Why Evangelical Trumpism Will Transcend Trump

On the occasion of Super Tuesday, during which Donald Trump is expected to win many if not all of the states holding primaries and caucuses, today’s post examines Trump’s relationship with white evangelical Christians. Summarizing and introducing their edited volume Trump, White Evangelical Christians, and American Politics: Change and Continuity, Anand Edward Sokhey and Paul A. Djupe explore how Trump’s rise and his enduring appeal can be contextualized within larger trends in American politics, religion, and culture. The book is out today, and you can buy it from pennpress.org for 30% off when you enter code PENN-SOKHEYDJUPE30 at checkout!

At a campaign appearance at the CPAC conference last month, Trump told “the choir” that conservatives and people of faith would be “hunted” if Joe Biden was elected to another term. On the one hand, this is not novel talk for the Trump years, but certainly is quite a bit different from when Ronald Reagan told a group of evangelicals in 1980, “I know that you can’t endorse me, but I only brought that up because I want you to know that I endorse you and what you’re doing.” On the other hand, Donald Trump received about the same portion of evangelical votes as the last three Republican presidential candidates. So much seems new, but even a cursory look back suggests considerable stasis in the fundamentals of religion and politics. What has changed? How much of the Trump era is new and different? Our new edited volume, Trump, White Evangelical Christians, and American Politics: Change and Continuity, provides timely and helpful answers to this and other questions.

In the summer of 2020 we gathered an interdisciplinary team of scholars for an online conference to help make sense of how Trump both had and hadn’t changed the religious-political landscape in the United States up to that point. As it turns out, that summer conference laid the foundation for the present edited volume, and at the same time helped us start to sketch out a framework that we think is helpful to understanding the present moment.  What are the essential points?

First, the Trump years did not come out of nowhere, nor has his continued appeal. Our volume opens by considering the demographic and religious trends that have assisted in Trump’s rise, especially his close connection with white evangelical Christians. Ryan Burge and Kaylynn Sims note religious aspects of partisan sorting that have taken place since the Obama years, while Dave Campbell, Geoff Layman and John Green assess the ways in which secularism has grown and become part of polarization narratives.  Napp Nazworth, the former editor of the Christian Post (and a trained social scientist like our other contributors) discusses the ways in which the Christian Right no longer exerts the same kinds of influence on policy direction/formulation within the GOP as it used to. In essence, efficient party sorting and polarization has left the Christian Right organizations weak, allowing a populist leader without ingroup bona fides to rise to the top of the GOP ticket.

Second, religion has been used to mobilize people into partisan politics, and Trump has continued to pull on this thread. The next part of the book consists of chapters that highlight the politicization of religion, and in particular, how both clergy and political leaders have used religion in the service of partisan mobilization. Analyzing a huge trove of sermons scraped from YouTube, Shayla Olson and Enrique Quezada-Llanes provide evidence that sermons became more political in the age of Trump, likely responding to grassroots pressures to do so. Paul Djupe asks whether conservative Christians understand that their support for Trump has reputational costs, finding that they are too socially isolated from seeing those costs. Ruthie Braunstein focuses on one of the mechanisms that drives this tightening relationship: threat. The Christian persecution complex she describes is not new, but the level of perceived repression fanned by Trump and other religious and political elites has radicalized a large portion of conservative Christians.

Third, there is a distinct racial component to the aforementioned appeals and patterns of mobilization. Allan Tellis and Anand E. Sokhey provide some perspective for this by looking at support for reparations for slavery—relative to other racialized issues—across religious groups. Eric McDaniel, Sarah Heise and Abe Barranca focus on notions of white masculinity, particularly as they intersect with evangelical Christianity. Finally, Hilde Lovdal Stephens and Gerardo Marti carefully document how Trump and surrogates have used Critical Race Theory in both local and national conversations to further dial up threat.

Our final point in the volume is that we do not have to look hard to see evidence that religion and politics has been nationalized. In many ways the politics of race demonstrates this quite effectively: school board races have selectively turned into sites that play out national themes (Stephens and Martí detail this in their treatment of conservative education activist Christopher Rufo). In the last section of the book Andrew Lewis takes up the politics of and public support for religious freedom, which has mushroomed since the Obergefell case allowing same-sex marriage in 2015. Though religious freedom has been an important and salient issue for a very long time, it is only recently that attitudes have polarized with nationalistic components. Of course, public officials carry much of the blame for polarization and Trump is case and point. His administration’s use of executive authority to promote the culture wars and amp up his base  –  evangelical Christians – is documented by Jeremiah Castle and Kyla Stepp in the penultimate chapter.

We begin our book with a story about Clay Clark.  Clark is the entrepreneur who founded the ReAwaken America tour after the January 6th Insurrection to promote Trump and a very conservative, conspiracy-filled view of the world (not to mention a revolving cast of characters like Mike Flynn and Mike Lindell). We close by likening the Trump campaign to a tent revival that travels across America to fill the speaker’s coffers but also to spread a larger message. That message is increasingly a dark one that is explicitly apocalyptic—one that Trump reinforces by calling November 5th “Retribution Day,” when he will become a dictator (“only” on day one) to throw out the immigrant hordes that are poisoning the blood of America. This is not typical speech from a presidential candidate, but we don’t believe it is or will be limited to Trump. That is, the GOP tent revival will continue on after Trump, fueled by a set of political, social, and religious dynamics set in motion before Trump’s ascension. 

As we enter Super Tuesday Trump seems assured to be the GOP nominee, barely a year after his political career was declared all but over and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was being heralded the next standard bearer.  Our book helps explain not only Trump’s initial rise in 2015, but also his sustained appeal ten years on.

Professor Anand E. Sokhey directs the American Politics Research Lab, serves on the board of directors of the Leroy Keller Center for the Study of the First Amendment, and is a faculty fellow at the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  Further information about his work can be found on his website. Professor Paul A. Djupe directs the Data for Political Research program at Denison University, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of religioninpublic.blog. Further information about his work can be found on his website and on TwiX.

Today’s post was originally published on religioninpublic.blog.