To Americans who stand outside the evangelical tradition, Franklin Graham’s recent proclamation that there’s “no question” that God supports Donald Trump’s presidency was another head-scratcher in a growing list of puzzling statements by Christian leaders over the past year.
Even without getting into the question of whether God chooses sides in elections, or how Graham can be so sure of his preference, there is the obvious fact, much discussed in the campaign, that the generally non-churchgoing, avidly materialistic Trump seemed an unlikely vessel for God’s will.
But Graham’s remark and white evangelicals’ continuing support of Trump make more sense when viewed in light of American evangelicalism’s history and DNA. It is a subject explored in depth in “The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America,” a new history of the movement by Pulitzer Prize-winner Frances FitzGerald.
“He did everything wrong, politically,” Graham told the Atlantic’s Emma Green. “He offended gays. He offended women. He offended the military. He offended black people. He offended the Hispanic people. He offended everybody! And he became president of the United States. Only God could do that.”
Graham’s mentality reflects the evangelical obsession with dramatic solutions and easy answers that Michael Horton, a professor of theology at Westminster Seminary in California, described in his 2014 book, “Ordinary.”
“American Christianity is a story of perpetual upheavals in churches and individual lives. Starting with the extraordinary conversion experience, our lives are motivated by a constant expectation for The Next Big Thing,” Horton wrote.
James K.A. Smith, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Michigan, wrote in 2016 that many Christians have been trained by their religious culture to look for divine presence only in the spectacular and exciting.
“Too often we look for the [Holy] Spirit in the extraordinary when God has promised to be present in the ordinary,” Smith wrote in his 2016 book, “You Are What You Love.”
This attraction to exhilaration is a dominant characteristic of evangelical Christianity in America that dates back to the First Great Awakening in the 18th century. It goes a long way in explaining why a group that shares so little with Trump became his most reliable voting bloc.
The dominant narrative among most white evangelical Christians in America has been, for some time, one of decline. America has drifted far from God, according to this view, and the only way to revive the nation’s fortunes is to restore the Christian ideals that used to govern the nation’s people and its laws.
“This land was our land but it was stolen from us in the 1970s,” is how Horton put it in a recent phone interview, describing the common evangelical view.
Some Christians look to religious revival to usher in this restoration, but the last such spiritual awakening was the Jesus movement in the 1970s. Since the 1980s, with the founding of the Moral Majority, politically engaged evangelicals have tried to impose their moral outlook on the country through political means.
But many evangelicals tried to keep to themselves, walling themselves off from secular culture. All the while, the tectonic plates of culture shifted beneath their feet. When the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2015, that set off alarm bells inside a community that had tried its hardest to sing praise hymns and hope for the best. It was a break-the-glass moment that alarmed many who had tried to ignore the changes in culture to that point, and it put them in a more darkly pessimistic mood.
There were conflicts between gay couples and Christian florists and bakers who didn’t want to provide services for gay weddings. The city of Houston subpoenaed sermons from ministers who opposed a nondiscrimination ordinance.
Amid all this, Trump went to Liberty University in southwest Virginia, the birthplace of the Moral Majority, and promised to “protect Christianity.”
Trump’s reductionist promise of protection politics was the inevitable culmination of decades in which evangelicals did little to enter the dominant institutions in the public square and popular culture, instead choosing to hurl rocks at them, create pale imitations of their products or isolate themselves from them. Having forfeited the game of culture formation by leaving most areas of the playing field, evangelicals now had no choice — in the view of many — other than to throw in their lot with a man whose life and values were in stark contrast to their teachings, because he was their only hope for maintaining political power.
But Trump’s outsized personality and radically unconventional approach to politics also fit the evangelical narrative of dramatic rescue. What a plot twist it would be, how creative, to have such a man come out of nowhere to bring America back to God (if by “back to God” you meant a return to traditional Republican views on social issues like abortion and gay marriage, with tax cuts thrown in).
This magical thinking was a powerful inoculation against considering the implications of Trump’s lack of experience and erratic, fact-impervious personality on how he would do at the task of basic governance. I have had conversations with evangelical Christians I’ve known for decades who said they knew Trump was a bad person and might be a threat to the Constitution, but said they believed God was going to use Trump in some unspecified way to upend the status quo and change things. Then, perhaps, he might be impeached, and Vice President Mike Pence, a more conventional evangelical Christian, could take over the presidency.
I heard many times that America was in such a decline that taking a huge gamble on Trump was worth it. It might not work, but even if it didn’t, would that be worse than the way things were headed under Obama? One family member even told me he’d rather see the country commit suicide and just end it all rather than die a slow death.
Nihilistic and irrational musings like these — from people with good jobs and intact families — reflected the widespread evangelical belief that America was in such bad shape that only a drastic intervention could save it.
This dark view was also a byproduct, however, of the evangelical rejection of incremental change and of shaping culture from within its dominant institutions. Evangelicals were still addicted to the quick fix rather than what James Davison Hunter, a University of Virginia sociologist, describes as “faithful presence.”
But despite all that, Trump’s personal character — or lack of it — has seemed to many a strange fit for a community that raised holy hell over former President Bill Clinton’s marital infidelities. Not to mention that Trump’s oaths of loyalty to conservative ideas and Christian culture were transparent attempts to erase his past as a non-churchgoing social liberal.
And then there was the fact that the core of Trump’s approach to politics is deeply at odds with conservatism. His scorn for institutions and for social norms, his promise to not only uproot the status quo but to smash the establishment, his lack of interest in history or the nation’s constitutional system: All of it amounted to someone who had no comprehension that any good existed in the people and systems that had come before him, much less any desire to preserve anything.
Rather than build on the past as a reformer, Trump promised mostly to be a destructive force, assuring his supporters that his demolition work would benefit them. That’s a profoundly unconservative stance, but the little-understood truth is that evangelicals aren’t really conservative, not in the way most political scientists understand the word.
“Evangelicals may be conservative on a few points doctrinally but they’re really radicals,” Horton told me. “More than anything else you can explain the evangelical attraction to Trump this way: It’s the populism more than anything else.”
FitzGerald’s book, “The Evangelicals,” goes deep into the populist roots of evangelicalism.
Evangelicalism, FitzGerald writes, was born out of a movement in pre-Revolutionary War American colonies that was in part fomenting rebellion against the British but was also anti-institutional and antagonistic to established religious authorities.
“Many felt that the itinerant revivalists were intruding on settled parishes and attempting to turn people against their own pastors,” she writes. Gilbert Tennent, a leader of the First Great Awakening, retaliated against critics by dismissing them as “greedy for money and social status, and so conceited about their learning ‘they look’d upon others that differed from them, and the Common People, with an Air of Disdain.’”
The evangelical emphasis on individualism rather than institutionalism spread to the South and the frontier. And in those places it took on an even more economically insurgent flavor.
“Relocating religious authority to an experience in the hearts of individuals” was the spiritual rocket fuel that helped lay ministers deliver a message of empowerment and dignity to “hardworking farmers and tradesmen battling a class system and the lawless, socially chaotic world at its margins,” FitzGerald writes.
Pastors at more established churches, under the control of the local gentry, preached sermons that encouraged the idea “that the lower classes should be obedient and defer to their betters.” But the renegade evangelical preachers promoted “a radical break with a society dominated by the values of the landed aristocracy.”
By the time of the Second Great Awakening in the first half of the 19th century, FitzGerald notes, evangelicalism had become “a folk religion characterized by disdain for authority and tradition.”
And so in that light, it is less surprising that evangelicals today were willing to support Trump’s promise of drastic, revolutionary change. And once you understand the interplay between their dim view of the country’s direction and their own lack of investment or faith in slow, steady change, the picture becomes even clearer.
Trump fit within their understanding of how God works to bring about change and renewal, and God, as we know, works in mysterious ways.
Even Americans who might not be that religious but who live in the South and the Midwest — where evangelical values have generally remained the norm — have likely been influenced by these attitudes.
That might explain why one friend in a Southern state, who is a successful businessman and who supported Trump in the Republican primary, so enthusiastically described Trump as a bull in a china shop. His spouse quickly reminded him that when the bull leaves the china shop, everything is broken.
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