As a Christian leader, I will not be silent about the current state of white evangelicalism in America. I must lay out the facts, clearly and succinctly. Due to the rise of Donald Trump and Trumpism, white American evangelicalism has been exposed for what it really is: a socio-political movement primarily motivated by power and fear.
Author Kristin Kobes Du Mez said, “Despite evangelicals’ frequent claims that the Bible is the source of their social and political commitments, evangelicalism must be seen as a cultural and political movement, rather than as a community defined chiefly by its theology.”
Gone are the days when white American evangelicals en masse could claim to be primarily concerned with the four theological distinctives outlined in David Bebbington’s Evangelical Quadrilateral. These distinctives are: (1) the belief that human beings need to be converted or “born again” (conversionism), (2) the belief that one’s faith in Christ must be shared, in word and deed (activism), (3) a high regard for the Bible as the ultimate authority (biblicism), and, 4) the belief that redemption is through Christ’s atoning death on the Cross (crucicentrism).
While there are certainly white evangelicals for whom the aforementioned distinctives are paramount, the evangelical movement as a whole is structured around the acquisition and maintenance of political power. Also, the evangelical movement is animated by fear or a perceived threat to the social order.
To understand how 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump in both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, we need to go back to the 1980 election, for historical context. White evangelicals’ insatiable thirst for political power led two-thirds of them to support the twice-married Ronald Reagan who rarely attended church services and to reject the born-again Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher, Jimmy Carter.
Ironically, it was not the issue of abortion that initially mobilized the religious right against Carter. Rather, it was their unfounded fear that Carter was behind efforts to remove tax-exempt status from “segregation academies.” Some of these academies were Christian-affiliated schools that practiced racial discrimination, such as Bob Jones University. In reality, Richard Nixon initiated policies targeting such academies, and these policies were enforced during Gerald Ford’s administration.
In 1979, the year Jerry Falwell Sr. and Paul Weyrich founded the Moral Majority, the issue of abortion became a part of the Republican Party’s fear-based strategy to galvanize the evangelical vote. This strategy has been highly successful.
From 2016 to the present, white evangelicals have coalesced around Trump as they did Reagan. Their support of Trump has been unwavering, despite his racism, nativism, misogyny, cruelty to the disabled, two impeachments, losing a free and fair election, and his incitement of the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
In retrospect, Trump makes Reagan look like a Boy Scout. I contend that white evangelicals in America may hold the “Trump Card,” but they are the ones being played. Their thirst for political power trumps (pardon the pun) any professed commitment to morality, family values or a Christian worldview. Now that the proverbial covers have been pulled off the evangelical movement, power, at any cost, is writ large as the end goal of white evangelicals.
Trump and white evangelicals are actually the perfect match, because for Trump, it’s all about the acquisition and maintenance of power. Every partnership Trump forges is transactional. “What’s in it for me?” is the question that continually permeates his psyche.
Moreover, Trump’s nostalgic promise to “make America great again” brings to mind a time when the country was much whiter and the racialized social order was more deeply entrenched. In light of 2020 Census data, however, the whole United States is projected to become majority-minority sometime between 2041 and 2046.
Public Religion Research Institute found that America is not only becoming less white, but also less Christian. As we came to the end of the 2010s, Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI, reported that only 42% of Americans identify as white and Christian. Such demographic shifts have produced great trepidation on the part of many white evangelicals. Trump has capitalized on white evangelicals’ fear of losing power and prominence in an increasingly diverse society.
“Trump’s nostalgic promise to ‘make America great again’ brings to mind a time when the country was much whiter and the racialized social order was more deeply entrenched.”
To be sure, Trump sees white evangelicals as nothing more than a means to an end. For him, the end is always more power. Trump never pretended to be a beacon of moral clarity, except when he awkwardly stood in front of St. John’s Church for a photo op, holding a Bible upside down.
Being accused of sexual misconduct by at least 16 women and paying hush money to a porn star to keep her quiet about a sordid affair doesn’t fit the “character counts” mantra of white evangelicals from the 1990s. Therefore, today’s white evangelicals stand to lose much through their transactional connection to Trump. One could argue that they’ve already sold any Christian witness they might have had for a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.
White evangelicalism’s preoccupation with power has resulted in three things from which it may never recover:
First, rejection of objective truth. For years, white evangelicals have claimed to be advocates for objective truth and opponents of moral relativism. Yet, many continue to pledge allegiance to Trump, who is known to some as Liar-in-Chief. In fact, according to a Washington Post piece, by the end of his term, Trump had accumulated 30,573 untruths during his presidency — averaging about 21 erroneous claims a day.
“For years, white evangelicals have claimed to be advocates for objective truth and opponents of moral relativism. Yet, many continue to pledge allegiance to Trump, who is known to some as Liar-in-Chief.”
This “truth decay” not only envelops the Republican Party, but also, by extension, white evangelicalism. Now, when white evangelicals want others to seriously consider the truth claims of Christ, they lack moral credibility.
Second, reception of conspiracy theories. The very Bible white evangelicals claim as their ultimate authority says, in 1 Timothy 4:7, “Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly.” According to 1 Timothy 1:4b, “Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work — which is by faith.”
Sadly, the QAnon conspiracy theory is believed and/or propagated by many white evangelicals and Christian nationalists. QAnon believers helped spread Trump’s “Big Lie” that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Additionally, much disinformation concerning vaccines — which have been proved effective against COVID-19 — has been spread, largely by white evangelicals. Many of them have refused to be vaccinated.
Third, rebellion against legitimate authority. Romans 13:1-2 states: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”
White evangelicals often employ this Bible passage in support of conservative Republican elected officials. Yet, many white evangelicals have vehemently protested mask mandates, saying they violate their “personal freedoms.” Now, large sections of our country are being ravaged by the COVID Delta variant, and about 95% of the sickest people filling up hospitals are not vaccinated. Tragically, hundreds of people are dying every day. Some unvaccinated white evangelicals appear not to care that they are endangering the lives of their neighbors whom Christ has called his disciples to love.
Undoubtedly, the clearest example of white evangelical or Christian nationalist rebellion against legitimate authority we have seen occurred on Jan. 6, 2021. A riotous mob of Trump supporters, including white evangelicals, stormed the Capitol, brutalized police and desecrated the seat of our democracy. This evil was done as many rioters displayed Trump banners, Confederate flags and Christian messages and symbols. Several died and more than 100 people were injured or maimed as a result. Such an attack never had occurred before.
White evangelicals have lamented that America is going to hell in a handbasket, and thus, needs to be taken back for God. But many of them have conflated American exceptionalism with the kingdom of God. Trump is keenly aware of this, and he is continuing to exploit white evangelicals for his own gain. Consequently, America needs to be saved from the power-grabbing and fearmongering of white evangelicalism. If not, we can say “goodbye” to democracy, and “hello” to autocracy. No longer would we have the majority rule to which we have grown accustomed, but minority rule. That’s eerily reminiscent of apartheid. May it never be!
Joel A. Bowman Sr. is a native of Detroit and serves as the founder and senior pastor of Temple of Faith Baptist Church, in Louisville, Ky. He also maintains a practice as a licensed clinical social worker with nearly 30 years of experience in the mental health field. His commentaries and poems have been printed in numerous publications. Joel and his wife, Nannette, have three children, Kayla, Katie and Joel Jr. Follow him on Twitter @JoelABowmanSr.
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