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Don’t tell them you’re bigger than Jesus


Donald Trump is a reactionary authoritarian white supremacist, and he’s wildly popular with white Christian evangelicals precisely because white Christian evangelicals tend to be reactionary authoritarian white supremacists.

In other words, such people don’t have a fundamentally transactional relationship with Trump, in which they recognize that he’s completely irreligious and profoundly ignorant of even the most basic aspects of orthodox Christian doctrine, but nevertheless support him for purely pragmatic reasons. They support him because he is very much like them.

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According to Jones, “White evangelicals’ stalwart, enduring support for Trump tells us much more about who they see themselves to be than who they think Trump is. As I argued in my most recent book, ‘The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy,’ ” Jones continued in his email, “the primary force animating white evangelical Protestant politics — one that has been with us since before the founding of the republic — is the vision of America as a nation primarily of, by, and for white Christians.” . . .

Jim Guth, a political scientist at Furman University and an expert on the role of religion in politics, published an article in 2019, “Are White evangelicals Populists? The View From the 2016 American National Election Study.” The essay describes the basis for the strong affinity of white evangelicals for Trump’s conservative populism.

“White evangelicals,” Guth found, “are invariably the most populist: more likely to favor strong leadership (even when that means breaking the rules), to distrust government, to see the country on the ‘wrong’ track, and to think that the majority should always rule (and minorities adapt).”

Guth also found that

another salient trait of populist politics is the willingness to ignore democratic civility. We constructed a ‘rough politics’ score from three A.N.E.S. items: whether protesters deserve what they get if they are hurt in demonstrating, whether the country would be better off if it got rid of “rotten apples,” and whether people are “too sensitive” about political discourse. Here the usual pattern recurs: Evangelical affiliation, evangelical identity and biblical literalism predicts agreement with those assertions, while religious minorities, secular folks and “progressives” tend to demur.

Guth ranked religious groups on their level of support for conservative populism and found that

Evangelicals end up far above any other religious group, with about two-thirds falling into the populist category. White Catholics, mainline Protestants and Latter-day Saints have significant numbers in that group, but far fewer than evangelicals and nowhere near a majority. The religiously unaffiliated and minority ethnoreligious groups have few populists — often very few — with Jews, agnostics/atheists, Black Protestants and members of world religions the most anti-populist.

Guth wrote that his “findings help us understand what many have struggled to comprehend: how can white evangelical Protestants continue to provide strong support for President Donald Trump, whose personal values and behavior trample on the biblical and ethical standards professed by that community.”

The most common explanation, according to Guth,

is that white evangelicals have a transactional relationship with the president: as long as he nominates conservative jurists and makes appropriate gestures on abortion and sexual politics, they will support him.

“The evidence here,” he wrote, “suggests a more problematic answer”:

White evangelicals share with Trump a multitude of attitudes, including his hostility toward immigrants, his Islamophobia, his racism, and nativism, as well as his “political style,” with its nasty politics and assertion of strong, solitary leadership. Indeed, Trump’s candidacy may have “authorized” for the first time the widespread expression of such attitudes.

Guth took his analysis a step farther, suggesting that pro-Trump, conservative populism has become entrenched in the white evangelical community:

The pervasive populism of white evangelical laity not only helps explain their support for President Trump, but suggests powerful barriers to influence by “cosmopolitan internationalist” evangelical elites, who want to turn the community in a different direction. As hostile responses to efforts of anti-populist evangelicals like Michael Gerson, Russell Moore, David Platt and many others indicate, there is currently a very limited market for such alternative perspectives among the rank and file. Indeed, the vocal populism of many of the conservative evangelicals filling President Trump’s religious advisory council is probably more representative of the community as a whole.

Guth went on:

Nor does cosmopolitan or cooperative internationalism find much purchase among local evangelical clergy. Analysis of the 2017 Cooperative Clergy Survey shows that ministers from several Evangelical denominations, especially the large Southern Baptist Convention and Assemblies of God, exhibit exactly the same populist traits seen here in white Evangelical laity, but in more pronounced form: strong Islamophobia, Christian nationalism, extreme moral traditionalism, opposition to trade pacts, militaristic attitudes, resistance to political compromise, and climate change denial, among others.

In other words, conservative populism, with all its anti-democratic implications, has taken root in America. What we don’t know is for how long — or how much damage it will do.

What’s important to recognize here is that reactionary politics, political authoritarianism, white supremacy, and evangelical Christianity are all intimately related to each other in early 21st century America. The “paradox” of Donald Trump becoming the cult-like and even messianic figure at the head of pietistic authoritarian white supremacist reaction in our culture is only a paradox if you ignore how closely all these things are connected to each other.

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