In “A War for the Soul of American Evangelicalism,” Samuel Perry (University of Oklahoma) responds to David Barr’s (University of Chicago) essay featured in this month’s issue of the Forum, “Evangelical Support for Trump as a Moral Project: Description and Critique.” The rise of Donald J. Trump to the presidency has caused a crisis of misunderstanding in American politics. From the perspective of his critics, his ethos, rhetoric, and politics are so self-evidently evil, they cannot imagine how anyone could support him from anything other than depravity or ignorance. Barr’s essay makes the case that there is a deeper meaning beyond this apparently obvious one, and realistic political analysis requires that we recognize it. Barr argues that many American evangelical Christians support President Trump as an expression of a positive moral vision for American government and society.
Perry’s contribution to our roundtable challenges scholars of religion and commentators on religion in American politics to reconsider the monolithic portrayal of American “evangelicalism” that predominates in much of the analysis and commentary on the topic. In particular, even while there are certainly evangelicals who “leverage the gospel to advance the social position of (white) American Christians,” we are coming to realize they are a much smaller percentage of those who identify as both evangelical and republican than previously imagined. Rather than conflate (white) evangelicals into Trump’s political base, Perry instructs us to observe that a “war for the soul of evangelicalism” is taking place and to pay attention to it.
- David Barr, Evangelical Support for Trump as a Moral Project: Description and Critique
- Benjamin Lynerd, On Political Theology and Religious Nationalism
- John G. Stackhouse, Jr., American Evangelical Support for Donald Trump: Mostly American, and Only Sort-of ‘Evangelical’
- Samuel Perry, A War for the Soul of American Evangelicalism
- Arlene Sánchez-Walsh, Don’t Forget Trump’s Pentecostal Fans
We invite you to join the conversation by submitting your comments and questions below.
by Samuel Perry
David Barr’s essay is important. It’s important because it allows us to (correctly, I believe) interpret the support that a large percentage of evangelicals have for Donald Trump as something besides naked hypocrisy. Like other scholars of American evangelicalism, I’ve grown tired of that narrative, even as my thoughts often wander there upon reading the latest quote from Robert Jeffress, Jerry Falwell Jr., or Franklin Graham.
David argues that, for many evangelicals, support for Trump is an outgrowth of their republican political theology that inclines them to hold in tension their commitment to libertarian economic policies and moral conservatism, defending both liberty and the virtues necessary to maintain it. While their perspective (particularly their view on welfare retrenchment) requires thoughtful critique, David reminds us that the intentions of these evangelicals are often noble.
In keeping with the spirit of Niebuhr, David is irenic and generous toward evangelicals. I think he may be too generous, frankly. Or maybe he wasn’t generous enough. It depends on which evangelicals we are talking about.
Let me clarify. The fact is, when it comes to Trump, there are at least two sizeable camps of American evangelicals. Contrary to the oft-cited statistic that 80% of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election (which only included white self-identified “evangelicals” or “born-again” Americans who actually voted), American evangelicals were split on Trump. According to the 2017 Baylor Religion Survey, fielded in early 2017 just after the November 2016 election, 52% of adults who claim affiliation with evangelical denominations voted for Trump. The other 48% either voted for Clinton (24%), didn’t vote (17%), or voted for someone else (7%).1
What’s the difference between the roughly half of evangelicals who voted for Trump and the other half who didn’t? David and Benjamin Lynerd both highlight the separate but interrelated nature of republican political theology and Christian nationalism, suggesting both could play a role in Trump support. David optimistically leaves it rather open-ended as to which set of ideals and beliefs play the stronger role. I believe we can pick a winner. It’s Christian nationalism.
In our 2018 study in Sociology of Religion, my colleagues and I first looked at the correlation between being an evangelical and voting for Trump, which was moderately high. It wasn’t as high as the correlation between, say, being sexist, racist, or Islamophobic and voting Trump, but still fairly high. Interestingly, however, when we included our measure of Christian nationalism (a multi-item measure that we’ve used in previous studies), being an evangelical no longer mattered. In other words, once we removed the effect of holding strongly to Christian nationalist ideology, evangelicals were statistically no different from anyone else in terms of voting for Trump.2 In fact, the only factors that mattered more than Christian nationalism in predicting the Trump vote were political party, political ideology, and Islamophobia.
What does this mean? At the very least we need to clarify that, when we speak of “evangelical” support for Trump, we are talking about a specific segment of American evangelicals, namely, those who feel their cultural, racial, and political power is under attack and must be preserved. Certainly, many evangelicals held their noses and voted for Trump because of an underlying belief about small government and defense of “family values.” But those people don’t wear “Make America Great Again” hats or attend Trump rallies. Rather, the evangelicals who enthusiastically voted for, and still support, Donald Trump largely do so because they (correctly) recognize the waning of their influence, and Trump has promised to fight on their behalf.
Tony Perkins: “[Evangelical Christians] were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.”
Interviewer: What happened to turning the other cheek?
Perkins: “You know, you only have two cheeks…Look, Christianity is not all about being a welcome mat which people can just stomp their feet on.”
Tony Perkins was wrong to speak on behalf of all evangelicals. Rather, he speaks for a certain kind of evangelical, namely, one that believes their way of life is under assault; that they are the victims; and that the solution requires them to raise the drawbridge of national membership and empower someone who will fight “for them.”3
I wrote earlier that I thought David might have been too generous with evangelicals, or perhaps not generous enough, depending on which evangelicals we are talking about. The good news is that a larger percentage of evangelicals than we formerly thought are likely just as disappointed with Trump as the rest of us are. (For example, a recent Pew poll in Dec. 2017 found that Trump’s approval rating among white evangelicals was only 61%.) Yes, these evangelicals almost assuredly will still lean toward candidates who favor smaller government, greater religious freedoms, and pro-life family values. But they are the sorts of Americans that David’s essay could resonate with, people who could be persuaded to understand why providing stronger supports for the poor, eliminating the War on Drugs, or implementing less draconian immigration reforms are not only consistent with Christian theology, they are wise policy. I believe in these evangelicals. And we shouldn’t lump them in with Trump as many have.
I am less optimistic about our options with the second group of evangelicals―those who, to paraphrase Lynerd, leverage the gospel to advance the social position of (white) American Christians, disguising the latter in robes of the former. As Robert P. Jones has shown in The End of White Christian America, this group’s power is slowly but undeniably fading.4 In that sense, they are right to be anxious. People don’t tend to give up power willingly. They may even get desperate, which is what I think Trump represents more than anything.5
Ultimately, my hope for the country and for evangelicals, along with Barr and Lynerd, is that those evangelicals who embrace the republican theology that Barr described, and that Lynerd first articulated in his wonderful book, will take back the narrative about who evangelicals are and what they represent from Christian nationalist leaders like Tony Perkins, Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, Franklin Graham, and Donald Trump. ♦
Samuel Perry is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He received his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago where he was also a Junior Fellow at the Marty Center. His research explores the changing dynamics of religion and family life in the United States, focusing primarily on American evangelicalism. Along with over 50 peer-reviewed articles, Dr. Perry has written two books: Growing God’s Family: The Global Orphan Care Movement and the Limits of Evangelical Activism (2017, NYU Press); and Addicted to Lust: Pornography in the Lives of Conservative Protestants (Forthcoming, Oxford University Press).
- These numbers are similar if we look at adults who consider the Bible the “literal word of God,” another common way of measuring “evangelical” status. Roughly 55% of biblical literalists voted for Trump; 25% voted for Clinton; 17% did not vote; and 3% voted for someone else. ↩
- Similarly, political scientist Eric McDaniel and his colleagues found that evangelicals were more likely to hold anti-immigrant attitudes until one controlled for Christian nationalism. Once they included Christian nationalism in their multivariate models, evangelicals were no longer significantly more likely to hold anti-immigrant sentiments. See: McDaniel, Eric L., Irfan Nooruddin, and Allyson F. Shortle. 2011. “Divine Boundaries: How Religion Shapes Citizens’ Attitudes toward Immigrants.” American Politics Research 39(1):205-233. ↩
- I put “for them” in quotes because, of course, I do not think Trump cares much about these people or their values, but their votes. ↩
- Jones, Robert P. 2016. The End of White Christian America. New York: Simon & Schuster. ↩
- See Jones’s 2016 postscript in which he interprets Trump’s victory in the 2016 Presidential Election. ↩