Trump's Evangelicals and How to Woo Them

There’s a major story in the Sunday New York Times about Trump’s hold on evangelical Christians:

‘Christianity Will Have Power’

The headline is a quote from the same speech Trump gave in which he said he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and not lose any votes.

The 67-minute speech Mr. Trump gave that day [in January 2016] at Dordt University, a Christian college in Sioux Center [Iowa], would become infamous, instantly covered on cable news and to this day still invoked by his critics. But the line that gained notoriety — the promise that he “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and “wouldn’t lose any voters” — overshadowed another message that morning. . . .

Christians make up the overwhelming majority of the country, he said. And then he slowed slightly to stress each next word: “And yet we don’t exert the power that we should have.”

If he were elected president, he promised, that would change. He raised a finger.

“Christianity will have power,” he said. “If I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power, you don’t need anybody else. You’re going to have somebody representing you very, very well. Remember that.”

Trump recognized the Iowa crowd for what it was: evangelical Christians who were used to seeing themselves as God’s Chosen, the top of the heap, the best, the ones going to heaven, the ones running the country and guiding it to Jesus. But they felt they were losing the country to the liberals, to gays, to abortion, to the urban elite who were oh so superior. Trump saw their resentment as a way to get them to support him.

Evangelicals did not support Mr. Trump in spite of who he is. They supported him because of who he is, and because of who they are. He is their protector, the bully who is on their side, the one who offered safety amid their fears that their country as they know it, and their place in it, is changing, and changing quickly. White straight married couples with children who go to church regularly are no longer the American mainstream. An entire way of life, one in which their values were dominant, could be headed for extinction. And Mr. Trump offered to restore them to power, as though they have not been in power all along.

I study the history of Christianity. One of the constants running throughout its history is this sense of being persecuted, the idea that any resistance, any setback, any dissent, any sharing of power, only happens because Christians’ enemies are persecuting them. It actually goes all the way back to beginning of the religion, when different branches fought viciously over whose doctrinal details were the right ones — because getting a detail wrong meant you might spend eternity in hell. Catholics and Protestants fought a war for 30 years which have killed a larger percentage of Europe than World War I over the issue of which of them was going to heaven.

These Iowans aren’t fighting on those terms, but they are heirs to that same attitude. Other peoples’ values, ways of life, threaten their certainty. Trump — who could care less about their values — won them over because he promised to put them on top again, First Amendment be damned (along with all the other Amendments except the Second).



Meantime, the Washington Post had an op-ed this morning b y E.J. Dionne: Joe Biden can’t ‘hurt God.’ He can end the catch-22 around religion.

Here’s the good news: Trump’s truly idiotic language and Biden’s own faith open new opportunities to push back against forms of religious warfare that have done grave damage both to religion and to our politics. Trump’s theology-free theology and his reduction of God to a political consultant’s role offer Biden, and progressives more generally, a large opening for reconciliation. Think of it as a Providential moment.

Dionne argues that Democrats have been “increasingly reluctant to talk about faith” because Dems are a pluralist coalition while the GOP is more and more the political arm of the Religious Right. I think the reluctance also comes from respecting the First Amendment and the idea that one’s religion is one’s own business.

That’s an admirable position, and one that, as a secularist, I approve. Even so, we need to reach out to the evangelicals for whom faith is central and political. They too have a right to be heard — but not the right to be in charge.

I don’t want to turn this into a history or philosophy tract (all to easy to do!). My point is that Joe Biden, a lifelong Catholic who has turned to his faith for comfort and guidance, but who does not see it as a license for dominion, is the best foil to use against Trump on religion, the best to expose him for the conman he is, to make it clear to the faith community that he is only using them for his own selfish purposes and that he really does not have their interests at heart.

Biden cannot and must not promise them what Trump is offering: Dominion over the land. What he can do is make it clear that we are all in this together.

(My thinking on this is a work in progress, as is probably clear.)