Sept. 27, 2019, 11:17 AM CDT
By Anthea Butler
White evangelicals love Trump
and aren't confused about why.
No one should be.
Focusing on the disconnect between
Trump's actions and the moral
of evangelicals' faith misses the issue
that keeps their
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President Trump with Liberty University's president,
Jerry Falwell Jr., at commencement ceremonies in
Lynchburg, Virginia, on May 13, 2017.
Steve Helber / AP file
have a tendency to wring their hands at the strong support President
Donald Trump — he of the three wives and multiple affairs, and a
tendency to engage in exceedingly un-Christian-like behavior at the
slightest provocation — continues to receive from the white evangelical
community. White evangelical support for Donald Trump is still at 73 percent, and more than 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for him in 2016.
focusing on the disconnect between Trump's personal actions and the
moral aspects of their faith misses the issue that keeps their support
firm: racism. Modern evangelicals' support for this president cannot be
separated from the history of evangelicals' participation in and
support for racist structures in America.
Evangelicals, in religious terminology, believe
that Jesus Christ is the savior of humanity. They have a long history
in America, and include a number of different groups, including
Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists and nondenominational churches.
After the schism among the Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians in
the 1850s over slavery, conservative denominations like the Southern
Baptists — who defended slavery through their readings of scripture —
came into being. And because the primary schisms between northern and southern denominations was over the issues of slavery, in the pre- and post-Civil War years, African American Protestants formed their own denominations.
denominations formed from these splits in the South were usually
comprised of people who had made money from slavery or supported it.
After the Civil War many were more likely to have supported the Ku Klux
Klan and approved of (or participated in) lynching. The burning cross
of the KKK, for instance, was a symbol of white Christian supremacy,
designed both to put fear into the hearts of African Americans and to
highlight the supposed Christian righteousness of the terrorist act.
the civil rights movement, many white evangelicals either outright
opposed Martin Luther King Jr. or, like Billy Graham, believed that
racial harmony would only come about when the nation turned to God. in
the 1970s, evangelicalism became synonymous with being "born again" and
also against abortion and, with the rise of the Moral Majority in the
late 1970s, they began to seek not only moral, but political power.
Reagan, who also counted evangelicals among his most vociferous
supporters, started his presidential campaign on the platform of
states’ rights from Philadelphia, Mississippi, where Michael Schwerner,
James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were murdered by several Klansmen
with the participation of local law enforcement in 1964, while
attempting to register African Americans to vote. Decades later, the
Rev. Jerry Falwell, the evangelical leader, opposed sanctions on South Africa's apartheid regime and insulted Bishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Prize Peace winner, as a "phony."
9/11, many evangelicals vilified Islam and created cottage industries
and ministries promoting Islamophobia. And when Barack Obama was
elected president, they regrouped, bought guns and became Tea Partiers
who promoted fiscal responsibility and indulged in birtherism, promoted by no less than the son of Billy Graham, Franklin.
Still, evangelicals have worked to make a good show of repenting for racism. From the racial reconciliation meetings of the 1990s
to today, they have dutifully declared racism a sin, and Southern
Baptists have apologized again for their role in American slavery —
most recently in 2018 via a document outlining their role.
statements are not enough. Proving how disconnected they are from their
statements about atoning for the sin of racism, the 2019 Annual
Convention of the Southern Baptists was opened with a gavel owned by
John A. Broadus, a slaveholder, white supremacist and the founder of
their seminary. In the meantime, the most visible Southern Baptist
pastor, Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas, recently said of Trump
that “he does not judge people by the color of their skin, but whether
or not they support him,” calling that "the definition of colorblind."
(Jeffress is such a supporter of Trump that he regularly extols him on
Fox News, and even wrote a special song for Trump’s Campaign, "Make America Great Again.")
So it's not surprising that white evangelicals supported the Muslim ban, are the least likely to accept refugees into the country (according to the Pew Foundation) and, though a slim majority oppose it, are the denomination most likely to support Trump's child separation policy. White evangelicals certainly are not concerned with white supremacy, because they are often white supremacists.
Trump appeals to these evangelicals because of his focus on declension,
decline and destruction, which fits into evangelical beliefs about the
end times. When Trump used the term “American carnage” in his inaugural
address, evangelicals listened; they too, believed America is in
decline. Their imagined powerlessness, and the need for a strong
authoritarian leader to protect them, is at the root of their racial
and social animus. Their persecution complex is a heady mix of their
fear of “socialists,” Muslims, independent women, LGBT people and
immigration. Their feelings of fragility, despite positions of power,
make them vote for people like Donald Trump — and morally suspect
candidates like Roy Moore. Rhetoric, not morality, drives their voting
All of this has made a mockery of
white evangelical protestations about morality and the family. Moral
issues once drove white evangelical votes but, first when Obama was
elected and then when the Supreme Court struck down the federal ban on
same sex marriage in June of 2015, what remained was their fear. Trump
promised justices and a return to a time when they felt less fear, and
he delivered, at least on the former. White evangelical fealty to him
is firm. Evangelicals in America are not simply a religious group; they
are a political group inexorably linked to the Republican Party.
delivered evangelicals from the shame of losing, and they will back him
again in 2020 to avoid losing again. So perhaps we should take
evangelicals at their word that they will support Trump come hell or
high water, rather than twisting ourselves into knots trying to figure
Anthea Butler is an associate professor of
Religious Studies and Africana Studies at
the University of Pennsylvania. She is the
author of "Women in the Church of God
in Christ: Making A Sanctified World" (The
University of North Carolina Press) and her
forthcoming book is tentatively titled
“From Palin to Trump: Evangelicals, Race,
and Nationalism” (The New Press).