By Finbarr Curtis
If you type "81 percent" into google, you will find a number of stories about white evangelicals who voted for Donald J. Trump. Like all poll numbers that measure religious affiliation, 81 percent is a deceptively simple summary of a diverse set of motives and identities. One could argue that few people identify themselves as "white evangelicals" and that this category is an interpretive fiction invented by pollsters. But while 81 percent might not necessarily measure what analysts think it measures, interpretive fictions still measure something. It seems that a lot of people who meet pollsters' criteria for white evangelicals agreed with Franklin Graham when he explained: "Even thought Donald Trump has some rough edges, there's something inside of him that desires the counsel of Christian men and women, and I don't know one Christian on Hillary Clinton's team."
Evangelical Trumpophilia has perplexed observers who have wondered how an impious sexual predator from decadent New York City captured the hearts and minds of the Bible Belt. Many concluded that Christians hypocritically abandoned their religious principles. Laments about evangelical hypocrisy assume that evangelicalism is a belief system. It seems so obvious that evangelicalism is defined by theology that it hardly needs to be argued. The idea that religions are internally coherent sets of beliefs is part of common sense about world religions. Self-identified Christians, therefore, are accountable to a religious tradition whose central figure endorsed poverty and humility. Once you decide that the Sermon on the Mount is the essence of Christianity, then you can demonstrate that evangelicals betray their own beliefs when they vote for Trump.
While the charge of hypocrisy might be useful for theological finger wagging, it is analytically empty. It tells you what you think white evangelicals should do rather than explaining what they do. It might be that confusion over Trump support is a sign that an analytic framework that relies on Christian theological convictions is not effective in explaining how social actors behave.
Of course, concerns about hypocrisy might explain why some people do what they do. There is no doubt that at least some self-identified evangelicals refused to support Trump for what they thought were religious reasons. Republican Senator Ben Sasse, for example, negatively compared Donald Trump to a dumpster fire.
Jim Wallis, a Christian political activist and Trump critic, argued for uncoupling "white" from "evangelical." Attempting to use statistics to his rhetorical advantage, Wallis argued that including Latino and African-American evangelicals would reduce overall evangelical support for Trump. As he pleaded: "The truth is that most U.S. evangelicals do not support Trump. These Christians are victims of a sort of identity theft, as the national conversation conflates them with a narrow demographic of mostly older, politically conservative whites." By identifying evangelicalism by theology and excluding other forms of social identification, Wallis hoped to separate race from religion. If white evangelicals voted because of their whiteness instead of their Christianity, then Christianity is off the hook.
The same analysts who separate race and religion are less surprised when Christian voters focus on sexual regulation. Because sex and religion are both classified as private and intimate matters, it seems obvious that motives for sexual regulation are religious. This modern institutional equation of sex and religion is not self-evident, however. Classifying sex as religious is no less arbitrary than the classifying race as nonreligious. The biblical texts favored by evangelicals say a lot more about power, authority, and social identity than they do about sex. I am not saying that identity is the essence of Christianity nor I am saying that race is essentially religious. I am saying that the failure of theological essences to explain voting patterns might say more about the weakness of this analysis than the hypocrisy of American voters. It could bring more analytic clarity if we recognize that we call religion is tied to a hodgepodge of different forms of identification.
Trump voters often describe themselves as loyal to faith, family, and country in ways that draw on visceral associations of whiteness. Faith, family, and country are the basis for a stable social order in which people know their place and respect Christian social norms. These Christian norms appear to be under attack from forces of political correctness advanced by liberal elites in alliance with religious, racial, sexual minorities in an increasingly urban and diverse nation. Confronting this existential threat to faith, family, and country requires more than piety; it demands a figure with the courage and strength to violate multicultural norms about inclusion and tolerance.
The more that Clinton portrayed Trump as someone who attacked Muslims, racial minorities, women, and the disabled, the more she played into Trump's narrative that he was someone strong enough to withstand public censure for violating norms of political correctness. As Christian psychologist and spanking enthusiast James Dobson explained, someone as strong as Trump was necessary to fight back against liberal assaults on Christian institutions:
I’m convinced that with the wrong president, we will soon see a massive assault on religious liberty. Certain powerful groups and organizations seek to weaken the church of Jesus Christ and limit what pastors and ministers can say and do publicly. They believe some of our teachings represent “hate speech” and must be stifled. They seek to severely restrict the freedoms of Christian schools, nonprofit organizations, businesses, hospitals, charities, and seminaries. With Christian colleges and universities, they want to limit whom their leaders choose as professors and what their students will be taught. Government funding and accreditation will be in the crosshairs, and you can be sure that home schools will be targeted.Trump appealed to white evangelicals like Dobson who were convinced that their response to threats to religious liberty has been too weak. Laments about Christian hypocrisy fail to analyze these sorts of visceral appeals to strength and power. The metaphor of a dumpster fire might be more apt than we think. While dumpster fires do not smell good, they do appeal to people who think that the time has come to burn everything down.