the Latinos in his research area revived the local economy, attracting such firms as Amazon, Cargill, and American Eagle.

IV Trump and right-populism

Given the »Latino threat« and »line cutter« narratives and the view of government as incipiently tyrannical, it is not difficult to see Trump’s proposals to shrink government and close borders as the solution to economic and way-of-life duress, present and antici-pated. His policies, promised during his campaign, aim at reducing the size of federal government, including its involvement in health care, reducing government regulation of business and finance, cutting taxes, building a border wall, establishing import tariffs, temporarily banning Muslims, and renegotiating/withdrawing from NAFTA, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the Iran nuclear treaty. It’s worth noting that these policies do not earn support from all Republicans – tariffs and trade reductions were opposed by many mainstream »business Republicans« whose interest in the party is the financial benefits it brings in market deregulation and lower taxes on the wealthy and corporations. These business interests often value immigration as bringing in labor, in­novation, and in­vestment. Trump’s policies are persuasive, however, to those who seek relief from economic and way-of-life duresses understood through duress-prodded binaries.

While other Republicans propose pieces of a »solution« that keeps outsiders out – federal government, minorities, foreign people and products – Trump’s persuasiveness lies in melding them into a bold assertion of »us« through both policy and in his way of advancing it. His prejudicial remarks regarding Latin Amer-icans (as rapists, drug dealers, and gang members)56 and other minorities57 tap into and exacerbate a sense not only of economic but physical threat and the belief that the »lawless and lazy« are actively destroying »our« familiar and fair way of life. Tapping into and encouraging anti-government animus, in 2017 he described opening formerly protected land to business development as free-ing Americans from government: »Some people think that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of bureaucrats located in Washington […] They’re wrong.«58 Both his policies and rhetoric resonate with the 45 percent of Americans who, in Gallop research, say there is too much government regulation of business and industry.59

»We have one of us in that White House,« a Trump supporter told Newsweek in March 2018. He is seen not an authoritarian fi-gure but as uncorrupted by Washington and fighting for all Amer-icans who are losing out to far-away government elites, associated »cosmopolitans,« and other non-locals. »We are going to make America great again,« our Trump supporter continued. »We« are »the Caucasians that built this country«60 not the »line-cutter« »lawless« and »lazy« – though this Trump supporter recalled that her own immigrant family was subjected to the same stereotypes two generations ago.

In sum, Trump’s populist appeal – distinct from his appeal to finance and major businesses – lies in proposing solutions that tap into productive, vital liberal/localist views of government and society that have been sharpened and binarized by duress, present and feared. Both the vital liberalism/localism and their binarized readings are longstanding in American experience. Resistance to Obama’s health insurance reform long preceded the Trump candidacy though through it, over 20 million acquired health insurance for the first time. »The opposition to a government role in health care,« The National Institutes of Health writes, »is based on the fact that that the vast majority of our citizens do not trust their government.«61 The complaint was repeated to the appeals court by the states that brought suit against it, it »rests on a claim of federal power that is both unprecedented and unbounded.«62 By contrast, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan in 2017 assured that, under the Re­publican proposal to replace Obama’s plan, »People are going to do what they want to do with their lives because we believe in individual freedom.«63

Significant Republican support for greater immigration control and a border wall also preceded Trump’s candidacy by as much as two decades.64 »In the years leading up to the [2016] primaries, Pew Research Center surveys showed that large majorities of Republicans supported building a border fence along the Mexican border. Most Republicans also said that ›immigrants are a burden because they take jobs, housing and health care,‹ and nearly all Republicans said they wanted tougher restrictions on immigration in ge-ner-al.«65 John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck conclude, »Trump successfully activated beliefs, ideas, and anxieties that were already present and even well-established within the party. He simply hunted where the ducks are.«

V Trump and Evangelicals

In the main, evangelical support for Trump falls roughly into three categories: (i) the wealthy who support tax cuts and business deregulation that add to profits and assets, much as other wealthy Americans do; (ii) those for whom prohibiting legal abortion and same-sex marriage is a top priority and thus also appointing judges who will accomplish this end; and (iii) those who understand non-locals, immigrants and importantly federal government, as, in the words of Ronald Reagan, part of the problem.66 I will focus on the last and its substantial influence on evangelical political affiliation. Considerable overlap may occur between the first and second commitments, and between the second and third, but, as suggested in the section on methodological issues, less overlap between the first and third, as wealthy evangelicals, like other wealthy Americans and businesses, have more positive views of immigration as adding to innovation, new investment, and the labor pool.

Wariness of government has special traction among evangelicals for theological and religio-political reasons.67 First and more theologically, as evangelical traditions, through the influence of Reformed theology, place strong emphasis on personal covenant (with God, among persons), they also emphasize the importance and protection of the covenanted community from interfering forces. Strengthening this theological emphasis was the experience of persecution by Europe’s state churches. Anabaptists and dissenting and low Reformed churches developed pronounced sensitivity to tyrannical government. Leaving Europe to build the New Jerusalem unmolested by the state and unbothered by those of other faiths, they followed the wisdom of relying on their trusted community and maintaining a wariness of outsiders – both potentially tyrannical government or others unlike themselves. Roger Williams, father of the American Baptist communities, argued for a »wall« between church and state for the protection not of the state but of the »garden« of the churches.68

Through American settlement, this close-community-minded history and theology interacted with frontier living, whose rough conditions also encouraged strong community and local self-reliance. Washington was suspect for its regulations and taxes and out of fear that it would enforce a state religion, as was the practice still in much of Europe. It was the Connecticut Baptist Association that wrote to Jefferson in 1802 to protest rumors of a coming national church. When Jefferson used his well-known »wall« between church and state to assure them that no such church would be established, he was cribbing from the Baptist Roger Williams.

Evangelicals – believers in, one might say, the local ekklesia and wary of authorities – became the backbone of American civil society. They were active in public education, temperance, and overseas liberation movements; they protested sexual trafficking, Chinese foot-binding, and Indian suttee. They argued both sides of the slavery issue.69 From 1789 to 1828, the U. S. government spent $ 3.6 million on infrastructure development. The thirteen leading volun-tary associations, many evangelical, spent $ 2.8 million on their projects. The largest U. S. government office in ante-bellum America was the postal service, but by 1850 evangelical churches had double the employees, twice as many facilities, and raised three times as much money.70 By the mid-nineteenth century, the evangelical Methodist and Baptist churches accounted for two thirds of Protes-tants in the U. S.71

With the post-bellum increase in industrialization’s urban poor, evangelicals continued their civic activism. Dwight L. Moody, perhaps the most popular preacher of the day, lambasted business for paying starvation wages and set up schools for young women and men (in that order). Evangelicals threw their political support behind the populist leader William Jennings Bryan, three-times presidential candidate (1896, 1900, and 1908). Under the leadership of Walter Rauschenbusch, they developed the Social Gospel, which ran programs for the poor and provided one of America’s earliest critiques of laissez-faire capitalism. »Nations do not die by wealth,« Rauschenbusch noted, »but by injustice.« The church was obligated »to act as the tribune of the people.«72 Edward Bellamy, the Baptist preacher and socialist, wrote his 1887 utopic novel, Looking Backward, to argue for democratic, socialist approaches to poverty. As a blockbuster, it was second only to Charles Sheldon’s 1896 pub-lishing hit, In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do, which asked: »What would Jesus do about the great army of unemployed and desperate? … Would Jesus care nothing for them?«73 The evangelical socialist tradition was strong into the 1930s.

There were two turns to what we call evangelical conservativism, the first in the early twentieth century, spurred by anxieties about the evils of urbanization, Bolshevism, the Jazz Age, and the German Historical Critical method of Bible criticism. This scholarly approach, requiring training in ancient languages and sophisticated exegetical tools, seemed like a threat to many evangelicals whose faith was grassroots and relatively untutored. The response by many evangelicals was a defensive turn inward. From 1910 to 1915, the oil magnates Lyman and Milton Stewart subsidized free distribution of a pamphlet series, The Fundamentals, to shore up American evangelical basics, including its anti-elitist, grassroots, government-wary traditions – though even this series contained a chapter that acknowledged »the wisdom of many Socialistic proposals,« including »government ownership of the railroads, mines, public utilities, factories.«74 The series was widely distributed and inaugurated the term »fundamentalism.« After evangelicals were derided as benighted primitives in the 1925 Scopes trial on teaching evolution in the public schools, many withdrew from public-sphere activism into their communities, reprising the evangelical experience of discrimination and reinforcing wariness of elites, big government, and other »outsiders.«

The second turn to conservativism coalesced after the 1964 defeat of Barry Goldwater by Lyndon Johnson. The evils this time were Cold War communism, the youth counter-culture and anti-Vietnam war protests (associated with self-indulgence), the massive government Civil Rights and Great Society programs (associated with self-indulgence and »handouts« by government to minor-ities), and the feminist and gay rights movements. Understanding these movements as unraveling what makes the best person and society – local- and self-responsibility – white evangelicals for the first time made common cause with the Republican party to re-direct the country back to these values.

VI Evangelicals and Republicans: Not a Faustian Bargain

The New Right alliance of conservative »big money,« evangelicals, and the right wing of the working and lower middle classes – what we now call Trump’s »base« – is an uneasy coalition. Policies that benefit the monied often do not benefit the »base,« and the reli-gious concerns of evangelicals (gay marriage, abortion, special tax and other protections for religious institutions) often do not hold high priority for the other two groups. Yet, among the central po- sitions holding the coalition together is small-governmentism, which the monied support for profits, the »base,« from America’s traditions of local- self- reliance, and evangelicals, from American traditions and their own experience with oppressive states and state churches. Moreover, while much of what we call »American« localism and small government-ism was fueled by immigration and the rough conditions of settlement, much was also fueled by the fear of persecutory states on the part of the Anabaptists, low Reformed churches, and other dissenters – the parents of America’s evangelicals.

That is, evangelical support for Republicans is not a Faustian bargain where they are indifferent to Republican economic and political positions but support them in return for Republican support on religious matters.75Rather, evangelicals are drawn to their own traditional beliefs in a self-reliant Tocquevillian republic unmolested by an over-reaching government and other potentially disruptive intruders. They have been consistent supporters of Grover Norquist’s anti-tax organization, American’s for Tax Reform, since its founding in 1985 and had central roles in Norquist’s »Wednesday« meetings on fiscal and foreign policy.76 In 2004, the legislative prior-ity of the Christian Coalition was to make the Bush tax cuts per-manent.77 Two-thirds of evangelicals voted for Ronald Reagan,78 whose slogan was small-governmentism, although he was di-vorced and an irregular church attender. Though the Republican party did little to end abortion even when they had the presidency and both houses of Congress (the first two years of George W. Bush’s tenure, for instance), evangelicals gave high majorities to all Republican presidential candidates since Reagan.79 As ending legal abortion is the highest religious priority among evangelicals, this record suggests that evangelicals are supporting Republicans also out of political and economic convictions. More white evangelicals (44 percent) supported the Tea Party, with its strong small-government positions, than any other religious group by 13–37 percentage points.80

Today we find that evangelicals for whom religious concerns (abortion, gay marriage) are paramount have reasonable faith that Trump will move policy towards evangelical positions. He has put two quite conservative justices on the Supreme Court (Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh) and in 2018, issued an executive ruling prohibiting federally funded health clinics from providing or giving information about abortions.81 He moved the U. S. embassy to Jerusalem, pleasing evangelicals who believe that the in-gathering of the Jews to Israel is a step towards the Second Coming of Christ. Those for whom economic matters are paramount – both the monied and the »base« – have faith that the Trump tax cuts and regulation reduc-tions will protect the economy from an interfering, hobbling government. Those for whom un- and under-em-ployment and way-of-life duress are paramount have faith that tax cuts, regulation reduc-tions plus protectionist immigration and trade policies will benefit the economy and protect the nation from the »line cutters,« »Latino threat,« and other interlopers.

For many with mixed sets of concerns – religious, economic, way-of-life – Trump is a triple win.

VII Evangelicals who do not embrace Trump

Given this current state of affairs, 20–25 percent of evangelicals nonetheless do not em-brace Trump, some so strongly that they debate whether to con-tinue to identify as evangelicals as the term, in their view, has become associated with ethics and policies counter to Jesus’s teachings. »Following Trump’s election,« Kate Shellnutt wrote in Christianity Today, »several leaders, authors, and bloggers announced they would no longer identify as evangel-ical, while others called into question the usefulness of the term.«82

Christianity Today reports that currently, only half of evangel-ical pastors were comfortable using the term »evangelical« with non-Christians, indicating in Rev. Skye Jethani’s words, »that evangelical has lost its usefulness as an identity in our culture.«83 Since the 2016 election, 33 percent of evangelical pastors say they are less comfortable than before the election using the term with non-Christians, 23 percent, even with other Christians. »I’m not surprised,« Rev. Mandy Smith responded, »what we’ve been talking about this election has little to do with the gospel.« Rev. Jeanne Porter King told Christianity Today, »I and others have become so disillusioned by what appears to be the flexing of biblical standards by prominent evangelical leaders in their support of Mr. Donald Trump.«

Among prominent evangelical leaders who are concerned about using the term are: Rev. Skye Jethani, who tweeted »#FarewellEvangelicalism,« Rev. Russell Moore (of the influential Southern Baptist Convention), Shane Claiborne (The Simple Way community), Katelyn Beaty (managing editor, Christianity Today), and the evangelical authors John Fea (Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump), Preston Yancey, and Amy Julia Becker, who in »Why I am ditching the label ›evangelical‹ in the Trump Era«84 wrote that she is dropping the term because it has become politicized and thus divisive of Christians and Christ’s work.85 Thomas Kidd (Baylor University) elaborates, »In American pop culture parlance, ›evangelical‹ now basically means whites who consider themselves religious and who vote Republican86 Princeton Evangelical Fellowship in 2017 changed its name to Princeton Christian Fellowship. »There might be certain assumptions,« Bill Boyce, the Fellowship’s president explained »that all evangelicals are Republicans […] We’re interested in being people who are defined by our faith and by our faith commitments and not by any sort of political agenda.«87

Among the evangelicals who do not embrace Trump, many, such as Ron Sider,88 Mark Labberton, and Richard Mouw, former president of Fuller Theological Seminary, retain the label because of its historical meaning and its connections with evangelicals, throuhout the world, whose faith and work is not linked to Trump.89 John Fea, who has »been a strong critic of Donald Trump« and who has »been deeply disappointed that so many of my fellow evangelicals have gotten into bed with this monster,« nonetheless holds that he »will continue to work within the evangelical community to help my fellow believers think more deeply about what it means to be a Christian citizen in democratic America.«90

On the other side of the »label« argument, Scot McKnight, Professor of New Testament at Northern Baptist Theological Semi-nary, argues this way in »Bury the word ›evangelical‹«91: today, »evangelical=Republican=Conservative=populist=Trump,« so if only those who believe in this conflation continue to use the term, this narrow meaning is what the term will come to have. Those who are Christians who do not follow this catechism will be known by other terms. »The political folks have won. Let the political evangelicals have the term. Everyone else walk away. Call yourself something else.«

Perhaps it is worth quoting Shane Claiborne, the Beyoncé of younger evangelicals, at some length:

Many of us grieve that our brothers and sisters once known for their zeal for Jesus have been more passionate about exalting Donald Trump this year than Jesus. Some of the patriarchs of evangelicalism – Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Franklin Graham – overlooked Trump’s anti-Christian values this year. But a new generation of Christians – whether they want to be called evangelical or not – loves Jesus and care about justice. They care about life: the earth, the poor, refugees and immigrants. They don’t need to be convinced that black lives matter or that racism is real. For them, a consistent ethic of life shapes the way they think about war and militarism, gun violence and police brutality, the death penalty and mass incarceration. For them, being pro-life isn’t about anti-anything: it is about being for life.

According to Jesus, our Father blesses the very antithesis of many of the things America has come to stand for: prosperity, pride, and power. The prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures would undoubtedly name what we have become as »idolatry.« We’ve made idols out of wealth, fame, power, and whiteness – and the phenomenon of Donald Trump is a natural outgrowth of that idolatry.92

Looking for a way for evangelicals to move forward given the divisions within the movements, Katelyn Beaty, in Christianity Today, writes, »Christians who denounced Trump might feel especially powerless this season, realizing that their warnings didn’t sway enough voters at the polls. But Trump’s win has inspired many to redouble their commitment to hospitality, compassion, solidarity with the poor, generous giving, and emboldened verbal proclamation of the gospel […] there’s a silver lining to having a president who is so clearly not a Christian leader: It keeps us from thinking that we can outsource the work of the gospel to politicians.«93

VIII Conclusion

This article looks at the relationship between evangelicals and right-wing populism in the U. S., beginning with a rubric that allows one to justify identifying a movement or party as populist. The last rubric point notes that, to be persuasive, populism tends to draw from historico-cultural materièl about society (who’s in, who not) and government (its size, composition, and responsibilities). The most foundational of this materièl in the U. S. is the hybrid liberal covenantal republic, where government-wary liberal traditions interacted with the immigrant flight from oppressive governments and rough frontier conditions to bolster a strong, vibrant self-reliance and trust in local community. However, under conditions of economic and way-of-life duress, liberal localism becomes a sharpened binary between »my community« of white, native-born, (at least nominal) Christians and a »them« of federal government, minorities, and foreign people and products. On this view of society and government, Trump’s proposals to shrink government (by tax cuts and reductions on business regulations) and to close borders look to address the problems caused by »them« and are persuasive.

The liberal localist understanding of society and government has traction among evangelicals as it echoes their own historical wariness of government and other outsiders that threatened their way of life and often survival. That is, evangelical support for the small-government-ism of the Republican party and right populism is not a Faustian bargain where evangelicals are indifferent to economic and political positions but support them in return for Republican support on religious matters. Rather, evangelicals are drawn to their own traditional beliefs in a self-reliant, Tocquevil-lian republic unmolested by an over-reaching government and other potentially disruptive intruders. This, in addition to more narrowly religious issues (abortion, gay marriage) helps explain evangelical support for the Republican party and Trump. The ar-ticle closes with a look at the vocal minority of evangelicals who oppose Trump, which points to more republican and covenantal traditions about society and government. These ground the pool of ideas from which left populism (»Wobbly« unionism, Bernie Sanders) draws and, in less binarized forms, much center-left politics. The genealogy of these traditions and how they play out at present is the stuff of a separate article.

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