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Unmasking Christian Populism: How GOP candidates are in a desperate race to win over Christian Evangelicals

Unmasking Christian Populism: How GOP candidates are in a desperate race to win over Christian Evangelicals

Ahead of tonight’s Republican primary debate, George Lapshynov comments on how Christian populism has been the name of the game. 23/08/2023

There are still 14 months to go until next year’s 60th presidential election in the United States, but the campaigns of the many hopeful candidates are already well under way. In fact, today the GOP candidates will face the first major hurdle of their respective campaigns: the first Republican presidential primary debate. 

Strict polling and donor requirements mean that not all Republican candidates are eligible to take part in the debate (see table at the bottom). And the additional requirement that participants sign a pledge to support the eventual Republican nominee has controversially excluded the most likely eventual nominee – a certain Donald Trump – from taking part, raising the question of whether there is really much point to the debate at all. 

Yet despite appearances, there is more to the GOP than just Trump. And at first glance, the other ‘long list’ candidates look almost diverse by American conservative standards. Among the usual crowd of mid– to senior–aged white men, you can spot Nikki Haley, a Sikh–raised Methodist of Punjabi origin; Vivek Ramaswamy, a practising Hindu of South Indian origin; and Tim Scott, the only black Republican candidate, who is also currently one of only two black senators in the US Senate. 

Yet the relative diversity is superficial. Scratch the surface just a little, and you will find that today still, the GOP’s version of “Americanness” is still as religiously and racially exclusive as ever. 

Haley, who converted to her husband’s Methodist faith 26 years ago still has to prove her Christianity on a regular basis, facing constant accusations that her conversion was not genuine but politically motivated. But then, she comes from South Carolina where being a Christian is more or less the price of admission to running for political office. And given her background, and her refusal to denounce her childhood faith, it is likely that no amount of justification will ever be enough. 

Meanwhile, Ramaswamy has faced his own share of criticism for his faith. His strategy for winning over Christian voters has been the adoption of a “Christian language of Hinduism”, systematically emphasising how similar the values of the Hindu and Judeo–Christian traditions really are. But also, rather oddly, an attempt to convince evangelical Christians that by being more devoutly Hindu than some of his opponents in the race are devoutly Christian, he is ‘more Christian’ than those who are Christian in name only.

What little cultural and religious diversity there was in the GOP presidential primaries has therefore been swallowed up whole by the quest to convince the party’s evangelical Christian kingmakers that any apparent diversity is really just an optical illusion. Truly, in the “Land of the Free”, even South Asian Hindu and Sikh–born candidates must prove their credentials as middle–aged white evangelical men. 

And if Haley and Ramaswamy are desperate to fit the mould, the situation is all the worse for the other candidates, vying for the titles of most Christian, most conservative, and most pro–life. 

Francis Suarez, who did not meet the criteria to participate in today’s televised debate, is a living example. At the annual convention of the evangelical Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in June 2023, he sought to convince his audience of his pro–life credentials by claiming that he was a “literal product” of the pro–life movement, as his parents met at a pro–life rally. Short of actually being conceived at one, his message could not be clearer: no one is more pro–life than him. 

So, evangelical Christians, who play an outsized role in deciding Republican primaries, have to be won over, and it is a zero–sum game. But is it really about substance (i.e., genuine faith) or is it just about form and appearance? Surely, it is the latter. How else, as the Spanish newspaper El País pointed out, could someone with all the morals — or lack of them — of Donald Trump still be the favourite of white evangelical Christians in the US? 

Unsurprisingly, this weaponisation of Christian culture is the trademark of the Christian populist politician. The Christian populist politician considers Christianity as an identity, not a faith, and uses its imagery to promote ethno–cultural–national ‘values’. He strips Christianity of its personal, spiritual content and articulates it in territorial and political terms. And he behaves in a way that is contrary to Christian teaching, because demonstrating any of the virtues historically associated with good Christian leadership would in fact be inimical to the populist project. 

All this however is not to say that populism appeals only to evangelical Christians. Other Christians, such as conservative Catholics, are also joining this group. And so are non–churchgoers – i.e., mostly non–practicing or nominal Christians – whose numbers are growing in the GOP.

Polls suggest that there is a difference between the attitudes of Christian churchgoing and non–churchgoing Republican voters. The latter in particular seem to have played a leading role in pulling the party towards Donald Trump over the past six years, appear more interested in anti–system positions, care less about ideology, resist libertarian economic ideas, and are more eager to participate in the culture wars.

And while they seem to be attracted to the instrumentalised Christian symbolism proposed by the GOP, non–churchgoers care less about the ‘God talk’ itself. In a sense, their role in the unmooring of the Republican Party and its further drift towards populist extremes may be enabled by the very absence of substantial lived faith among the major candidates.

The phenomenon becomes all the clearer when considering some of the candidates that are less keen on instrumentalising their religious belief. For instance, Chris Christie, a moderate conservative and practising Catholic, was booed off the stage at the aforementioned Faith and Freedom Coalition conference for appealing to good judgment and drawing sensibly on his faith. His crime, as far as the evangelical audience was concerned? Criticising Trump for not taking responsibility for his past mistakes. “You can boo all you want,” he said, “but here’s the thing, our faith teaches us that people have to take responsibility for what they do.” 

What Chris Christie, Tim Scott and Doug Burgum have in common, apart from not talking about faith to the same extent as other candidates, is that they are trying to appeal to a more moderate and sensible conservative electorate. And perhaps also the fact that put together they poll below 6% in most national polls. It seems that by turning their backs on the bigotry, hostility and appetite for authoritarianism that other candidates represent, they are betting on the losing Republican horse. 

The debate may well be a moot point now, but I will still be watching. Unless Trump is disqualified for some reason, defeat is certain for all the remaining candidates. It is therefore also an opportunity for them to step back from their pointless “pissing contest” and redeem themselves. Instrumentalised Christian populism does not have to be the way of the GOP, and there is still hope that a genuine faith–based approach can prevail. 

Either that, or in their desperation and vacuity, the debate will be a cacophonous display of noisy gongs and clanging cymbals. (1Cor.13:1) 

– – – – – – – – – – 

Current long–listed candidates for the first primary debate: 

GOP Primary Candidates

 


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Images by

Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America, CC BY–SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Tom Williams, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, CC BY–SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

George Lapshynov

George Lapshynov

George is a Researcher at Theos. He holds degrees in International Relations and History & Politics from the University of Glasgow. He is interested in the place of wisdom in contemporary politics and has published articles on the history of religious music.

Watch, listen to or read more from George Lapshynov

Posted 23 August 2023

Christianity, Donald Trump, Politics, Populism, USA

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