Donald Trump and the Religion of White Nostalgia

By
Trump’s appeal to conservative white Evangelicals is less about the Bible than his promise to restore the lost age of the 1950s.Photo: Drew Angerer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

It is no surprise to learn that many people tend to look back on their childhood as some sort of golden age. And so, white seniors (black seniors tend to look a bit more unfavorably on the period before and during the struggle for civil rights) are naturally inclined toward the culturally reactionary message of Donald Trump, who not only promises to restore an allegedly lost era of American greatness, but embodies the ethnocentric and patriarchal culture of the 1950s.

But there is a broader and younger group of Americans who powerfully share that nostalgia: white Evangelical Protestants.

According to a new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, 74 percent of white Evangelicals think American life and culture “has mostly changed for the worse” since the 1950s. That’s a significantly higher level than the 57 percent of Americans over the age of 65 who feel that way.

As Anthea Butler observes at Religion Dispatches:

The upshot of this survey is that white evangelicals want to go back to Ozzie and Harriet—in time, behavior, and gender roles. This does not bode well for their influence in the future, and their embrace of Donald Trump and his alt-right followers will hurt them far more than they can imagine politically.

There is also an element of religious peril in this overwhelming tendency to look backward anxiously: the confusion of spirituality with the comforting verities of the recent past. The most prominent conservative Evangelical critic of both the Christian right and its support for Trump, Southern Baptist Convention spokesperson Russell Moore, put it bluntly in a speech this week:

Christians [need] to see that they are indeed “strangers and aliens” to every culture, [and] that their allegiances transcend the political, the tribal, and the cultural.

The temptation to divinize “traditional” culture runs deep. I used to have some relatives in rural Alabama who refused to acknowledge daylight saving time because standard time is “God’s time.” Anything old enough to evoke nostalgia is somehow holy. It’s what I call the Church of the Day Before Yesterday. And it’s a spiritually dangerous feature of religious fundamentalists across confessional lines, as shown most clearly by their common hostility to the emancipation of women.

There is no question that this is an impulse underlying the long-standing relationship of conservative white Evangelicals with secular political conservatives. Donald Trump is straining that relationship enormously — perhaps to a near-breaking point — with his casual attitude toward the political agenda of the Christian right and his openly heathenish lifestyle and worldview. But for the moment, so long as he fights the common enemy of those forces that have changed American culture (for the worse, they believe) since the 1950s, he’s their man.