Donald Trump is many things: a former president, a businessman, a thrice-married adulterer who allegedly cheated on his wife with a porn star and then made a hush money payment to cover it up – and, at least according to the Colorado Supreme Court, an insurrectionist.
And, if you ask Republican voters, Donald Trump is a man of faith. In a poll published on 4 January, more Republicans said Trump is a person of faith than said the same about Joe Biden, a lifelong practising Catholic; Mitt Romney, a devout Mormon; and the famously evangelical Mike Pence.
It is odd to see a man who embodies so many sins – including all seven deadly ones; is there anyone who better exemplifies a noxious combination of pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth? – be so widely embraced by the religious right. This is a politician who has no home church and can’t name his favourite Bible verse. Yet Trump’s support among white evangelical voters was 84 per cent in 2020, according to the Pew Research Center, up from 77 per cent in 2016. Being a white evangelical was the largest predictor of being a Trump voter in the past two elections – larger, even, than being a member of Trump’s oft-discussed base of white men without college degrees. Come November, white evangelicals seem poised to turn out again for Trump.
The relationship is a symbiotic one. Trump owes his 2016 victory to the evangelical vote, and he returned the favour by placing religious fanatics on the Supreme Court. They overturned Roe vs Wade, ending the federal right to abortion in the US. But there are other, deeper forces at play. White evangelicalism in the US has become less a religion than an identity, and its culture primes its adherents not just to obediently follow authoritative church leaders, but to desire an authoritarian society – and an authoritarianism more widely in the service of white evangelical national dominance.
Trump’s promise to impose his will, democracy be damned, isn’t a problem for these voters; it’s an advantage. Their goal is a return to an imagined past US in which racial minorities knew their place, men were dominant and women subservient. Trump both promises to bring that world into being and embodies it. The notion that the thoroughly unchristian Trump seems an odd idol for the US’s most prominent group of Christians doesn’t misunderstand Trump – it misunderstands white evangelicals.
Conservative Christians, including white evangelicals, grow up with the language of domination and submission, believing whatever the person at the top of the hierarchy orders. This may be why, over and over again, evangelicals seem to fall for the world’s most obvious grifters, chief among them multimillionaire televangelists. Many of these leaders, nearly all of them men, preach some version of a prosperity gospel: wealth comes to those who pray, and having wealth is often itself a sign of moral righteousness. For many white evangelicals, nationalism and religiosity are inherently intertwined: God has blessed America specifically, and doing God’s will means remaking the nation in the white evangelical image and its theology.
Trump is a convenient vehicle for this. He is happy to forgo democracy, pluralism and the constitution – all of which he views as highly inconvenient barriers to his power. He may not be religious, but his lifestyle accords with much of the evangelical ideal. There’s the money, which suggests he is both smart and blessed. There’s the silent, sidelined wife. That it is impossible to imagine Trump rocking a wailing baby to sleep may strike liberal feminists like me as a sign of several fatal character defects; for many white evangelicals, it suggests he knows the natural order of things.
A majority of Republicans still say that a traditional family – working father, mother at home – is best for children, and nearly three quarters say the country has changed for the worse since the 1950s, when women and racial minorities had fewer rights and economic opportunities, and when racial segregation was enforced across the South. Around the same number say that political violence may be necessary to save the US. The strongest Trump supporters are those who believe that men are now a persecuted class. Trump’s combination of misogynist strongman politics and a deep victim complex presses a powerful button for many American men, and white evangelical ones in particular. They, too, believe that power is their birthright, and they, too, feel it is being stripped from them by the same people who are persecuting their president.
Trump has few principles, and the views he espouses change with the political winds. He wants adoration and power, and evangelicals give that to him, trusting him even though he is one of the most prodigious liars in US political history. When asked if they believe that what Trump tells them is true, 71 per cent of his supporters said yes, trusting him more than religious leaders (42 per cent).
Donald Trump, for many white evangelicals, has become a figure whose status is closer than anyone else to that of their almighty God. If he does win in 2024, evangelicals will expect him to deliver for them once again. Only this time, they aren’t looking for a single Supreme Court victory. They’re expecting a radical remaking of America. This, many white evangelicals believe, is necessary, urgent and destined. And they are putting their faith in Trump to make it happen.
[See also: Why Donald Trump will win]
This article appears in the 10 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Year of Voting Dangerously