Members Only | November 1, 2018 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

White Evangelicals Love Donald Trump. Why?

The courts? Nope. Abortion? Nuh-uh.

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I was raised in a born-again Christian household, so I laugh a little when I see items like this: “The Bible says to welcome immigrants. So why don’t white evangelicals?

Vox’s Tara Isabella Burton asks how people professing to follow Jesus can be so hostile to immigrants, minorities and members of the LGBTQ community. Of all groups, white evangelical Christians are most supportive of Donald Trump, even as he punches down on the poor, the weak, and the marginalized. How can they serve two masters: the powerful as well as “the least of these”? Well, they can’t.

Specifically, they won’t.

Don’t get me wrong. Burton is right to investigate how those exhorted to care for the meek and mild can support Trump, and she gets great material from historian Diana Butler Bass. Bass said the easy answer would be to see white evangelical Christians as just an arm of the GOP–cynical and secular–“taking talking points and marching orders from the people who have the loudest voices in the Republican Party.”

A better question, she said, would how did that happen? “White evangelicals are motivated by a willingness to read the Bible non-literally when it comes to passages about, say, caring for the poor,” Bass said, adding: “a very slow theological turn within the evangelical community [redefined] what seemed like very basic … verses about the care of the poor and caring for the outcast. On one hand, they might say, ‘Oh, you know, Jesus was born of a literal virgin’ … but when it comes to these verses about the poor and about refugees, in particular, all of a sudden, literalism disappears.”

This is the stuff that makes me laugh. Laughter is my typical reaction when people who believe in reason, scientific method and a clear understanding of the world according to evidence of their senses try to get their heads around something that has nothing to do with any of that. Liberal Christians are concerned about the plight of the weak. Black evangelical Christians are concerned about the poor. Non-Christian believers privilege freedom of worship. But white evangelical Christians value pretty much one thing: obedience to authority. Whose authority? Theirs, of course.

That’s a downright reductive statement, isn’t it? But there’s no other way to explain how people who had gone to the wall to impeach a Democratic president for canoodling with a White House intern went all-in with a thrice-married womanizing president who has compared his sexual escapades to military combat. Yes, it has a lot to do with abortion and the Supreme Court. I’ve heard a few people say the Christian right sold itself for access to power. But that misunderstands its DNA. Trump is very clear about who should rule and who should be punished. That is catnip to people who’s central, prevailing and operational belief is not God’s love. It’s submission.

That Bass has noticed shifts in “literal” interpretations of the Bible should come as no surprise. The entire movement to read the Bible “literally” was a reaction to scholars and critics of religion who teased apart the Bible to reveal its multiple authors, drafts and revisions, and other facts of antiquity that contravene traditional teaching.

Such “modernism” outraged Christians in the late 19th century. More importantly, it threatened their control of the social order. So they recoiled from public affairs, went underground, built private schools and universities, emerging only after the Supreme Court’s Brown decision pushed the government to demand racial desegregation. As Randall Balmer argued, this, and not Roe v. Wade, is what aroused the “moral majority” to step into the light and launch Ronald Reagan to the presidency.

The way old-fashioned 19th-century Christians read the Bible changed when the political context in which they were reading it changed. In other words, when the Bible itself threatened their political interests, they changed the way they read it.

Now that’s happening again. It used to be that when Jesus said “love thy neighbor,” that meant love thy neighbor. But now the meaning of “neighbor” is getting revamped, suggesting that to these “Christians,” the “literal word of God” really never was.

Authority is the end. Interpretation is the means. White evangelical Christians can be trusted to find a way toward that end. Morality, much less Christian morality, is beside the point. Don’t bother finding rhyme or reason. There is no there there, alas. What is present, however, is a much better explanation for seemingly contradictory behavior that continues to baffle good-faith liberals—an ordinary hunger for power.  

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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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