White Evangelicals and Right-wing Populism
By Marcia Pally
Donald Trump lost the 2020 election by seven million votes and 74 seats in the Electoral College, a count validated in over 70 lawsuits, twice by the Supreme Court, and by his own attorney general, William Barr. Yet a third of U.S. voters believe Trump won, and 30 to 40 percent see Trumpist populism as the best path for America’s future. Among those who believe the election was rigged, 39 percent hold that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country”; 26 percent of white evangelicals take this view, more than any other religious group or the unaffiliated.
White evangelicals voted for Trump by 81 and 84 percent in 2016 and 2020, respectively. Why? The question is especially poignant as, after four years in office, Trump managed no health care, job training, education, manufacturing, immigration reform, or infrastructure program. As for his 2017 tax cut, the business-friendly journal Forbes wrote, “The biggest winners” were “corporations and the households that get income from corporate profits”—not the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40), not the middle and working classes, but America’s wealthiest.
So what in white evangelical religious and political history and present circumstances makes Trumpist populism seem best?
I understand populism as a way of responding to way-of-life, economic and status-loss duresses that finds solution to these duresses in “us -them” frameworks. Identifying “us” and “them” draws from historical and cultural notions of society (who’s in, who’s not) and government (its proper size and role). Traditional notions of “us” and “them” have not only the ring of familiarity but of authority. They feel both “natural” and ethically “right.” (Following Whitehead and Perry, this “minimal definition” synthesizes ideational approaches, which identify a movement/group as populist owing to the ideas its adherents hold, with cultural, historical, and social-psychological understandings of populism. It’s hoped that this synthesis allows for a more complete picture than any approach alone would.)
Duress: American and White Evangelical
Each part—duress, us-them shift, and cultural resources—contributes to white evangelical politics. Some duresses that white evangelical face are like those confronting other Americans: economic and technological change, shifts in gender roles and demographics, and fear of losing one’s secure place in society. Reicher and Ulusahin note that it is not status but status loss that provokes efforts to restore “the rightful order of things,” often through non-mainstream politics precisely because mainstream strategies have been ineffective against this loss.
Together, these duresses yield the sense that life is less easy, familiar, and fair than a generation or two ago, that conditions are changing fast, and that they are determined by those who care little about one’s circumstances and whom one cannot reach or influence.
The outcome is often not only “representational deficiency” (where citizens feel unheard by representatives in government and so are more open to political extremism) but also “efficacy deficiency” (14-15), where people move to the political extremes to at least do something to feel effective on their own behalf. While addressing the complex, powerful sources of economic and way-of-life duress may seem daunting, efforts against a group traditionally identified as “them” has path-dependency advantage, may elicit more societal support, and may thus provide ready-to-hand feelings of effectiveness.
In addition to these stressors, pressures bearing specifically on white evangelicals include membership loss and a growing sense of cultural and political marginalization in an increasingly secular, multicultural, and socially liberal country. They have decreased as a share of the population, from 23 percent in 2006 to 14.5 percent in 2020. More than two million left the Southern Baptist Convention between 2006 and 2020. . The median age is 56, making it the most aged religious group in America. As Robert Jones, founder and president of the Public Religion Research Institute, notes, “‘a real visceral sense of loss of cultural dominance’ has set in.”
As duress persists, us-them shift occurs, Gilligan and Snider explain, as a common psychological response. The usual focus on one’s own group shifts self-protectively to constraining an “other” thought to be the source of duress. It’s a defense mechanism of first resort. “The more stressful the situation,” Vamik Volkan writes, “the more neighbor groups become preoccupied with each other.”
But Which “Them”? Government- and Outsider Wariness
The selection of which neighbor begins with history and culture. The forebears of today’s evangelicals understood society as a covenant among persons and with God. Should a ruler breach covenant, the sovereign people could remove him. Covenantalists were wary of government, authorities, and outsiders who could disturb their way of life—a caution reinforced by their persecution at the hands of Europe’s states and state churches. The 1620 “Mayflower Compact,” declaring that “We … covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick,” sought to establish both covenantal community in Massachusetts and control of non-Puritan “outsiders.”
Evangelicals also held to two key doctrines: the fallenness of human government and personal responsibility to come to truth (rather than adhering to priestly authority). As all human governments are imperfect and may not be taken for the Kingdom of God, each individual must work out how to witness God’s vision, a belief that encouraged individual moral reckoning and, again, wariness of authorities and outsiders.
The tendency to self-responsible anti-authoritarianism was strengthened in America as evangelical Methodism, building on Arminianism, re-imagined the Calvinist emphasis on God’s grace to accent each person’s agency in salvation. As America’s most influential denomination of the nineteenth-century, Methodism spurred evangelical anti-authoritarianism, localist anti-Federalism, and Jeffersonian and Jacksonian politics, with ministers becoming central figures in agrarian and anti-landlord protest.
All told, evangelicals are bequeathed both a two-fold source of duress, religio-cultural and economic/way-of-life, and a double source of government- and outsider-wariness, political and doctrinal. That is, a double source of “them”s to blame for duresses. 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 (182, 200–201). Northern evangelicals were often vocal abolitionists, and southerners, defenders of the slave system in Christian voice, both advocates for their local communities.
White evangelicals were vocal as well on both sides of the Civil War, fought over the slave system and Washington’s role in state/local governance. Post-bellum, the southern response to defeat was also grounded in localism and resistance to Washington. With white evangelical support and contribution, the Confederacy was re-imagined into a “lost cause” of Christianized white supremacy and noble resistance to federal interlopers. The two together became markers of white identity and pride, celebrated in the parades honoring the Confederacy through Christian dogma, in children’s catechisms glorifying the Confederacy, and in the statues and stained-glass church windows ubiquitous through the South.
Accumulating Losses in “Cultural Dominance”
The late nineteenth century, however, saw challenges to the predominant place of white evangelicals in America, beginning with industrialization, urbanization, Darwinism, changing social norms, and the scholarly Historical-Critical school of biblical exegesis, which threatened to unseat America’s grassroots, democratic but untutored understanding of the Bible. Part of the evangelical response was the embrace of apocalyptic doctrines that reflected evangelical anxieties about the future even as they increased the sense of societal marginalization.
In the twentieth century, the sense of evangelical dethronement followed several court cases, including the 1925 Scopes trial, which pitted “modernists” against conservative Christians in the battle over teaching evolution in public schools. Evangelicals were nationally lampooned as benighted primitives. In 1962, the Supreme Court prohibited school-sponsored prayer and in 1968, it overturned state bans on teaching evolution. In1990, it ruled that religious belief or practice did not exempt one from laws of general applicability. States could choose to accommodate religious belief/practice in their laws but are not required to do so.
The Sixties youth counter-culture, Civil Rights legislation, “big government” anti-poverty programs, the worry that Democrats were “soft on communism,” and the feminist and gay rights movements aggravated white evangelical concerns. 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 increasingly multi-cultural, liberal society.
The Irony of White Evangelical Populism…
In the us-them shifts that accompanied this history of diminishment,
- the heritage of community and local pride, foundational to the evangelical experience, may turn to self-protective, my-community-in-struggle against “outsiders” (minorities, new immigrants)
- wariness of oppressive government and elites, also foundational, may turn to suspicion of government and elites per se, whose activities and programs should be limited—except to constrain “outsiders.”
The irony of American 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 may under distress turn to self-protective, us-them defense against America’s “them”s: against (ever-potentially tyrannical) government, against (the tyranny of) the secular, and against “outsiders” In explaining the 2016 election, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, gave some sense of the defensive fight white evangelicals felt is at hand. Evangelicals, he said, are “tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists,” and are “finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.”
… And Its Political Impacts
Understanding government- and outsider-wariness as the path that protects God’s communities, many white evangelicals in the 1970s and ‘80s embraced the Republican “New Right”: small-government economics, social conservativism, resistance to “outsider” disruptions of local norms and law, and anti-Communist foreign policy to defeat the biggest of big (atheistic) governments. White evangelicals supported the first New Right president Ronald Reagan, whose domestic priorities were business de-regulation and reduction of government through tax cuts. Since then, they have given majorities to “small-government” Republican candidates, from a low of 62 percent in the 1996 presidential race to a high of 84 percent in 2020. White evangelicals supported Grover Norquist’s anti-tax oganization (Americans for Tax Reform) in its founding year, 1985, and each year since. In 2000, 79 percent voted for G.W. Bush, whose major domestic achievements were again tax cuts and business de-regulation.
This is not an anti-abortion vote with Republican small-government-ism as a tag-along. It’s small-government-ism as political ethics. Making Bush’s tax cuts permanent was a legislative priority for the Christian Coalition. In 2016, the factors most important in determining the evangelical vote were the economy and national security. Abortion was most important for half as many evangelicals; LGBTQ+ matters, for roughly a quarter. In 2020, the economy was again the highest priority, followed by the covid pandemic.
Government- and “outsider”-wariness sharpened with twenty-first century way-of-life and economic stresses and the election of the first African-American president Barack Obama, who increased the presence of people of color and women in positions of authority and expanded government’s role in social services and business regulation–against white evangelical preference for “small-government-ism.” Obama’s 2010 health care reform, the Affordable Care Act, mandated that employers offer birth control in employee health insurance plans, which alarmed Catholics and many evangelicals (though the law provides an exception where the government, not the religious employer, pays for employee birth control).
Evangelical radio-host Eric Metaxas responded with traditional animus towards Washington and “outsiders.” “Beltway [Washington D.C.] and Manhattan elites” he said, perpetrate a “new and accepted tribalism and xenophobia” upon “white European ‘Christian’ varieties” of people” (262). In 2020, white evangelicals scored highest on the Public Religion Research Institute racism index (170–184). In 2021, 66 percent of white evangelicals thought of newcomers as “invaders.” Fifty-seven percent preferred living in a country where most people are Christian. No other religious group comes within 20 points of this majority.
When Trump first ran for president, he tapped into and reinforced wariness of America’s traditional “them”s, promising relief from: the “deep state,” the D.C. “swamp” and its “fake news” elite media, “Mexican rapists,” “Muslim terrorists,” and foreigners who cheat us in global trade. White evangelicals triage their concerns about these “them”s with concerns that their values and way of life are being trounced by a secular government and society. These fears and values may also become political chips in a bid for voter support. When Trump moved the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he said, “That’s for the evangelicals.”
As the Jan. 6 riot demonstrates, people are willing to fight hard for the guy they believe is fighting for them.
“Hunting Where the Ducks Are”
Us-them thinking, with its simple explanations and clear path of action—get the “thems!”—is appealing. But it has a tragic cast. “Solutions” that emerge from us-them thinking are based on the distortions that duress itself prods—from a sense of community to exclusionary communities, and from wariness of government oppression to wariness of government itself. Good solutions do not come from distortions. So the original duresses remain, to the continued harm of the distressed communities and to prod further rounds of us-them anger.
Who benefits? Those who animate us-them anxieties for political and economic gain. There’s a name for that. It’s called “hunting where the ducks are.”
Marcia Pally teaches at NYU and held the Mercator Guest Professorship in the theology department at Humboldt University-Berlin, where she is now annual guest professor. Her latest books are White Evangelicals and Right-wing Populism: HOW DID WE GET HERE? (2022), From This Broken Hill I Sing to You: God, Sex, and Politics in the Work of Leonard Cohen (2021), and Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality (2016).