How the culture wars made Trump

The demons of the white evangelical past

The first step, we often hear, is admitting you have a problem. For a broad group of American evangelical thinkers who might be characterized as other-than-lockstep Republicans, the confession part has never been much of a challenge. The real problem is getting anyone to join them in penance. Since the heyday of the Moral Majority, evangelical progressives and quite a few centrists too have called out their fellow believers for conflating God with the GOP. Nearly 40 years since Ronald Reagan wooed the nascent Christian right on his way to the revolution, this dynamic remains strikingly unchanged.

The current twist is that the voting majority of evangelical America apparently has mistaken Donald Trump for a God-fearing man. “As a historian studying religion and politics, I should have seen this coming,” admits John Fea in his timely and compelling study of the hastily arranged but profoundly impactful exchange of vows between Trump and evangelicalism. We can debate whether Trump’s win was a fluke, but white evangelical support for him in the general election was not.

If Trumpism represents merely the latest scandal in evangelical politics, though, Trump is an extreme case. The tabloid capitalist is the least convincingly Christian president of our times, or at least the most outlandish one. His predecessors in the White House, many of whom also knew a thing or two about dissembling and philandering, generally still could guess when they were sinning. Trump has openly wondered why he would possibly need to ask God for forgiveness. Yet this cradle Presbyterian who never left the nursery has proved an adept fisher of born-again voters. Not unlike most historians and pollsters of evangelicalism (not to mention most Americans who actually are familiar with the word), Trump had in mind a broad subset of white Americans when as a candidate he spoke awkwardly of “the evangelicals.” The Republican nominee netted an estimated 81 percent of evangelical votes on his way to an electoral college victory.