Why is Populism Persuasive? Populism as Expression of Religio-Cultural History; U.S. and Evangelicals as a Case Study

Why is Populism Persuasive?

Populism as Expression of Religio-Cultural History with the U.S. and U.S. Evangelicals as a Case Study

By Marcia Pally


Political Theology

Published online: 11 Mar 2020




Abtract: Populism is often criticized as a dark political theology as inscrutable as a religion to which one doesn’t belong – a messianic craze incompatible with rational government. This article suggests that populisms, left and right, draw from the very historico-cultural background that grounds the societies in which they occur. They are not in revolt against this background but of it. Being grounded in this longstanding background and its cultural repetition, Judith Butler notes, gives populism appeal – what makes it “feel right” and sound true to its audience. In a case study of American populism, including the role of evangelicals, I make a three-part argument. Beginning with a rubric allowing us to identify a movement as populist, I look at (i) religion’s contribution to America’s historico-cultural background, (ii) how that background funds understandings of society and government, (iii) how these understandings play out in populisms on the left, right, and among evangelicals.

Keywords: PopulismevangelicalsTrumpReformed political theologylocalismcovenantal political theologyAlthusius


Populism is often criticized as an enemy of reliable, secular reason, a quasi-religious violator of rational government and dark political theology as inscrutable and suspect as a religion to which one doesn’t belong. In the U.S., current populism may be seen as a new messianic craze upending rational democratic processes – a view supported by findings that 60 percent of white working-class Americans, Donald Trump’s populist “base,” believe the country needs a leader who’ll “break the rules.”1 The inflammatory nature of his rhetoric against the “deep state” and other “enemies of the people” (immigrants, minorities, news media,) is also seen as signaling radical change or at least significant realignment in American politics. Democracy and reliable (secular) reason on one side of the barricades and populist faith in unreasoned beliefs on the other.

Yet contemporary populism is not only an opponent of reasoned democracy. This article suggests that populism is also of it, of the traditions in which the populist movement is set. While every iteration of populism has distinctive features, some of them new or opposed to the status quo, understanding populism requires a look also at continuities with its contextual setting. Populisms, on the left and right, draw on the historico-cultural background of the societies in which they occur. As described in Thijl Sunier’s illuminating study of French and Dutch populisms,2 this background – including the nation’s political, socio-economic, demographic, and religious traditions and symbols – is among the things populism builds upon as it develops its specific form. It contributes to what Matthew Engelke3 and Catherine Wanner4 poetically call the quasi-religious/civil religious “ambient faith,” – what is believed to be true about society, its people, government, faiths, norms, and values. In Graham Ward’s description, this background contributes to the cultural imagination, the ideas and images we use to understand what happens to us in the world: “the subconscious within which we move and from out of which we try to make sense, even cope, with all of our collective experience.”5 In Charles Taylor’s famous iteration, it contributes to the “social imaginary”: “the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations.”6

Populisms draw from the historico-cultural background in which they are situated as that background helps to build ambient faith, cultural imagination, and social imaginary. For instance, the religious history and precepts of a nation may contribute to the ambient faith or cultural imagination about person, church, and state. Populism in turn may draw on that ambient faith and cultural imagination for its positions, goals, symbols, and practices. Indeed, it is being grounded in this longstanding background that makes populist ideas seem reasonable, even obvious, and gives populism its appeal – what makes it “feel right” to its audience.

Populism may thus be understood not as a break with regnant political culture but as expression of deeply embedded notions especially about government (its size and role) and society (who’s in, who not). While populism may critique the idea that all is well with government, a negative judgment is grounded in longstanding expectations about government and society. Precisely because populism holds to these, it balks when they are violated. In the U.S. case, populism protests not against liberal representative democracy and opportunity but against the failure to sustain them. Democracy, opportunity, and their populist expressions on one side of the barricades and their failures on the other.

The article below makes a three-part argument: (i) from the role and contribution of religion to America’s historico-cultural background, to (ii) how that background contributes to understandings of society and government, (iii) to how these understandings contribute to (not cause) the complex pool of ideas from which populisms draw on the left, right, and among American evangelicals. The focus is not primarily on what populist leaders say or do but on what in the ambient faith, cultural imagination, and social imaginary they tap into.

To begin, I sketch out a rubric that allows us to justify calling a group or movement populist. This section may also serve as a selected review of the literature on how populism works. I look not only at right-wing populism, often identified as anti-elitist, anti-intellectual, and claiming the “moral purity” of representing the “single, homogeneous, authentic people.”7 With Chantal Mouffe8 and Cas Mudde and Christobal Kaltwasser,9 I look also at (i) populism on the left as it too draws on the cultural imagination about government and society, (ii) stronger and weaker cases of populism, and (iii) cases where populist movements are productive responses to failing governments and economies. Once we are justified in identifying a movement as populist, understanding how it emerges from beliefs about society and government requires drilling down into society’s historico-cultural background.

Definitions and rubric

The Pew Research Center’s 2017 “Political Typology” and the More in Common 2018 “Hidden Tribes” report find that current political identification no longer follows classic left/right positions.10 Thus, to clarify terms as used here: populist “right” marks the belief that society is changing in unwanted ways but can be fixed by protectionist trade and immigration policies and by limiting (domestic) minority access to resources and opportunities. In the U.S., right-populism is often accompanied by “small government-ism,” reducing the government’s role through market deregulation and the reduction of social services via tax cuts. Populist “left” marks the belief that society is also changing unproductively but can be fixed by civil society and government efforts to broaden rather than restrict access to resources and opportunity.

As populism left and right is a response to unwanted change, our first point is:

Populism is a way of presenting solutions to economic and/or way-of-life duress11

As a first principle, finding solutions to duress is a pressing motive; in the face of fears and stresses, people need to feel effective in protecting themselves. Populism, right and left, presents specific solutions to their audiences. Analyzing eight hundred elections in twenty advanced democracies from the 1870s to the present, Funke et al.12 found that “financial crises put a strain on democracies … far-right parties see strong political gains.” Left-populism also gains, as Adam Tooze notes, “the financial and economic crisis of 2007–2012 morphed between 2013 and 2017 into a comprehensive political and geopolitical crisis … Europe witnessed a dramatic mobilization of both Left and Right.” 13

To clarify terms: way-of-life duress refers to a sense of threat to the “way things should go,” to knowing what’s fair, what’s due you and others.14 It may be prompted by shifts in demographics, technology, gender roles, etc. Economic duress includes current un- or under-employment but also the sense that familiar paths to self-betterment are disappearing. Both way-of-life and economic duress may be present or anticipatory, fear of future duress. For instance, those most attracted to the Republican party between 2010 and 2018 but especially during the Trump presidency were whites without college degrees but with middle class incomes ($77,522–$130,000 annually). Their right-populist leanings stem not from present impoverishment but in part from the fear that in a “knowledge based” economy, their horizons look increasingly limited.15 Additionally, way-of-life and economic duress may be triggered by sudden trauma or the accumulation of decreasing prospects over time. Both may be accompanied by a sense of loss of control and humiliation. “Without the ability to feed my family and pay for my children and feed my children,” an autoworker remarked when his local factory closed, “what am I as a man?”16

Populist solutions aim at answering

  1. who is under unfair duress – the “emotionalized us” in Andre Gingrich’s apt phrase17
  2. why and how “we” have been wronged
  3. by whom – “them.”

Groups of “us” may be persons living and working in physical proximity or what Phillips and others call “imagined communities,” which are understood as “together” because of “indirect … social relationships,” concerns, interests, hopes, and fears.18 “Threats to one’s group” Rose McDermott and Peter Hatemi write,

can feel existential in nature and trigger the same psychological mechanisms and defenses which have evolved to motivate people to seek out the protection of the group when such sanctuary often made a life or death difference. This is one reason why individuals’ first and often lasting response is strongly negative when they perceive their values to be under attack.19

Relief from such “existential threat” is found in group protection, which boosts one’s sense of worth and effectiveness20 and provides support in confronting duress21 – a boon in economies where unemployed men become disconnected from family, church, and workplace camaraderie.22 Importantly, belonging to “us” validates the “us”-“them” worldview and may elevate it to a “cause that endures beyond one’s lifetime.”23

These questions/answers are binary in form

“We” 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.24 Amira, Wright, and Goya-Tocchetto find “while the tendency to help the in-group appears to be primary,” “under situations of symbolic threat to partisan identity, respondents shift gears and opt for harming the out-group.”25 “Large groups,” Vamik Volkan notes, “like individuals, regress under shared duress … The more stressful the situation, the more neighbor groups become preoccupied with each other.”26 Moreover, feelings of unfair harm are wounds that persist. Jeanne Knutson, founder of the International Society of Political Psychology, notes the belief that, “only continued activity in defense of oneself (one’s group) adequately serves to reduce the threat of further aggression against oneself.” 27

Degree of binarity locates a movement along a continuum from weak to strong populism

Degree of binarity is informed by:

  • – The possibilities for understanding “them” as a legitimate part of the vox populi
  • – How inclusive “we” are of a variety of societal groups
  • – The perceived permanence of the us-them “struggle”
  • – The ability to work with what Else Frenkel-Brunswick called “ambiguity tolerance.”28Can those who are opponents on one issue be allies on another?

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, drawn from a society’s historico-cultural background. Such background, Aronsson notes, creates or bolsters community by narrating an identity and worldview with which members identify.29 Importantly, it grounds the pool of ideas and cultural imagination about society (who’s in and out) and government (its composition and responsibilities) from which “us-them” formations are drawn. That is, not everything in the historico-cultural background – or in the ambient faith and cultural imagination emerging from it – finds expression in populist thought. But populist thought draws from this pool of ideas and values. Judith Butler notes that “performative” speech, like bolstering a sense of “us,” works because of “the force of authority through the repetition or citation of a prior and authoritative set of practices.”30 Speech that unites the group relies on history and the familiar.

An American case study

Key features of present economics and demographics

The American case may begin with the duress of un- and under employment, especially in “old-industry” regions,31 prodded by globalized trade but substantially by automation and productivity gains accounting for 88 percent of job loss.32 As this has been well documented, I will add here only Ernst Kris’s findings that economic duress is among the strongest motives for the move to an “us-them” worldview.33 Two problems arise in addition: loss of what Gene Sperling calls “economic dignity” and rises in morbidity and mortality. “Economic dignity” includes the capacity to provide for family, the opportunity to pursue one’s potential, and “economic participation without domination and humiliation.”34 The loss of manufacturing jobs that provide a family wage and “familial authority” has left many working class men without the dignity Sperling describes.35 Writing on morbidity and mortality, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2018 reported a decline in American life expectancy for three years in a row.36 While in 1999, the mortality rate of high-school-degree whites was lower than that of blacks, by 2015, the white mortality rate was significantly higher,37 substantially prodded by “deaths of despair”38 and social isolation.39

Alongside these pressures is demographic change: non-Hispanic whites will comprise less than 50 percent of the population by 2044 and less than 50 percent of American children this year, 2020. White working-class voters who fear that American culture is in danger from immigrant influence were 3.5 times more likely to prefer Trump in the 2016 presidential election than those who did not share this concern.40

In sum, shifts in way of life and constriction of opportunity come together to yield pressures for solutions. In presenting them, both left and right populisms propose an “us” and “them” as part of those solutions. But these populisms also differ as they draw from different aspects of America’s historico-cultural background. Most relevant here are different aspects of America’s liberal covenantal republic. The next section will look into this hybrid and its contribution to the cultural imagination and pool of ideas from which left and right populism draw.

America’s liberal covenantal republic: a (very) short history

The liberal covenantal republic was built first from Reformed Protestant political theory,41 come to America through the Puritans and other dissenters. Building on the Hebrew Bible, this tradition saw the polity as a reciprocal covenant wherein each constributes to the common good. Its father, Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575), traced covenant from bond between God and Adam to bond between God and the patriarchs, to the covenant taught by Jesus and Paul and thus to the human condition.42 Two Reformed developments are especially important to political thinking. One was the bringing together the pacta (between humanity and God) and the foedus (political covenants among persons). As God covenants with humanity and directs humanity towards covenantal commitment as a way of life, scholars such as Theodore Beza (1519–1605) and Girolamo Zanchi (1516–1590) held that the principles of covenant with God pertain also to persons. “The entire covenantal argument for right order,” David Henreckson writes, “depends on the fact that theological and political commitments were integral to one another.”43 In a related development, covenantal thinkers argued that, as God covenants with each person, all persons are free beings in a position to forge reciprocal bonds with the Lord. And if with the Lord, how much more so with human sovereigns. Political sovereignty is thus contingent, based on reciprocal covenant with the governed. And this requires rule for their benefit. In covenantal political thinking, “we can recognize a good political order,” Henreckson explains, “by whether it accords with the terms of an antecedent covenantal relationship.”44

These ideas informed the work of Johannes Althusius (1557–1638), with significant impact on early America. Althusius held that persons individually are created helpless but have a “symbiotic” nature so that they live in covenantal commitment with God and each other.45 Contra the monarchist Jean Bodin, Althusius declared that sovereignty lies in the network of covenantal bonds, which are correlates of covenant with God. Politics is the art of creating worldly covenantal structures: it is “the art of associating (consociandi) men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life among them,” in covenantal fashion.46 That is, (i) with the covenanted community as the source of sovereignty, (ii) with the community’s well-being as sovereignty’s telos, and (iii) without the concentration or abuse of power. While magistrates may administer, it is “a covenanted whole that has the rights of sovereignty.”47 The “moral” law of the Ten Commandments is the core of covenantal responsibility, which is interpreted into “proper laws” specific to each community’s flourishing. Should a ruler violate covenantal responsibility with God or community, Althusius held (ninety years before John Locke’s theory of political resistance), he or she may be removed from office.

Althusius’s principles made their way into American society and documents. The Mayflower Compact (1620) declares, “We … covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick.”48 Althusius’s themes are all present: the New World would be guided by God and built by men in covenant with him and each other. Laws are developed by the covenanted community for the common good as guided by God’s principles. A decade later, 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 … knit more nearly together in the Bonds of brotherly affection.” 49 To ensure that no power overtakes these bonds, Massachusetts enacted the Body of Liberties (1641) to protect the common good against the rich and politically ambitious. As for them, John Winthrop explained, “The care of the public must oversway all private respects.”50 The Declaration of Independence relies on Althusius and Locke’s criteria for deposing sovereigns for covenant violations. Protecting the covenanted community – the states and “We, the People” – from exploitative power was among the chief aims of the Constitution, the checks and balances of tri-partite government, and the U.S. federal system.

As the other sources of America’s liberal, covenanted republic are standard tellings of American history, I’ll mention them only briefly. The Aristotelian republic, from which the Founding Fathers drew, too sees humanity as social. Living in networks of networks (families amid communities, communities amid republics) is the way we start, not the way we might choose to form ourselves in social contract. Indeed, persons achieve their fullest development through participation in the polis, and the democratic polis depends on the virtue and participation of the citizenry.51 Freedom is thus the ability to contribute to governance–not the “freedom of the heath”52 to roam alone. The unjust person is one who shirks responsibilities to the commons and grabs undue benefits. By mid-eighteenth century, a meld of covenantal and republican thinking had emerged in the colonies. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, was succinct: “Republican forms of government are the best repositories of the Gospel.”53 In America today, covenantal/republican traditions appear in many forms and instances of “civic republicanism,” where, Luke Bretherton writes, “interdependent citizens may deliberate on and realize goods in common.”54

The third component, liberalism, sees the individual not so much embedded in covenant or republic as free to separate from them to pursue opportunity. Alexander Hamilton spoke for this position, defining liberty as “natural rights” that must be shielded from government interference.55 He considered freedom a means to private ambition and check on government overreach rather than a condition for participation in the state. The idea of the separable person free from government was persuasive in America. As many immigrants had fled oppressive states, their flight reinforced the advantages of the exit. The harsh frontier advised self-reliance, trust in one’s local community, and wariness of far-away federal authority. Said another way, the covenanted community was not abandoned but drawn more closely and locally. Together, these factors fostered the American ethos of self-responsibility, localism, and contempt for elites, government elites, and freeloaders.56 When far-away Washington did act, it was seen as bringing interfering regulations and taxes.57 The Shays (1786–1787) and Whiskey (1791–1794) rebellions against federal taxation began almost as soon as the country did.

Though federal government grew along with the nation, localism retains a vaunted place in identity and practice, fostering a democratic critique of authority58 and robust civil society. It has been the ground for state and local policies across the political spectrum and today supports both strong and weak local environmental protections, lax and tighter gun control, and both cooperation with federal deportation agencies and local “sanctuary movements” protecting immigrants from deportation.

American left-populism

Covenantal/republican ideas about society and government are important contributors to the cultural imagination from which many left-populisms draw. There is no suggestion of mono-causality but rather, as American left-populism culls from America’s religio-political understanding of government and society, it draws significantly on covenantal/republican traditions. These work in synergy with other ideas funding the American left, such as the socialism of the late nineteenth century. It is by holding to these principles that left-populisms notice when they are trounced and choose solutions to reinstate them. The ambient “weight” of history and culture, as Butler noted, bequeaths to present left-populism its familiarity and “make-sense-ness.”

The left-populist “them” are identified as the wealthy who take an unfair share of resources and resist fair contribution to the common good, recalling both republican and covenantal principles. “We” is inclusive of race, immigration status, and importantly, of national government, seen as emerging, in covenantal/republican fashion, from the network of commitment that is the people. Government is responsible for broad-based opportunity. It is not only the agent de jure but de facto able to achieve such opportunity because it emerges from the people. There is clear but not strong binarity where “them” is identified on adjustable economic positions rather than essentialist traits such as race. Wealthy businesses may be “them” but not unalterably so as they are evaluated on economic policies that may be changed. Tolerance for ambiguity is present where a business is recognized, for example, as societally productive on one issue (e.g., environment protection) and hobbling on another (e.g., minimum wage).

Populisms that have drawn on covenantal/republican traditions include early twentieth century industrial unionism (IWW), with greater inclusion of unskilled workers and new immigrants than the American Federation of Labor’s craft-unionism allowed. Other instances are William Jennings Bryan’s late nineteenth century pro-farmer, pro-worker silver-standard platform, and Bernie Sanders’s 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns. Sanders critiques private/corporate wealth that resists fair share contribution to the common good. He calls for substantial government role in addressing economic inequality and in providing medical care, affordable housing and education, etc. – all reflective of covenantal/republican thinking. A contrast with Hillary Clinton’s more centrist platform may be useful (both sets of policies are taken from the candidates’ official 2016 campaign websites)59:


CSVDisplay Table

Not only Sanders but his supporters showed greater binarity than Clinton or Obama supporters, consistent with Sanders’s more populist stance.60 The three groups have similar views on economic inequality, “moral issues,” gender roles, and the role of government, yet Sanders supporters show a more binary view of mainstream politics as a “them” “rigged” against “us.”61

American right-populism

Localist/liberal understandings of society and government contribute significantly to the ambient faith and cultural imagination from which right-populism draws, with its preference for civil society, the market, and local institutions over central government. These preferences may well be found also among mainstream “business” Republicans both because of benefits to society’s wealthier sectors (in lower taxes, market deregulation, etc.) and because this tradition – precisely because it is longstanding – grounds much in American culture. Yet the focus of this section is not on all who support cultural localism or the Republican party. This would entail another study, which might identify differences between mainstream Republicans and right populists along with commonalities. His section is rather on those who find right-populism persuasive. Localist/liberal understandings of society and government are significant in the pool of ideas and cultural imagination from which they draw. Under duress, as suggested by our rubric above, these understandings are subject to a re-working towards their more binary iterations.

As people find solutions to economic and way-of-life duress in the us/them frameworks that Volkan and Knutson, describe, (i) affirmative commitment to community may become my community-in-struggle against others, the determination that “outsiders” (new immigrants, minorities) are threats to be constrained, and (ii) wariness of oppressive government may become suspicion of government per se, whose activities should be limited – except to implement the constraints on outsiders required by (i). Both the move from community to wariness of others and the move from suspicion of tyrants to suspicion of government – the pre-occupation with “them” that Amira, Wright, and Goya-Tocchetto report – are not uncommon in American history. These traditions, if you will, bequeath to present wariness and suspicions the “make-sense-ness” that comes, as Butler notes, of cultural repetition. The anti-immigrant Alien and Sedition Acts began in 1798 almost as soon as the country began, much like the anti-Washington Shays and Whiskey rebellions.

There is stronger binarity when “them” is identified on essentialist criteria such as race, religion, 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. Federal government is similarly seen as unfairly taking from “us” through taxes and undue regulation. But because the immigrant, minority, and government “them” are identified on essentialist criteria, the binary is stronger and allows for less ambiguity tolerance.

As this short format allows for only brief descriptions of how this double wariness plays out, I will illustrate with a few short examples reflecting suspicion of government and a few, of other “outsiders.” The focus in the section below is not on how Trump speaks to us-them binaries but that these binaries were already there to be spoken to.

In the electoral sphere, wariness of government and other outsiders was prominent in the 2016 election, seen in the broad appeal of Trump’s refrain about Mexican rapists62 and promises to “drain the swamp” of “government insiders.”63 Voters showing increasing animus against African-Americans between 2011 and 2016 showed support for Trump increasing from 30 to 52 percent in 2016. Those showing increasing animus against LGBTQ communities showed an increase in support for Trump from 27 to 54 percent by 2017.64

Outside the electoral arena, government-wariness is seen in opposition to federal social services even among beneficiaries. Those who, under the Republican replacement for the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) would have lost $5000 in government subsidies voted for Trump by 59–36 percentage points.65 This holds though containing medical costs has been more successful under Medicare, a government program, than by private insurers.66 Applebaum and Gebeloff write, “They are frustrated that they need help, feel guilty for taking it and resent the government for providing it.”67 Similar government-wariness is seen in reasons given for gun ownership, a right-populist priority. One prominent motive is resistance against tyrannical government. “An assault-weapon ban … ” David French explains in the National Review, “would gut the concept of an armed citizenry as a final, emergency bulwark against tyranny.”68 A National Rifle Association lawyer similarly explained in the 2009 Harvard Law Journal: the right to bear arms is “to protect against the tyranny of our own government.” 69 Three-quarters of American gun owners associate gun ownership with “freedom.”70

Moving from wariness of government to wariness of other “outsiders,” anxieties about immigrants (and citizen minorities) were equally or more decisive than economics in support for Trump among white working-class voters.71 These anxieties echo in the alt-right cry, “you will not replace us,” in the “Latino Threat Narrative,” and demand for a border wall. The “Latino Threat Narrative” remains persuasive, Jamie Longazel explains, though the Latino population in his study revived the local economy and attracted such firms as Amazon, Cargill, and American Eagle, creating jobs and giving the local tax base a boost that took the local hospital out of bankruptcy.72

Populist anxieties about immigration hold also against economic and law-enforcement records. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that the children of immigrants contribute substantially to the tax pool: $30 billion in the first generation of children and $223 billion for the succeeding generation. They conclude, “immigrants’ children – the second generation – are among the strongest economic and fiscal contributors in the population.”73 Immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-borns,74 and the U.S. faces a labor shortage at every skill level75 along with an aging population and declining birth rate.76 “Over the next 20–25 years,” Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, notes, “a labor shortage is going to put a binding constraint on growth.”77 Arguably, America should increase immigration not stanch it.

Arlie Hochschild describes the “deep story” in which wariness of government and other “outsiders” come together.78 In this narrative, minorities and immigrants are “cutting in line” ahead of “us” – and worse, cutting in with the help of a government that gives these outsiders aid. Although increasing numbers of Americans benefit from government programs – 7 percent of average income in 1969 and 17 percent in 2014 – animus against such programs has risen on the perception that “other people” are taking “our” tax dollars.79 The anger here is against both the “them” that use government services (perceived as minorities and immigrants) and the government that provides them. This perception holds though in Trump’s election year, for instance, 43 percent of Medicaid recipients were white, 18 percent black, and 30 percent Hispanic.80

From “ambient faith” to Trump

Though the focus of this article is on the religio-political background from which populist beliefs draw, this short section gives a brief indication of how the mediated trajectory from historico-cultural background to populism played out in Trump’s election. That is, the section moves from the public’s beliefs – its ambient faith and cultural imagination about society and government – to Trump’s response in effectively giving expression to longstanding wariness of government and other “outsiders,” especially as it rises under duress. While other Republicans addressed economic and way-of-life duress, Trump drew a bold assertion of “us” and clear binaries that “feel right” from their enduring presence in American culture. “We have one of us in that White House,” a Trump supporter told Newsweek in 2018.81

In addition to tapping into hostility towards immigrants through his border wall and “Mexican rapist and drug dealer” rhetoric, Trump has tapped into government-wariness in presenting business and finance deregulation as freedom from over-reaching Washington. In 2017, describing the opening of formerly protected land to business development, he explained, “Some people think that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of bureaucrats located in Washington … They’re wrong.”82 While his tariffs and trade wars are an exercise in strong government, they are presented as asserting control over foreign entities and not over Americans, whose freedom from government he claims to champion.

Trump’s policies and rhetoric resonate with the 45 percent of Americans who say there is too much government regulation of business and industry.83 Though Democrats seek a greater government role than do Republicans, “the only times over the past quarter-century when Americans didn’t side with the view that government should do less were in the early 1990s after the 1990–1991 recession and in October 2001 just after 9/11.”84

Launching his 2020 campaign, Trump warned that if the Democrats win, they will take away not jobs but “freedom of speech,”85 tapping into traditional fears of tyrannical government. Comparing the inaugural speeches of G.W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Trump, Geruschkat found that Bush and Obama identified the nation as “we” and located “them” as “enemies of liberty and our country” (Bush) and “a far-reaching network of violence and hatred” (Obama). Trump, by contrast, divided America into “people” and the “them” of government or “Washington.”86

In short, Trump energetically explained, in culturally familiar terms, who is wronged and right to fight back against whom. His explanation is persuasive as it draws on the nation’s historico-cultural background and the cultural imagination that emerges not in opposition to it but from it.

Populism and American evangelicals

Evangelicals are by no means monolithic in religious beliefs, priorities, values, or politics. Many are engaged in social service delivery that would be considered “progressive” on the American political spectrum, such as immigrant and refugee resettlement, prison programs, creation care (environmental protection), substance abuse clinics, helping at-risk youth, etc.87 In 2017–2018, evangelical never-Trumpers, who believe he violates their most cherished values, waged a robust debate over whether to retain the label “evangelical” as it had become associated with white (racist) Trump supporter.88 In late 2019, the influential, mainstream evangelical publication, Christianity Today, ran an editorial calling for Trump’s removal from office.89 Yet in the 2016 presidential election, 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump.90 As of this writing, 75 percent remain supporters,91 suggesting a not insignificant affinity between his platform and the beliefs of many if not all evangelicals.

Yet importantly, the beliefs in question may not be the religious beliefs associated with evangelicals, such as opposition to abortion and to gay marriage. Evangelicals weigh these along with other priorities, including economic and way-of-life concerns.

Lifeway Research, though a Christian research institute, finds that among “evangelicals by belief” and “self-identified evangelicals,” 62 and 59 percent respectively voted for their 2016 candidate not because of religious matters but because of the candidate’s “ability to improve the economy.” Forty-nine and 48 percent respectively voted because of the candidate’s position on immigration; 50 and 48 percent respectively voted because of the candidate’s “ability to maintain national security,” as national security is a longstanding exception to small-government-ism and is considered government’s legitimate purview. By contrast, only 30 and 31 percent respectively were motivated by a candidate’s “position on abortion rights,” 17 and 16 percent by a candidate’s position on LGBTQ rights, and only 18 and 16 percent respectively voted “against Hillary Clinton” in an opposition vote.92

In short, the economy was 11–13 points more important than any other issue, double in importance over abortion, and 45–43 points more important that LGBTQ rights. With their focus on economics, evangelicals voted affirmatively for Trump (not against Clinton). This suggests some endorsement for Trump’s small-government economic policies (lowering taxes, reducing regulations and social services). Moreover, racial, religious, and xenophobic animus decreases among Trump supporters as church attendance increases while concern for the needy increases.93 The National Association of Evangelicals called on Trump to stop the separation of immigrant children from their families and “to resume a robust U.S. refugee resettlement program.”94 The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., similarly asked Trump to stop family separation and passed a resolution calling for a path to citizenship for all immigrants residing in the country.95

The vote for Trump’s small-government economics is unsurprising given that wariness of government has special traction among evangelicals.96 The aim of the section below is not to review evangelical beliefs overall but more narrowly, to trace evangelical affinity for small-government-ism as it developed through history and religious precepts.

Wariness of the state in evangelical history and theology

To begin, as evangelical traditions prize personal covenant with God and community, they value protection of the covenanted community from interfering forces. Indeed, many of the early churches that understood America as a covenanted republic evolved into America’s evangelical denominations, bequeathing to modern Baptists, for instance, staunch belief in church-state separation to protect the church community from state interference. George Washington Truett, president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 1927–1929, claimed church-state separation as “pre-eminently a Baptist achievement.”97

Theologically, the sola scriptura emphasis on individual Bible-reading, where ordinary women and men may understand the sacred text, and the anti-clerical doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” together fueled animus against state churches and the governments that granted them control over faith. Further, Arminian soteriology shifted the Calvinist emphasis on God’s grace to accent humanity’s role in redemption. As prevenient grace (grace in this world before redemption) allows humanity to choose righteousness in the here-and-now, human choice becomes critical, and protecting it from the state and state churches, even more so. Arminianism became the basis for American Methodism, the most popular denomination throughout the nineteenth century with cultural influence far beyond its churches.98 Its precepts worked synergistically with self-reliance, liberalism, localism, among other features of American culture, to embed into the cultural imagination concern for the freedom of the individual soul and wariness of state coercion.

Finally and significantly, as heirs of Europe’s persecuted churches, evangelicals developed substantial sensitivity to tyrannical government and followed the wisdom of relying on their trusted community. Roger Williams, father of the American Baptist communities, argued for a “wall” between church and state for the protection of the churches.99 When Thomas Jefferson used the phrase in 1802,100 he was cribbing from Williams.

This theology and history interacted with liberalism and the rough conditions of settlement, which too encouraged self-reliance and robust local communities. Evangelicals took a major role in civil society, active in public education, temperance, overseas liberation movements, and in the North, abolition.101 The largest government office in ante-bellum America was the postal service, but by 1850 the churches, many of them evangelical, had double the employees, twice as many facilities, and raised three times as much money.102 With post-bellum industrialization, evangelicals continued their civil society efforts, for instance in poverty relief. 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). The Social Gospel ran programs for impoverished workers and provided one of America’s earliest critiques of laissez-faire capitalism. Its founder Walter Rauschenbusch declared, “Nations do not die by wealth but by injustice.”103 The church is obligated “to act as the tribune of the people.”104

Wariness of the state in evangelical politics today

Today, civil society activism and wariness of government remain salient in evangelical communities.105 Evangelical support for Trump is thus not a Faustian bargain of giving political support in exchange for Republican party backing on religious matters (abortion, gay marriage). Rather, when evangelicals are drawn to the (populist) right, they are moved by their own traditional support for self-reliant community unmolested by over-reaching government, among other factors. Evangelicals have supported Grover Norquist’s anti-tax Americans for Tax Reform since its founding in 1985.106 They rallied around Ronald Reagan though he was divorced, an irregular churchgoer, and had a Hollywood background. He represented the “New Right,” a meld of small-government economics, anti-communist foreign policy, and “moral” conservativism. Among his top domestic priorities were tax cuts and business de-regulation. Famously he said in his First Inaugural Address, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”107 Opposition to abortion and LGBTQ rights were not Republican party positions, so they were not motivators for candidate choice. But Reagan’s small-government and anti-communist policies were, and two-thirds of evangelicals prioritized them over his questionable personal morality and voted for him.108

Since Reagan, evangelicals have given strong majorities to the Republican party: from a low of 62 percent in 1996109 to a high of 81 percent in 2016. In 2004, 79 percent voted for G.W. Bush,110 whose major domestic achievements were market and finance de-regulation and the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003. The legislative priority of the Christian Coalition was to make these cuts permanent.111 Evangelical support for Bush rose 10 percentage points between 2000 and 2004112 though no national legislation limiting abortion was put forth even when the Republicans controlled the presidency and both congressional houses. This does not suggest that evangelicals were pleased with the lack of such legislation but that they were sufficiently satisfied with Bush’s policies in economic and political arenas to increase support.

Evangelicals came to a similar triage in 2016, bracketing disapproval of what they saw as Trump’s immoral personal life for economic policies they believe will better society, as the LifeWay findings on the importance of the economy in candidate choice suggest. Since 2016, they have enjoyed not only small government economics. Trump has placed two conservative justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, on the Supreme Court and prohibited federally funded health clinics from providing abortions.113 He moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, pleasing Christian Zionists more than America’s Jewish communities,114 which, among faith groups, show him the least support.115

In sum, evangelicals who believe, with traditional wariness of government, that well-being hangs on constraining the state have seen Trump’s tax cuts and sharp reductions in regulatory, environmental, and social service programs.116 Evangelicals who hold that well-being hangs on constraining government and other “outsiders” have seen his tax cuts, deregulation, plus protectionist immigration and trade policies. Beliefs about abortion and gay marriage are triaged with these and caution against unifactorial understandings of evangelical politics.

Concluding thoughts

This article suggests that populism may be understood not as a dark political theology at odds with rational, secular politics but as expression of the historico-cultural background that undergirds those politics – expression of the nation’s “ambient faith” and cultural imagination regarding government (its size and role) and society (who’s in, who not). Both left-populism (illustrated by Bernie Sanders) and right-populism (by Donald Trump) draw from the longstanding pool of American cultural and political thought, in which covenantal, republican, localist/liberal, and small-government ideas are foundational. Evangelicals find their support for Trump in their religious principles and traditional, localist small-government-ism, which has been an important value and lesson in evangelical religio-political history.

When I say that populism draws from the ambient faith and cultural imagination about society and government, I mean, for instance, that the populist right showed significant support for a border wall as much as two decades before Trump’s candidacy.117 Resistance to the Affordable Care Act health care reform too long preceded the Trump candidacy though through it, over 20 million Americans acquired health insurance.118 The small-government complaint, as stated to the appeals court by the states that brought suit against the Act, was that it “rests on a claim of federal power that is both unprecedented and unbounded.”119 By contrast, then Speaker of the House Paul Ryan assured that, under the Republican proposal, “People are going to do what they want to do with their lives because we believe in individual freedom.”120

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).

Notes on contributor

Marcia Pally teaches at New York University, at Fordham University, and is a regular guest professor at the Theology Faculty, Humboldt University, Berlin. Her 2016 book, Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality, was nominated for a Grawemeyer Award in religion and has been selected by the United Nations Committee on Education for Justice to be distributed to educators, academics, and policy-makers worldwide. Other recent books include: Mimesis and Sacrifice (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019) and America’s New Evangelicals: Expanding the vision of the common good (Eerdmans, 2011).

Prof. Pally has lectured at Oxford University; Institut d’études européennes et internationales du Luxembourg; John F. Kennedy School for North American Studies, Free University, Berlin; The Cato Institute; among many universities and institutions.

She has spoken at the World Economic Forum and been awarded the prestigious Mercator Guest Professorship (German Research Foundation) in addition to grants from the German Academic Exchange Service, Thyssen Foundation, among others. In 2019–2020, she was a Fellow at the Center for Theological Inquiry (Princeton) and has twice been a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study (Berlin). She is on the board of the Berlin Institute for Public Theology and The Telos/Paul Piccone Institute.


1 Davis and Piacenza, “In Wake of Abrupt Comey Firing.”

2 Sunier, “The National ‘Domestication’ of Religion in Europe,” 1–24.

3 Engelke, “Angels in Swindon,” 155–70.

4 Wanner, “Fraternal Nations and Challenges to Sovereignty in Ukraine,” 427–39.

5 Ward, Unimaginable, 10.

6 Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, 23.

7 Müller, What is Populism?, 3.

8 Mouffe, “In Defence of Left-Wing Populism.”

9 Mudde and Kaltwasser, Populism: A Very Short Introduction.

10 Pew Research Center, “Political Typology”; see also Hawkins et al., “Hidden Tribes.”

11 Lamont, The Dignity of Working Men; see also Pearlstein, Can American Capitalism Survive?

12 Funke et al., “Going to the Extremes: Politics after Financial Crises, 1870–2014,” 227–60.

13 Tooze, Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World.

14 Stenner, The Authoritarian Dynamic.

15 Kitschelt and Rehm, “Secular Partisan Realignment in the United States,” 425–79.

16 The New York Times, May 28, 2019.

17 Gingrich, “Neo-nationalism and the Reconfiguration of Europe,” 195–217.

18 Phillips, “Imagined Communities and Self-Identity,” 600.

19 McDermott and Hatemi, “To Go Forward, We Must Look Back,” 3.

20 Schnall, “Social Support and the Perception of Geographical Slant,” 1246–55.

21 Hogg, “Uncertainty–Identity Theory,” 69–126.

22 Edin et al., “The Tenuous Attachments of Working-Class Men,” 211–28.

23 Strozier and Boyd, “The Apocalyptic,” 35.

24 Terman, “Fundamentalism and the Paranoid Gestalt.”

25 Amira et al., “In-Group Love Versus Out-Group Hate,” 1–22.

26 Volkan, Bloodlines, 27; 111.

27 Cited in Volkan, Bloodlines, 160–1.

28 Adorno et al., The Authoritarian Personality, 463.

29 Aronsson, “Sociology of Narrative,” 219.

30 Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, 51.

31 Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, “The Bigger They Are, The Harder They Fall.”

32 Hicks and Devaraj, “The Myth and Reality of Manufacturing in America.”

33 Kris, Selected Papers of Ernst Kris, 468–9.

34 Sperling, “Economic Dignity.”

35 Edin et al., “The Tenuous Attachments of Working-Class Men,” 214.

36 American Association of Family Physicians, “CDC Data Show U.S. Life Expectancy Continues to Decline.”

37 Case and Deaton, “Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century,” 397–476.

38 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Suicide Rising Across the US.”

39 The New York Times, December 22, 2016.

40 Cox et al., “Beyond Economics.”

41 Pally, Commonwealth and Covenant, 245–9.

42 Bullinger, “A Brief Exposition,” 119.

43 Henreckson, The Immortal Commonwealth, 108.

44 Ibid., 96; 108.

45 Althusius, The Politics of Johannes Althusius, Chapters 1; 3–4.

46 This idea is explicated throughout The Politics of Johannes Althusius, Chapter 1.

47 Althusius, Politica Methodice Digesta; see also, McCoy and Baker, Fountainhead of Federalism, 60.

48 https://constitution.org/bcp/mayfcomp.pdf.

49 Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity.”

50 Ibid.

51 Honohan, Civic Republicanism, 15.

52 Petit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government, 67.

53 Rush, Letters of Benjamin Rush, 611–12.

54 Bretherton, Christ and the Common Life, 428.

55 Hamilton, “Speech in Convention,” 30; 100.

56 Barber, An Aristocracy of Everyone, 45–8; see also, Nye et al., Why People Don’t Trust Government.

57 Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History, 177–8.

58 Gorski, American Covenant, 47.

59 http://www.4president.us/websites/2016/berniesanders2016website.htmhttp://www.4president.us/websites/2016/hillaryclinton2016website.htm.

60 American National Election Studies (2016); Murphy, “Differences Between Supporters of Clinton and Sanders.”

61 Drutman, “Political Divisions in 2016 and Beyond.”

62 CNN, April 6, 2018.

63 The Washington Post, October 18, 2016.

64 Wronski et al., “Ingroup Lovers or Outgroup Haters?”

65 Cooperative Congressional Election Study and the Kaiser Family Foundation”; The New York Times, March 10, 2017.

66 Bivens, “The Unfinished Business of Health Reform.”

67 The New York Times, February 11, 2012.

68 National Review, February 21, 2018.

69 Henigan, Lethal Logic, 143.

70 Igielnik and Brown, “Key Takeaways on Americans’ Views of Guns and Gun Ownership.”

71 Mutz, “Status Threat, Not Economic Hardship, Explains the 2016 Presidential Vote.”

72 Longazel, Undocumented Fears.

73 Blau and Mackie, The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration.

74 Bernat, “Immigration and Crime.”

75 The New York Times, September 19, 2017.

76 Ozimek et al., “From Managing Decline to Building the Future.”

77 The New York Times, September 19, 2017.

78 Hochschild, Strangers in their Own Land.

79 Mettler, The Government-Citizen Disconnect.

80 The Huffington Post, February 5, 2018.

81 Newsweek, April, 2018.

82 The New York Times, December 4, 2017.

83 Swift, “Americans’ Views on Government Regulation Remain Steady.”

84 Newport, “Americans Still Tilt Toward Favoring Less Active Gov’t Role.”

85 Factbase, “Donald Trump Announces His 2020 Candidacy at a Political Rally in Orlando – June 18, 2019.”

86 Geruschkat, “American Civil Religion and Speeches of Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump,” 33.

87 Pally, The New Evangelicals.

88 Pally, “Evangelical Christians. Support for Trump and American Populism.”

89 Galli, “Trump Should Be Removed from Office.”

90 Jones, “White Evangelical Support for Donald Trump at All-Time High.”

91 Enten, “White evangelicals Love Trump. Religious Voters? Not So Much.”

92 LifeWay Research, “Evangelical and Non-evangelical Voting & Views of Politics in America.”

93 Ekins, “Religious Trump Voters.”

94 National Association of Evangelicals, “Evangelical Leaders Urge President Trump to Keep Families Together.”

95 Southern Baptist Convention, “On the Crisis of Illegal Immigration.”

96 Pally, The New Evangelicals, Chapters 2; 3.

97 Weaver, In Search of the New Testament Church, 177.

98 Gaustad, Historical Atlas of Religion in America, 78; Gaustad and Barlow, New Historical Atlas of Religion in America, 374.

99 Williams, “The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience,” 79–81; 153–60; 250; 343.

100 Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to the Danbury Baptists.”

101 Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity.

102 Noll, America’s God, 182; 200–1.

103 Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis, 265.

104 Ibid., 284.

105 Pally, The New Evangelicals, Chapters 6, 8, and 9.

106 New York Times Magazine, January 16, 2005.

107 Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Institute, “First Inaugural Address, 1980, January 20.”

108 King, “When Worlds Collide.”

109 The New York Times, September 4, 2004.

110 Pew Research Center, “How the Faithful Voted,” November 10, 2008.

111 Harper’s Magazine, August, 2005.

112 Pew Research Center, “Religion and the Presidential Vote,” December 6, 2004.

113 The New York Times, May 17, 2018.

114 Smith, “U.S. Jews Are More Likely than Christians to Say Trump Favors the Israelis Too Much.”

115 Smith and Martínez, “How the Faithful Voted”; The Washington Post, March 22, 2019.

116 National Geographic, February 1, 2019.

117 Sides et al., “Hunting Where the Ducks Are,” 135–56.

118 Fortune Magazine, November 15, 2018.

119 United States Department of Health and Human Services Et Al. v. State of Florida Et Al. 2012, “On the Writ of Certiorari.”

120 CBS News, Face the Nation, “Transcript March 12, 2017: Ryan, Paul, Sanders.”


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