19 Apr 2022
Even though they have declined from 23 per cent of the population in 2006 to 14.5 per cent in 2022, evangelicals still comprise one quarter of all American voters. Hence the stances they adopt matter to America’s domestic and international politics. Not only did 84 per cent of white evangelicals vote for Donald Trump in 2020, but many have voiced support for Russian President Vladimir Putin for nearly a decade. Why? Those who believe that evangelicals embrace Putin out of some fundamentalist proclivity for authoritarianism have the story backwards. It’s more a tale of freedom gone awry.
While many white evangelical leaders oppose Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, televangelist Pat Robertson recently said Putin was “compelled by God” to invade the country in order to precipitate the coming apocalypse. In 2015, Franklin Graham (son of Billy Graham, leader of post-war American evangelicalism) visited Putin and Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, in Moscow and told the Russian press that “millions of Americans would like [Putin] to come and run for president of the United States”. Though Putin had just invaded Crimea, in 2014 Graham nonetheless applauded his efforts to protect children from “homosexual propaganda”; Graham moreover held that the importance of protecting Christianity was sufficient “justification” for Putin’s decision to strafe Syrian cities by way of support for Bashar al-Assad’s bloody civil war.
To be sure, some of this amounts to little more than rallying the base around some of the lowest of low-hanging fruit in the culture wars. But why should evangelical leaders rally their base — who embrace Trumpism precisely because of its opposition to the “deep state” — around someone like Putin, an authoritarian strongman who, as an ex-KGB operative, is about as “deep state” as you can get? How does this square with the evangelical priority accorded to individual liberty and their fears of the government “swamp”?
In fact, Putin is not seen as a “deep state” autocrat but as a leader who is advancing religious freedom globally against the tyranny of secular government. He’s also seen as standing up for the Russian people, who were robbed, on his telling, of their rightful place in the world by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Both moves look right to America’s white evangelicals, who feel beleaguered by a secular government within an increasingly secular, multicultural society, and who are seeking an ally in their struggle for freedom to be Christian. The key word here is freedom.
It’s not that white evangelicals see Putin as an extension of “their man”, Donald Trump. Rather, they view Putin through a lens that makes both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, not just palatable, but persuasive. When offering his support of Trump during the 2016 presidential election campaign, Baptist minister Robert Jeffress explained, “I want the meanest, toughest, son-of-a-you-know-what I can find in that role [of president], and I think that’s where many evangelicals are”.
You could say that American white evangelicals came by their admiration and for the “meanest, toughest, son-of-a-you-know-what” honestly — by means of their history.
The ancestors of today’s evangelicals came to the United State as covenantal thinkers, understanding society as a covenant for the common good among persons and with God. Should a ruler breach covenant, the people could remove him. Covenantalists, as religious “free thinkers” unattached to Europe’s state churches, were also persecuted by them. All told, they were wary of government, elite authorities, and “outsiders” who might disturb their way of life. The 1620 Mayflower Compact — declaring that “We … Covenant and Combine our selves together into a Civil Body Politick” — sought both to establish a covenantal government for colonial Massachusetts and to control non-Puritan “outsiders”.
Evangelicals also held to two key doctrines: the fallenness of human government and personal responsibility to come to the truth about God, world, and morality — which is to say, the need to think “singly” rather than follow authorities. Because all governments are imperfect and may not be taken for the Kingdom of God, each person must work out for themselves how best to further God’s vision. The belief encouraged individual moral reckoning and, again, wariness of authorities and outsiders.
In short, American evangelicals have not only a political basis for their wariness of government — as many Americans who have fled oppressive regimes had — but also a doctrinal one. During the Cold War, Christians in the West saw themselves as threatened by godless Communism. But today, in a world characterised by multiple power centres, white evangelical Christians see their freedom as under threat from an omnipresent secular “deep state”.
Fear of losing that freedom and of being trounced by (secular) government is more than a century in the making, and is deeply rooted in the evangelical worldview and motivation. Evangelicalism had been America’s default religion and the socio-cultural norm-setter until the late-nineteenth century, when it was successively challenged by industrialisation, urbanisation, Darwinism, and the new German “historical-critical” school of biblical exegesis — an academic movement which, with its array of philological and archaeological interpretive methods, threatened to overturn America’s grassroots, democratic, untutored understanding of the Bible.
Then, evangelicals lost the 1925 Scopes Supreme Court case over the teaching of evolution in public schools. In 1962, the United States Supreme Court ruled that school-led prayer was unconstitutional. Then came the sexual revolution, followed by the feminist and gay right movements. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled gay marriage a constitutional right. Today, 79 per cent of Americans and 65 per cent of Republicans support anti-discrimination protections for LGBTIQ+ people, deepening evangelical fears of a drubbing at the hands of a secular state and society.
When Donald Trump first ran for president, white evangelical wariness of government and loss of liberty was not new, but it was enlivened and energised as Trump and others tapped into their longstanding suspicion of government and elites alike — the “deep state”, the Washington “swamp”, and the “fake news” elite media. Trump promised a “mean” and “tough” bulwark against all these threats, and to offer unassailable protection for the freedom to be Christian. When he moved the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he said unambiguously, “That’s for the evangelicals”.
If we then add to this the evangelical fear of secular oppression globally, we can then see the way that “deep state” Putin — who has long shown himself remarkably adept at disguising brutal power grabs beneath the cloak of “saviour behaviour” — could emerge as the protector of the freedom to be Christian everywhere. It is from fear of losing freedom that people come to embrace a strongman who is willing to instrumentalise their anxieties for his own aggressive purposes. In their insightful analysis of the 2016 presidential election, John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck described these sorts of strongman tactics as “hunting where the ducks are”.
The peculiarities and problems of white evangelical politics cannot be addressed without understanding where the ducks are — namely, evangelicalism’s history as it undergirds evangelicals’ current fears. It is, after all, these fears which give evangelical politics its tenacity, its persistence, and its power.
Professor Marcia Pally teaches at New York University and held the Mercator Professorship in the Theology Faculty of Humboldt University, Berlin. Her most recent books are White Evangelicals and Right-Wing Populism: How Did We Get Here?, From This Broken Hill I Sing to You: God, Sex, and Politics in the Work of Leonard Cohen, Mimesis and Sacrifice: Applying Girard’s Mimetic Theory Across the Disciplines, and Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality, which was selected by the United Nations Committee on Education for Justice for worldwide distribution and was nominated for a Grawemeyer Award in religion.