MRBlog | “The Evangelicals” and the Rise of Donald Trump

Donald Trump

By L. Benjamin Rolsky

On June 10th, 2016, business executive and presidential candidate Donald Trump gave a speech to the Faith and Freedom Coalition as part of a wider campaign to court the evangelical vote. His platform consisted of firm if not traditional conservative commitments to the rights of the unborn, heterosexual marriage, global terrorism, and the Second Amendment. In fact, Trump mentioned the National Rifle Association (NRA) by name as an organization worthy of his support. Amidst calls to restore the “rule of law” in American society, Trump called on his evangelical supporters not to discriminate based on religious creed or racial color. Despite the fact that his audience clapped only after he connected this declaration to “bringing the country together,” Trump nevertheless articulated a principle that is constitutionally grounded as part of the first amendment and the right to free speech and religious expression.

On this point, Trump’s campaign is broad enough to include Christian and non-Christian voices in his effort to become President of the United States. Unfortunately, this type of comment is the exception that proves the rule of the Trump phenomenon—abrasive communication and messages for their own sake in the face of political correctness and liberal condescension. Additionally, the fact that Trump gave his speech in front of seemingly supportive conservative evangelicals belied its hit-or-miss relevance to evangelical communities themselves. In this sense, Trump’s approach to “the evangelicals” (his words) says more about the effectiveness of conservative electoral strategy since the 1970s than it does Trump’s actual candidacy as the potential Republican nominee. Such success, however, has come at a cost—one that strategists continue to wrestle with as Republicanism undergoes yet another redefinition in the wake of “the Christian Right” and “the electronic church.”

Evangelicals have been wary of promises of political expediency before. In fact, one could argue that the 1960s and 1970s witnessed a fundamental re-evaluation of evangelicalism’s role in a fast-moving world of revolution and reformation. Writing in the early 1970s, evangelical academic Richard V. Pierard was one of the first scholars to question the all-but-assumed relationship between Evangelical Christianity and political conservatism in the public square. In his book, The Unequal Yoke: Evangelical Christianity and Political Conservatism, Pierard examined the application of the evangelical tradition to American politics through its relationship to, and appropriation by, “the far right” or “the radical right” in various electoral circumstances.

What is most striking about this text, one of many to explore how best to apply evangelicalism to the challenges of the 60s, is its insistence on “the integrity of the faith” and its commitment to constructive dialogue with fellow evangelicals. The religio-political positions that Pierard argued for as an evangelical, however, were often times in the minority compared to his conservative counterparts in Christ including evangelists Carl McIntire and Billy James Hargis. They were also minority positions relative to the business interests that supported the work of McIntire and other conservative activists including then President of Schick Safety Razor Company Patrick J Fawley Jr. and Presbyterian layman J. Howard Pew.

As various evangelical Protestants began finding their organizational feet at America’s mid-century, they began to test the waters of religio-political mobilization and politics generally considered. Beginning with the Anti-Communist movement in the 1950s, which was supported fervently by many conservative fundamentalist preachers including the ones listed above, American Protestantism began to experience a form of religious realignment or restructuring along a new set of political parameters. The traditional unit of the Christian denomination started to matter less as scholars began examining new allegiances and divisions arising within the denomination itself versus the conflicts between denominations themselves. In this sense, one could argue that many American Protestants began to have more in common with their political counterparts according to “liberal” and “conservative” understandings of the biblical text than with some of their own denominational brethren. By the mid-1960s, this trend had developed into a self-sufficient coalition of conservative Protestantism, which was the product of an encounter between evangelical Christianity and a post-war political conservatism embodied in the candidacy of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. For Pierard, this was not the direction evangelicalism should be headed in its own encounter with the turbulence of the period—far from it.

“Certain rightist organizations specifically claim to be ‘Christian’ in their nature and basic thrust,” Pierard advised, “These will be pointed out so that the reader can be made aware of them and the manner in which they prey upon churches and concerned Christians for funds and support.” Pierard’s moderate evangelical voice was one of many at the time that questioned the less-than-transparent relationship between a burgeoning movement of conservative Protestants and equally conservative politicians and businessmen. Despite the fact that many if not all of these groups and individuals could be considered part of American evangelicalism writ large, Pierard sensed that a large number of them were being led astray by shrewd conservative organizers and strategists of “the New Right.” In this sense, Pierard argued that a “Christian Far Right” had emerged due to a “parasitic” relationship between “the Far Right” and conservative evangelicalism. “Evangelicals must beware of the insidious attempts of Christian Rightists to exploit their religious concerns and to yoke the faith to an ultraconservatism that violates the basic ethical principles of Christianity,” argued Pierard. “It takes advantage of the zeal and dedication of Christian believers and misuses the name of Jesus Christ for political purposes.” For those who were familiar with Pierard’s subjects, a simple suggestion would suffice: “heed the injunction of James: Resist the devil and he will flee from you.”

Trump can relate to his evangelical base only through categories and abstractions of evangelicals themselves.

The extent t which Pierard’s words should be heeded in light of Trump’s latest speech is a question perhaps best left answered by those directly involved. Yet we cannot help but notice that the speech was only too characteristic of the historic conservative appropriation of “Christian zeal and dedication” by Presidential candidates for political gain—liberal or conservative. In this instance, Trump’s usage of phrases such as “the Evangelicals” and “heavy Christian groups” is an indication of a fundamental gap between those he’s actually appealing to in person and the ways in which such populations of voters become “the Evangelicals” in the first place. In other words, Trump can relate to his evangelical base only through categories and abstractions of evangelicals themselves. This is arguably why Trump spent almost five minutes identifying his immediate evangelical support system including Ralph Reed himself, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition before which Trump stood Friday afternoon.

In this sense, Trump attempted to establish a form of evangelical authority while among “the evangelicals” themselves, but the delivery of his words disclosed anything but a desire to connect with his all-important evangelical base. Instead, Trump’s words showed signs of a way of thinking dating back Pierard’s time, a moment of evangelical angst in the public square in the face of growing conservative political power. As such, Trump’s speech on Friday represented the very same parasitic logic that Pierard identified as detrimental to the Christian community of evangelicals that was in flux during a tumultuous period of American social and political history. Needless to say, evangelicals may want to heed Pierard’s words as we inch ever closer to election day—for their own sake, and the sake of a divided country.

L. Benjamin Rolsky received his Ph.D. from Drew University’s Graduate Division of Religion in the field of US American Religions. He is currently working on a book manuscript titled, Norman Lear, People for the American Way, and Spiritual Politics in Late Twentieth-Century America.

Image via Gage Skidmore

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