The majority of today’s American Evangelicals have chosen to honor a political party over the teachings of their Bible. Trump and the Republicans have gained authority over them not from biblical credentials and virtues, but from their ability to appeal to Evangelical audiences. It is no coincidence that Trump’s rallies and Lindsey Graham’s tirades mirror revival meetings and mega-church preachers.
Party over faith for Evangelicals is not new. The Evangelical revivalists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries introduced new communications techniques that have been stolen by American politicians. “In their eagerness to ‘save souls’, the revivalists introduced vernacular preaching styles, de-emphasized religious instruction, and brought a populist, anti-intellectual strain into American Protestantism.”
As a result, it is no surprise that American Evangelical Christianity is now entirely and uncritically in bed with the Republican Party and will support them as long as they oppose abortion and the homosexual agenda. If Trump and the Republicans continue to do these two things they will vote for them, they’ll go to war with them, they’ll let them spend the country into oblivion and they’ll be silent when they lie, cheat, harass women, prey on the weak, alienate our allies, embrace murderous dictators, and imprison innocent immigrant children.
A look back to Evangelical roots provides startling insight into this conundrum which reeks of hypocrisy. Evangelical hero Billy Sunday was the most celebrated and influential American evangelist during the first two decades of the 20th century. He preached, “Zeal for war and zeal for the Gospel were much the same thing. Christianity and Patriotism are synonymous terms and hell and traitors are synonymous.”
Under his influence Evangelicals increasingly embraced militant nationalism and hostility toward international organizations. The Ku Klux Klan, revived by this erstwhile Evangelical preacher, broadened its targets from African Americans to Catholics and Jews.
Billy Sunday, who always knew what his conservative (and increasingly small-town) audiences wanted to hear, cheered on the Palmer raids (a pre-cursor to the ICE immigration raids of today), boosted the anti-immigration laws, and worked for Prohibition, all with equal enthusiasm, and all in the name of restoring “pure Americanism.”
Consider the words of someone I knew very well, the late Dr. Bailey Smith, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention and a fiery revivalist in his own right, “It’s interesting at great political rallies how you have a Protestant to pray, a Catholic to pray, and then you have a Jew to pray. With all due respect to those dear people, my friends, God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.”
These white male Evangelical ministers were, like Trump, men of strong egos. Those who had built up their own mega-churches or Bible schools were rulers of their own fiefdoms, and, as believers in absolute standards of right and wrong, they tended to be authoritarian of temperament.
The (authoritarian) church provided Evangelical believers with “an orderly, well-mapped territory in the midst of an uncharted, chaotic, modern wilderness.” This foreshadows the popularity and acceptance of Trump’s oversimplified tweets about ultra-complex issues such as immigration, North Korea and the Khashoggi murder.
Evangelicals do not tolerate intellectuals. It is a populist movement led by uneducated pastors and televangelists and has an inbuilt hostility to seminary theology—not to mention secular academic thinking. Ironically, the Evangelical leaders have great regard for educational credentials. The ones who manage to attend a few months of Bible school (most of which are unaccredited) like to call themselves “doctor” as in “Dr. Falwell” and ignominiously add honorary degrees, like DD or LLD, after their names.
But much like Trump, they instinctively listen to their audiences and change their messages on the basis of what moves their base and what spurs them to action.
And the idea that the Evangelical base should collect evidence and decide for themselves was out of the question. Consider the words of Evangelical darling Jerry Falwell to his massive television audience (i.e. Trump’s base). He preached, “to read anything but the Bible and certain prescribed works of interpretation were at best a waste of time. He said that he himself read all the national magazines just to keep up with what others were saying, but that there was no reason for them to do so.”
A partial list of Falwell’s national sins included sex education, ‘secular humanist’ textbooks, the ERA, feminism, abortion, and homosexuality. The list is of interest because it stands as a historical milestone in the evolution of conservative evangelical views about what is absolutely wrong—many of which have no Biblical context.
These white male authoritarian Evangelical preachers persuaded their base that they alone were the “saving remnant” and that they had the ultimate responsibility for the country and subliminally began to promote party over faith.
Falwell’s Moral Majority, Beverly LaHaye’s Concerned Women for America, and Pat Robertson’s Christian Television Network increasingly swayed Evangelicals to view their alliance to the Republican political party more important than their religious affiliation. This played particularly well to southern-based evangelical denominations and churches where sermons filled the airwaves all Sunday long and this heretical teaching paved the way for a new kind of leader.
In 1984 Jim Bakker and PTL were bringing in $66 million a year until he was exposed as a cheat and a liar. Bakker wasn’t the only minister ever to be caught with financial improprieties, but what made him unique was that almost nothing he did was ever a secret.
Year after year The Charlotte Observer newspaper wrote about the bad management and fiscal irresponsibility at PTL; they exposed the fact that the huge sums Bakker had raised for foreign missions never went to missions, and they chronicled all of his major purchases, including a condo in Florida and an estate in Palm Springs, California.
Much like Trump, Bakker would display the newspaper headlines on television to demonstrate the hostility of the secular press to his ministry. The media reports made no impression on his donors (his base).
In 1986 the publisher of the Observer wrote in an in-house memo, “PTL’s givers—the people our coverage is primarily intended to enlighten—have not shown us in any substantial way that they appreciate our revelations. Rather, they seem to endorse the show-biz lifestyles of the Bakkers and to admire the creation of Heritage USA.”
The lack of response to the hard work of investigative reporting disappointed the Observer staff, but then almost everything Jim did was in more or less plain sight anyway. To his television audience, he preached a religion based on faith in financial miracles and in heaven here on earth with a waterslide and luxury hotels. It was a religion of celebrity, showmanship, and fun; its standard was excess and its doctrines tolerance and freedom from guilt—or any accountability.
Sound familiar? Today we hear Trump touting populist and nationalistic politics on Twitter rather than Falwell and Bakker promoting a subservient and secular religion on television. And the base that eagerly consumes and supports it is the same.
Many thinking Americans who watch Trump as scandal after scandal emerges find it impossible to understand how any Christian could support this kind of leader. It sounds so shockingly unchristian. How could God possibly be involved with Trumps’ behavior? But we must remember the same people that worshipped the celebrity and showmanship of Jim Bakker in spite of his obvious sins now worships at the feet of Donald Trump.
It was during this celebrity-soaked atmosphere where anything goes that the Evangelical clergy played a strong role in the political party realignment of the South. In a series of surveys, the political scientist James L. Guth found that the Southern Baptist ministers identifying with the Republican Party, or leaning toward it, mounted with great rapidity from 27 percent in 1980 to 66 percent in 1984 and from there to 80 percent in 1996.
In every presidential election from 1984 to the end of the century around 80 percent of the clergy voted for the Republican candidate, and in some years more than half actively supported the candidate. Therefore most Evangelicals became Republicans and paradoxically a few years later claimed Trump as one of their own.
In April 2006 a Christianity Today editorialist suggested that evangelicals stop calling themselves “Evangelical” because the label carried such negative connotations. “To the unchurched and people of other faiths,” he wrote, “ ‘Evangelical’ is increasingly shorthand for: right-wing US politics—an arrogant loudmouth who refuses to listen to other people’s opinions.”
Unfortunately, over a decade later, the majority of Evangelicals have lived out this dubious definition not only by voting for Trump—but inexplicably continuing to support him in spite of a White House that stands to go down in history as the most godless, the most corrupt, and the evilest in American history.
It would do all of us well to remember Evangelicals have been taught for two centuries by their religious heroes to be racist, to fear people who look and act different, to listen and obey their chosen leaders without question, to abhor history, education, and other sources of knowledge, and to feel superior because as the only true Americans—they are God’s chosen people.
In short, an Evangelical is increasingly shorthand for “right-wing US politics and arrogant loudmouths who refuse to listen to other people’s opinions.” A populist and nationalist tribe who have been taught and now militantly believe that party trumps faith. Tragically, a majority of today’s American Evangelicals have chosen to support a political party over the teachings of their Bible.
And the majority of true Americans continue to pay the price. Our only hope may be the few Evangelicals who still practice their faith and are desperately trying to effect a reformation and those of us who are former evangelicals who still have a large sphere of influence within that tribe.
—Foundational credit for much of this post must be given to Frances FitzGerald and his excellent book The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America.