It’s hardly newsworthy when someone within or beyond the conservative Evangelical ranks laments or mocks that community’s staunch support for Donald J. Trump.
But a new argument from Michael Gerson, a prominent adviser to (and speechwriter for) George W. Bush, takes the critique of his fellow white Evangelicals quite a bit further. Yes, he agrees with the familiar complaints about Christian-right leaders whitewashing Trump and excusing his heathenish behavior and point of view. But he locates the fatal steps off the paths of righteousness a bit earlier in the narrative than those who seem to think everything in white Evangelical politics was peachy keen until the 45th president came along. And that’s why he calls Trump the “last temptation” for Evangelicals, but by no means the first.
The answer extends back some 150 years, and involves cultural and political shifts that long pre-date Donald Trump. It is the story of how an influential and culturally confident religious movement became a marginalized and anxious minority seeking political protection under the wing of a man such as Trump, the least traditionally Christian figure — in temperament, behavior, and evident belief — to assume the presidency in living memory.
Gerson offers a quick overview of the entire history of Evangelical engagement in politics, which he dates from the abolition movement prior to the Civil War. He believes things started going wrong when Evangelicals began to spurn positive engagement with their country’s culture and politics, and instead fought change for the sake of fighting change — i.e., when “fundamentalism” gained sway:
Fundamentalism embraced traditional religious views, but it did not propose a return to an older evangelicalism. Instead it responded to modernity in ways that cut it off from its own past. In reacting against higher criticism, it became simplistic and overliteral in its reading of scripture. In reacting against evolution, it became anti-scientific in its general orientation. In reacting against the Social Gospel, it came to regard the whole concept of social justice as a dangerous liberal idea. This last point constituted what some scholars have called the “Great Reversal,” which took place from about 1900 to 1930. “All progressive social concern,” [historian George] Marsden writes, “whether political or private, became suspect among revivalist evangelicals and was relegated to a very minor role.”
So by the time conservative Evangelicals returned to strong political engagement in the 1970s, they were predisposed to a narrow, negative, and quite literally reactionary view of secular America (and of their more liberal mainline Protestant cousins). Their hostility to science had long been solidified by opposition to evolution (a disastrous position that is still repelling young people), and their tendency to view anodyne developments as ominous secular conspiracies led them into such causes as restoring public-school prayer, which Gerson calls an “asinine issue.” The mood among Evangelicals was made much darker by the advent of disruptive cultural trends, especially the sexual revolution and then feminism.
As a result, the primary evangelical political narrative is adversarial, an angry tale about the aggression of evangelicalism’s cultural rivals. In a remarkably free country, many evangelicals view their rights as fragile, their institutions as threatened, and their dignity as assailed. The single largest religious demographic in the United States — representing about half the Republican political coalition — sees itself as a besieged and disrespected minority. In this way, evangelicals have become simultaneously more engaged and more alienated.
And ripe for exploitation, of course, by an increasingly reactionary Republican Party.
Gerson himself is best known for promoting a positive Evangelical social vision (borrowed, tellingly, from Catholic social teachings) that Bush marketed under the label of “compassionate conservatism.” While Gerson is rightly proud of the global fight against AIDS that he pressed Bush to wage as an example of “compassion,” he admits that the broader effort lost momentum, thanks to 9/11, the Iraq War, and a lack of enthusiasm among both pols and conservative Evangelicals.
So what’s largely left of white conservative Evangelical engagement with the public sector is a combination of cultural grievances and paranoia, made even narrower by racial isolation drifting into white identity politics. Thus they arrived at the juncture where an opportunistic Donald Trump stood, promising to trade them protection for support.
And here’s where Gerson is especially insightful: Conservative Evangelicals didn’t back Trump despite his unsavory personality, but in some respects because of it:
Trump consistently depicts evangelicals as they depict themselves: a mistreated minority, in need of a defender who plays by worldly rules. Christianity is “under siege,” Trump told a Liberty University audience. “Relish the opportunity to be an outsider,” he added at a later date: “Embrace the label.” Protecting Christianity, Trump essentially argues, is a job for a bully.
That is an intuitively more convincing explanation of the affection that the Christian right has for Trump than the idea that he’s a god-chosen infidel like Cyrus the Great, or a sort of Evangelical-by-osmosis thanks to the holy men (plus Paula White) whom he’s allowed into his circle. But like Russell Moore’s accusation that the conservative Evangelical “marriage” to the GOP and the Christian nationalism that is the marriage’s fruit are inherently wicked, Gerson is asking Christian-right leaders and followers to retrace too many steps for comfort. Besides, he’s tainted by his association with the onetime Evangelical darling George W. Bush and his globalist outlook — and he has a column in the Washington Post.
But perhaps at the level of a punch in the gut, Gerson’s case for a rethinking of the whole Christian-right enterprise will get some believers thinking:
This is the result when Christians become one interest group among many, scrambling for benefits at the expense of others rather than seeking the welfare of the whole. Christianity is love of neighbor, or it has lost its way.