One More Time: The Trump/ Evangelical Conundrum
When I ride my bike out on in the Wallowa Valley farmlands, I often go by a farm where we used to buy milk and eggs when I was a kid. One of my aunts had gone to school with Reena, the woman who lived with her family on that farm. When we stopped for milk, my aunt Margaret and Reena would visit at the kitchen table while I got to play with her three sons in the barn. For a city kid, a barn was about as fantastic as a visit to Hogwarts.
These days there’s a Trump/Pence sign at the gate of that farm, along with a small American flag. I thought of that family as I read a recent article titled “Christianity Will Have Power,” Trump promised that “Christianity will have power,” in a January 2016 speech in Sioux Center, Iowa. The article tries to understand, and explain, the loyalty of “white, evangelical Christians” to Trump.
My first reaction to the article’s title, “Christianity Will Have Power,” was judge-y. My mind went to the story in the gospels of Matthew and Luke of the temptation of Jesus. Satan offered Jesus power. “All the kingdoms of the world will be yours,” says the tempter, “if you will but fall down and worship me.” Guess those power-hungry evangelicals haven’t read their Bible thought I, smugly. When my judgment jets cooled down, it occurred to me to think I have power. I have social, cultural and economic power. Easy for me to condemn others for being so crass as to want power.
But as I worked through the long article focused on Sioux Center, Iowa and several families there, it seemed to me that the title didn’t quite have it right. What those families seemed to want wasn’t straight up power so much as protection. Protection for a way of life that they felt to be threatened. And about that — their way of life is threatened — they are pretty much right.
That way of life I would call “traditional.” One of its marks is staying put. They stayed in the places they were born and raised. And they pretty much live by the values and mores of their parents and grandparents. Yes, they are white (although the article shifts near the end to focus on a Hispanic pastor there is Sioux Center). The issues they cited as being of concern were predictable: abortion, male/ female roles, sexuality and “religious freedom.”
But beneath the wedge-issue checklist, it was their traditional way of life they perceived to be under threat. While their views of Trump himself are mixed, they saw him as a protector of that way of life. A label for that way of life is “Evangelical Christianity.”
But I’m not sure how accurate that label really is. It turns out that a significant percentage (as high as 40%) of those who self-identify as “evangelical Christians” actually don’t attend church, oxymoron though that may be. “Evangelical Christian” has become a catch-all term that has some element of religion to it, but maybe more cultural. A label for a way of life, a way of life its adherents feel is threatened and in need of protection. A truth-challenged, twice-divorced, foul-mouthed Trump may not be the best guy for the job, but he is perceived as the best option at the moment.
My friend, Rich, and I were discussing the “Christianity Will Have Power” article the other evening. He asked me if I thought that what was really going on was about white people’s fear of losing power, their fear of a changing society.
I said, “Yes, we aren’t any longer a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant nation — that’s a big change.” But, I added, “It’s not just fear, it’s grief. They are grieving a lost world, a world they knew, a world that made sense to them.” My hunch is that there is a lot more grief bubbling around in our culture than most of us credit. We want to name it as racism, homophobia, sexism or patriarchy. And all of that is there. But those terms are loaded and judge-y. Fighting words. A better explanation may be grief, grief for a lost way of life, a world that is passing away.
You can hear both the defensiveness and grief in the words of one of the women quoted in the article, Caryn Schouten.
“After the election of President Barack Obama, the country seemed to undergo a cultural shift, she said. ‘It was dangerous to voice your Christianity. . . Because we were viewed as bigots, as racists — we were labeled as the haters and the ones who are causing all the derision and all of the problems in America. Blame it on the white believers.’”
Some of the big-name evangelicals, like Jerry Falwell Jr. (who is in trouble again), are going for raw political power. But families like those profiled here in Sioux Center, Iowa aren’t really after power in that sense so much as protection. Protection and not being put to shame for the lives they have chosen.