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Theos Team Blog

Trump and the evangelicals

18th November 2016

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The 81% white evangelical vote for Trump has prompted much anguish on the other side of the pond – see here, herehere, or numerous others of a similar kind. No need to read them all - summary: “how could you?” Others have demurred, which has in turn prompted accusations that the evangelical community is now trying to shrug off its share of responsibility.

However you cut it, Trump’s coalition of support has several religious components. Of those that voted (and bearing in mind that somewhere close to half the voting age population did not), regular church-goers tended strongly for Trump, and on the evidence so far voting evangelicals tended even more strongly to support the controversial Republican candidate, indeed perhaps even more strongly than they supported that darling of the religious right, George W. Bush. Many (including me) speculated that evangelicals would move away from Trump, but this was not to be. To use a memorable Presidential phrase, their support for him was misunderestimated.

So is all the hand-wringing justified? No, or at least, it’s a little premature. ‘Evangelical’ has become a standard category in the US politics, but it’s a pretty ambiguous word and therefore a diverse category. Much of the catastrophizing has been from those who felt that they could not defend ‘their people’, but that’s presuming that evangelical Trump voters are meaningfully like them. How you interpret and react to the 81% will depend on large part on who you think they are.

So who are they?

It’s worth making the simple point that the word ‘evangelical’ is not a denominational affiliation (at least it isn’t in the UK or US). That’s why it is possible to be an Anglican, a Methodist, a Baptist and an evangelical at the same time. Evangelicalism centres not around institutions but a set of beliefs, values and practices. The historian David Bebbington offered the most definitive criteria in his famous quadrilateral. Evangelicals, he said, are defined by biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism.

This definition would still more or less be owned by evangelicals in the UK. Around these values gather myriad institutions, relationships, associations, commonalities of religious thought and practice and, in the United Kingdom, a notable absence of political alignment. The boundaries are fuzzy, but its meaning is primarily theological. The word carries little currency in wider culture, none of it positive, so it’s hard to think of someone describing themselves as evangelical who didn’t genuinely share those values. On the contrary, you would come across a fair few people who would share the values and be wary of using the term for fear of being misunderstood.

Back in Trump-land, it seems to me that evangelicalism is equally fuzzy, but in different ways. In the polling that gives the 81% figure, and subsequent Pew work, ‘evangelical’ is simply a self-descriptor. Roughly 25% of America is evangelical in that sense, but the Pew data note that this includes Mormons and Catholics who so self-describe (as evangelical or born-again). That’s a legitimate way to go about it, but anyone working to a more objective Bebbington-like understanding would think that lots of the people who so self-describe would not fit the bill. Tighter definitions, which test around particular beliefs, give a smaller figure, with less than 10% of Americans counting as evangelical.

It seems to me, though it sounds oxymoronic, that there’s a kind of nominal evangelicalism at play. After all, it has arguably been the dominant expression of religion in America since the time of the Second Great Awakening – it is deeply impregnated into American culture. In meaning, then, evangelicalism could be working more like – but not the same as – the UK term ‘census Christian’. This phrase emerged after the UK Census of 2001 found, much to everyone’s surprise, that 71% of the country still described themselves as Christian. The 71% included everyone from a member of Opus Dei to my father-in-law, who ticked the box purely because he’s English. Of course, both are equally entitled to so describe themselves and both meant something by it, but it’s important to know that those somethings can be very different things.

And what might those somethings be? In his book, Faith in the Halls of Power, Michael Lindsay distinguished between cosmopolitan and populist evangelicals. They differ from each other in levels of education, the former tend to be urban and the latter suburban and rural, all of which influences the likelihood of mixing with people of other ethnicities and faiths/no faiths (hence shaping a more cosmopolitan outlook). In a recent blog the Rev Dr. Michael Bird (Australian, as it happens, but with some experience in the states) argued that there were three evangelical ‘tribes’ when it came to Presidential elections: the ‘America, God and guns evangelicals’ (fully out for Trump), the ‘hold your nose evangelicals’ (who saw him as the lesser of two evils), and ‘irenic evangelicals’ (leaning Democrat). All very anecdotal (and ignoring the millions of evangelicals who didn’t vote at all), but useful interpretation of what we have at the minute, and casting some light on the diversity of the category.  

It seems to me that the teeth gnashing is mainly a matter of the cosmopolitan evangelicals’  frustration with the ‘America, God and guns evangelicals’, but then that’s just holding a mirror up to the post Trump debate around America as a whole, and adds little extra light. It’s the same story about comfort with diverse, connected and globalised America set against a sense of anxiety about the future and frustration at the way traditional forms of life and community are being eroded. Those producing anguished column inches are thinking too theologically about the category – ‘are they reading the same Bible as me?’, ‘don’t they know that Jesus loved the marginalised?’ etc etc. They also believe that their version of evangelicalism is the Jesus-inspired one, the one that transcends the processes of cultural and historical production that have made the other evangelicalism. No doubt similar prejudices run the other way.

I have no interest in exculpating, or indeed castigating, US evangelicals – whatever they may be – for their Trump support, only in beginning to understanding what their support means. And it seems to me that the deep divides of evangelical America are no more or less surprising or difficult or hard to understand than the divides that mark the rest of America – in fact, they’re just the same divides reproduced and baptised and expressed in pious Christian-speak. It’s what evangelicals do about them that will count in the long run. 


Paul Bickley is Director of Political Programme at Theos


Image by Gage Skidmore via flick under CreativeCommons

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