I Understand Why the Evangelical Subculture Supports Trump

Growing up in evangelical Christianity, I was steeped in the alternative Christian media that included radio stations and eventually websites that peddled current events with a generally conservative spin.

I attended seminary, and I worked in a church affiliated with the Willow Creek Association, a large network of churches that receive resources and discounts at conferences hosted by Willow Creek, a Chicago megachurch. I was deeply embedded in the evangelical subculture for about ten years as a participant, and then, following seminary, I took a more critical stance while still writing within the evangelical world.

Seeing the unwavering (primarily white) evangelical support of Donald Trump has offended my commitment to the life and teachings of Jesus, but it also makes a measure of cultural sense. White evangelical culture has been prepared for a leader like Trump. Here’s why:

The Flaws of Evangelical Leaders Are Tolerated for Higher Goals

The goal of just about every evangelical pastor is to preach the Gospel and to grow the church. Evangelicals believe that failing to grow the church means that you’re not preaching the Gospel.

As long as a church is growing, then a leader is more or less safe. It takes a significant moral failure, typically an affair, for a church to get rid of a pastor. Mark Driscoll was emotionally abusing and bullying the leaders and members of his church, but it took a misuse of church finances on his book’s marketing campaign to prompt enough people to remove him. As long as his church was growing, he could lead as he saw fit.

In the evangelical world, if a leader can deliver something defined as a higher moral good, then that leader can use borderline, if not outright sinful means to accomplish it.

Dissent of Evangelical Leaders Is Considered Divisive

It doesn’t matter how mean, divisive, or problematic a leader may be in many cases. If a church member or outsider dares to challenge an evangelical leader, the dissenter will be criticized as divisive. I have heard this all of the time for years. The people who blow the whistle or support the whistle blower are ALWAYS considered trouble makers who rock the boat.

The anger many evangelicals feel about this is fully warranted.

I am sorry to be crass here, but I have zero fucks to give about this. ZERO. It’s an epidemic, and I’m done with it. I’ve read Christian news for one of my clients for over five years, and I’ve seen this play out enough that I have no problem being viewed as the “asshole” in a church if there’s a safety issue or a leader is abusing power. I will be kind and constructive, but I will not be silent about the heaping piles of bullshit that evangelical leaders pile on their church members who try to hold them accountable.

For too many evangelical leaders, accountability flows from the leaders down to the congregation, but God help anyone who dares to speak up about their hypocrisy or abuses. Sorry folks, zero fucks given here.

Bible Stories about Leadership Are Applied Loosely (Read: BADLY)

In college, I attended a church that challenged a leader’s plan to build a giant new facility. The pastor prepared a sermon the following Sunday where he equated himself with Moses and the congregation with the people of Israel who opposed their “God-given” leadership. When the people refused to obey Moses, the ground swallowed them up.

An evangelical pastor in a seemingly otherwise normal church of 300-400 people preached this sermon. We should have all gotten up and walked out then and there. It was a ghastly and manipulative interpretation of scripture. He turned a historical account in the nation of Israel into a kind of object lesson to impose onto his congregation.

Evangelical pastors tend to avoid the teachings of the prophets or the Pentateuch about justice or caring for the poor. You won’t hear much about the Year of Jubilee or the types of sacrifices that God finds acceptable in evangelical churches. You will hear plenty of stories about good kings and bad kings. That isn’t a mistake. Just like the people at the time of Samuel, evangelicals love having a “king” (i.e. CEO) like the other groups in America. They’ll bend over backwards to defend the authority of the American government by citing Romans 13.

Evangelicals Nurture a Persecution Complex

I’ve read many different explanations about this, tracing our persecution complex back to either a poor reading of scripture when Christians were actually persecuted (as in, killed) for their faith or a smoke screen perpetuated by Christian media outlets. Every slight, insult, or lawsuit that can in any way be twisted into a persecution narrative is exploited to the hilt.

For instance, I used to attend a church that met in a high school in Ohio. It wasn’t an issue at all for us to rent a public space, but in Hawaii and New York City there have been debates about the tax issues related to the rental of a public school by a nonprofit church. Both states had different nuances to the issue, but at the heart of the matter, no one was trying to keep Christians from gathering for church. The concerns were about special tax preferences for churches.

None of this mattered for Christian media, where each case was stirred up into a seething froth of fear and anger over the persecution of Christians. This story just reinforced a narrative that, for some evangelicals, has been part of a lifelong siege mentality.

Traitors Are Dehumanized and Dismissed by Evangelicals

For many evangelicals, there is a fine line between the truth that saves and the error that condemns. Those living in error who aren’t saved are condemned to hell. While many evangelicals will tell you, and demonstrate on paper, that they care very much for the people who are going to hell within their theological framework, the reality is much more complex.

Yes, there missionaries and evangelists who may have a very compassionate and personal approach to those viewed as outside their camp. However, for many evangelicals already living in fear of persecution and believing that their theology is under siege from liberal Christians and atheists, it’s very easy to begin dehumanizing or at least dismissing those who differ from them.

To dialogue with those outside the camp invites the danger of changing theology and falling into error. “Compromise” is a dirty word in evangelicalism. There is no room for tolerance and political correctness when you believe your religion could be outlawed or your movement’s beliefs could fall apart at any moment.  This leads to a rigid dogmatism that refuses to see the thoughtfulness and, at times, humanity of those who disagree.

Connect the Dots Between Evangelicals and Trump Supporters

If you want to understand why 81% of white evangelicals supported Trump, this list provides some ways to connect the dots between a Trump supporter and an evangelical. The tolerance of flawed leaders alone explains why evangelicals, who have been obsessed with pro-life Supreme Court justices, will tolerate anything else Trump has done.

I wish I had a clear call to action for how to address this problem, but I don’t. I do have a few suggestions for evangelicals who see Trump and our movement for what they are:

  • Practice quiet contemplation to center yourself in God’s love for you and compassion for others.
  • Assure your evangelical friends who support Trump that you love them, but you disagree with their political views.
  • Point your evangelical friends to news that is supported by multiple, credible sources.
  • Remember that it’s not your job to change people, but it is your job to love them.
  • Spend more time asking how you can love and serve those impacted by Trump’s destructive policies.


5 thoughts on “I Understand Why the Evangelical Subculture Supports Trump

  1. I see that on this issue we are wired exactly the same. Your conclusion is correct, this is a job for ‘Super God’ The flaw is in how Church leadership structured. The Pope still rules in the guise of a high powered, charismatic ‘Pastor’. We are on our own when we rely on a President or a Supreme Court to protect God’s work and not on God. We need a President and Supreme Court only to protect the work and kingdoms of men. The very idea that forces of this world will crush the church is antiscriptural. We kick their gates in, not the reverse. If congregations have to pay taxes on their till so be it. More will be provided if God wills.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m still trying to figure out this phenomena myself (I’m failing) so I appreciate your thoughts to add to my own. Your suggestions are great ones for all of us and can help us stay focused on what really matters. Thanks, Ed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, and there are many other factors here such as sexism, white supremacy, racism, xenophobia, militarism, etc. that have all remained unchecked for many evangelicals. So it’s complex for sure.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ed, here’s the thing. I am an Evangelical (white, female, over 60) and I did NOT vote for Trump. It seems the piece that continues to come up missing in this criticism of Evangelicals in the last election is that 90 million people chose NOT to vote. Biggest number ever in the history of voting. People largely ignored Obama’s injuction on the (non-campaign) trail, “Vote, people. Vote.” Millennials in particular were the largest missing piece, a group which historically has voted Democrat.
    It can more accurately be said that of the people who actually voted and were asked ( I wasn’t; I live in Washington), only those who chose to self-identify as Evangelical were among the number counted. Exit polls happen in voting places. Three states–perhaps those most liberal in the country–have mail in voting ONLY–Washington, Oregon and Colorado. It would be impossible to include those folks in the polling information.
    Pew Research has also admitted that this year the religion question was asked differently, “There is one caveat, however; while exit polling from previous elections shows similarities, direct comparisons between 2016 and previous years are not possible because the wording of the question about religious attendance changed in 2016.” A footnote from the voting graphic reads:
    ‘Protestant’ included Protestants, non-Protestants, Catholics and Mormons who all self-identified as ‘born-again.’

    Not to bore you with the facts, but this may be helpful:
    “Finally, the religious makeup of the electorate remained largely the same, although there were some small differences between voters in this election and those in other recent presidential contests. While roughly a quarter of voters in 2016 described themselves as white, born-again or evangelical Christians (26%), which is unchanged compared with 2012 and 2008, the nearly one-quarter of Catholic voters (23%) may constitute a slight decline in the Catholic share of the electorate, compared with 2012 (25%) and 2008 (27%). In addition, religious “nones” accounted for 15% of all voters, a modest 3-point increase since 2012.”
    —Our writing always comes from our own experience and the influence of a place like Willow Creek and its culture would indeed have a huge impact on where you’re coming from in this essay. However, in my denomination in general–Foursquare–and our church in particular–less than 200 regulars–these lines sound an inaccurate, sweeping assessment:
    “Compromise” is a dirty word in evangelicalism. There is no room for tolerance and political correctness when you believe your religion could be outlawed or your movement’s beliefs could fall apart at any moment. This leads to a rigid dogmatism that refuses to see the thoughtfulness and, at times, humanity of those who disagree.”
    There are many reasons we have the current President in office, but I think blaming Evangelicals doesn’t get to the core of the issue. The silence of those who could have said something–ministry leaders, pastors, those in influential places of faith–seems to have something to do with it.
    Ok, I’m done.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Ed, Thanks for the reminders of “from whence I come.” The “traitors are dehumanized and dismissed” kept me silent for a very long time. No more… I do appreciate the thoughts on call to action. I am working on it!

    Liked by 1 person

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