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Scholar Andrew Whitehead: Right-wing evangelicals think Trump can make “their vision of a Christian nation” real
y the standards of any of the world’s major religions Donald Trump is an ungodly person, an enthusiastic and unrepentant sinner who revels in his misdeeds. Trump is a serial liar and apparent narcissist. He is a greedy, crude and selfish person who does not pay his debts. He has repeatedly cheated on his wives and bragged about it. He has boasted about sexually assaulting women and getting away with it.
Yet white Christian evangelical voters were among his most enthusiastic supporters in the 2016 election. Despite Trump’s many failings of character, temperament and policy as president, they remain loyal members of his political cult. Why is this?
A new article by social scientists Andrew Whitehead, Joseph Baker and Samuel Perry in the journal Sociology of Religion offers several possibilities. The researchers explained their findings in a recent article for the Washington Post, writing that “the more someone believed the United States is — and should be — a Christian nation, the more likely they were to vote for Trump.”
The impact of “various measures of Christian nationalism” remained strong, they write, “even after controlling for other influences, such as political ideology, political party and other cultural factors proposed as possible explanations.”
… Even when holding constant a host of other explanations, a Democrat at the higher end of the index was three times more likely to vote for Trump than a Democrat at the lower end of Christian nationalist ideology.
For independents, the probability of voting for Trump increased moving across the range of the Christian nationalism scale. Likewise, Republicans scoring low in Christian nationalism were significantly less likely to vote for Trump than those scoring high on the index.
Much has been written about Donald Trump and the Republican Party’s authoritarian efforts to subvert and destroy American democracy, and their alliances with right-wing gangster capitalists such as the Koch brothers. But the enormous role played by evangelicals in Trump’s victory — and in his enduring core of support — has not received as much attention from the mainstream news media.
In all, it is increasingly clear that with Trump as the figurehead and Vice President Mike Pence as the puppet-master, Christian evangelicals have successfully completed a soft coup in America.
This right-wing Christian movement is fundamentally anti-democratic. Their “prayer warriors” do not believe that secular laws apply to them, thus making it acceptable, if not honorable, to deceive non-believers in order to do God’s work. Many evangelicals in the Christian nationalist or “dominionist” wing of the movement want the United States to be a theocracy. In some ways, this subset of the evangelical population resembles an American-style Taliban or ISIS, restrained (so far) only by the Constitution.
I recently spoke with Andrew Whitehead, co-author of this new study about what he and his colleagues’ research reveals about the relationship between right-wing Christians and the rise of Donald Trump — and what that unholy marriage means for America’s future.
How do you explain Trump’s victory and his enduring popularity among right-wing Christians?
Our research shows that for many Americans, voting for or supporting Trump is a symbolic defense of the United States’ perceived Christian heritage. Increasing levels of Christian nationalism – which we understand as a desire to see Christianity intimately intertwined with civil society – is a key predictor of who voted for Trump beyond political party, political ideology and various demographic characteristics.
We found this to be true even when controlling for influences that other research has shown predicted Trump support, such as economic dissatisfaction, sexism, racism, Islamophobia or antipathy toward immigrants. Given that Trump is notoriously non-pious, the high level of support from Christian nationalists suggests that this has little to do with the religious credibility of Trump and more to do with his willingness to advance their agenda.
Many evangelicals desire a public role for Christianity in American society. Both Trump and the Republican Party are happy to support that desire. Therefore, by supporting these groups, some evangelicals feel they are taking the necessary steps to see their vision of a Christian nation come to fruition.
The Democratic Party has been described as a coalition of interest groups while the Republican Party is an ideological movement. How does your new research speak to that dynamic?
The strong association between Christian nationalism and Trump support — no matter if someone is a Democrat or Republican — suggests that Christian nationalism is important above and beyond political party. However, it also suggests that the political party that speaks to the desires of Christian nationalists most effectively, which has generally been the Republican Party, is most likely to motivate political action among that group.
How do right-wing Christian evangelicals conceptualize politics and society?
Christian nationalism is not beholden to any particular religious group or moral tradition. So it is not indicative of how evangelicals conceptualize politics and society, although many evangelicals (but not all) do embrace Christian nationalism. Generally, Christian nationalists conceptualize politics and society as a realm that must be suffused with Christianity in order for it to flourish, because of the particular relationship the United States has with the Christian God. It is only through thoroughly injecting Christianity into the public sphere that the moral fabric of society will be strengthened and the issues that the country faces will be solved.
Is right-wing Christian support for Trump merely transactional or is it more than that?
Christian nationalist support for Trump is in some ways transactional. Their desire to protect the perceived Christian identity of the country has nothing to do with the religious bona fides of the person or people who help them achieve it. Trump is seen as a tool used by the Christian God to make America Christian again. He can be dispensed with when he is no longer useful. Christian-nationalist support for Trump is also expressive. Many believe the United States is going to hell in a hand-basket, and voting for and supporting Trump is a way to relieve that frustration.
How does Christian nationalism fit into this political moment, when liberal democratic norms and institutions are under siege?
There is certainly an aspect of Christian nationalism that is authoritarian in nature. Phil Gorski has pointed out that this particular brand of religious nationalism tends toward authoritarian figures. In many ways, Christian nationalists might have been looking for a political savior of sorts, and Trump happened to fit that bill. Kristin Du Mez has also shown that in many ways support for Trump is related to a kind of “militant masculinity” that has been brewing in evangelical culture for some time.