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Many white evangelicals stand by Trump because they are more white than evangelical

They have gone from being obsessed with the personal lives of politicians to, basically, not giving a damn.

What has happened to members of the “Moral Majority”? You remember them, right? The conservative evangelicals who helped deliver victories for “born again” Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W Bush and pushed for the impeachment of the philandering Democrat Bill Clinton? How come these “values voters” seem to have lost all their, ahem, values?

Consider the results of two surveys conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). In 2011, fewer than one in three white evangelical Protestants said an elected official could behave ethically in their public life, if they had committed moral transgressions in their private life.

Yet just five years later, in 2016, more than seven in ten white evangelical Protestants said a politician’s personal morality did not matter to them.

“No group has shifted their position [on this issue] more dramatically than white evangelical Protestants,” observed the PRRI. “Today fewer than half (49 per cent) of white evangelical Protestants say it is very important that a candidate have strong religious beliefs, while nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) expressed this view in 2011.”

US evangelicals have gone from being obsessed with the personal lives of politicians to, basically, not giving a damn. Why? Donald Trump. Evangelicals lined up behind the former reality TV star in their tens of millions. These were not reluctant supporters, opting for the lesser of two evils. They were hardcore fans who cheered at campaign rallies and whose pastors offered full-throated endorsements of Trump.

In January 2016, prominent evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr compared Trump to Christ, claiming the billionaire property tycoon lived “a life of loving and helping others, as Jesus taught”. “You inspire us all,” televangelist Pat Robertson told Trump in February 2016. Franklin Graham, son of renowned evangelist Billy Graham, even suggested that “it was the hand of God” that helped Trump defeat Hillary Clinton.

We can agree to disagree on whether it was the hand of God – or even the hand of Vladimir Putin – that put Trump in the White House but what is beyond doubt is that evangelicals played a major role in his unexpected victory. Eight in ten white evangelical Protestants voted for Trump in 2016. It was a truly remarkable feat: according to a study by Pew, “Trump’s 65-percentage-point margin of victory among voters in this group… matched or exceeded the victory margins of George W Bush in 2004, John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.”

To call Trump, as a recent Reuters report did, “an unlikely torchbearer for conservative Christians” is an understatement. How is it not anything other than brazen hypocrisy for evangelicals to spend decades demanding politicians live chaste and virtuous lives but then vote en masse for a thrice-married, twice-divorced adulterer and former casino owner who was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault?

How can evangelicals justify accusing Barack Obama, a practising Christian who sang hymns in church, of being a secret Muslim while lavishing praise on his successor, who once admitted to never having asked God for forgiveness for anything?

Remember: Trump once claimed the Bible was his favourite book – but couldn’t name any verses from it. He even referred to the Holy Communion as a time “when I drink my little wine and have my little cracker.” So why, then, did evangelicals pull the lever for Trump and why, crucially, do they continue to back him today?

First, don’t discount their opportunism. Ahead of Trump’s inauguration, Franklin Graham was refreshingly blunt: “It’s not about her emails. It’s not about his bad language. It’s about the Supreme Court… and who do you trust to appoint judges that are going to be in favour of Christian liberty?” Trump has not only appointed Neil Gorsuch, an ultra-conservative, pro-life Episcopalian judge, to the Supreme Court but also signed an executive order reinstating the so-called Mexico City Policy, which bars federal funds from going to international NGOs that perform or “promote” abortions. The former pro-choice donor to the Democratic Party is now giving conservative evangelicals exactly what they want.

Second, don’t discount their partisanship. The vast majority of evangelicals have long identified as Republicans and the vast majority of Republicans voted for Trump on party lines. Polarisation in the United States is at an all-time high and party affiliation was one of the best predictors of support for Trump in 2016.

Third, don’t discount the race factor. Only 35 per cent of non-white evangelicals voted for Trump compared to 59 per cent of non-white evangelicals who voted for Clinton. Jim Wallis, a progressive evangelical pastor and former spiritual adviser to Barack Obama, told me earlier this year that “black evangelicals, Hispanic evangelicals… did not vote for Donald Trump. White evangelicals did… because they were more white than evangelical.”

Despite all this, it would be both unfair to tar all evangelicals with the orange brush of Trumpism. Some, such as Russell Moore, one of America’s most influential evangelicals and a leading figure within the Southern Baptist Convention, have been #NeverTrump from the very beginning.

In a speech ahead of the election, Moore slammed his fellow evangelical leaders who he said had elevated politics above faith and had “waved away some of the most repugnant aspects of immorality” to back their preferred presidential candidate.

“The Religious Right,” Moore warned, “turns out to be the people the Religious Right warned us about.”

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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Sexless in space: the post-apocalyptic novels re-imagining the future of gender

In these fictions, the future has caught up with “those of gender-fluid persuasions”.

Devastating the world has a persistent lure for authors – not just because it gives them spectacular backdrops and unconstrained possibilities for their fiction. There’s also a political imperative to imagining catastrophe. “People are forever thinking that the unthinkable can’t happen,” says off-world survivor Christine Pizan in Lidia Yuknavitch’s post-apocalyptic The Book of Joan. “If it doesn’t exist in thought, then it can’t exist in life.” That’s a delusion that has proved costly to Christine’s society. Now, above a scorched and trashed Earth, a fragment of the elite is sustained on a vessel named CIEL, which Christine calls an “idiotic space-condom”.

The dream up on CIEL is of impenetrable self-reliance. Even the inhabitants’ bodies, mutated by radiation, seem to be conspiring in this idea: hair gone, skin blanched, primary and secondary sexual characteristics withered and sealed. “I have a slight mound where each breast began, and a kind of mound where my pubic bone should be, but that’s it,” explains Christine. “Nothing of woman is left.” The world, she says, has caught up with “those of gender-fluid persuasions”.

But this dream is both a lie and unsatisfactory. CIEL can only be sustained by extracting resources from the remnant Earth below. Its residents’ lives are docked at 50 years: any longer and they’d be an unacceptable burden on the finite reserves. Unfortunately, there’s no one to replace them. No sexual dimorphism means no having sex, which means no reproduction. CIEL is a dead end for humanity, and wombless, vaginaless Christine yearns for what used to be “between my legs, where a deeply wanting cavern used to cave toward my soul”. Female organs, so often presented as nothing but lack, are substantial enough to be missed when they’re gone.

In the absence of sex, the only thing left to do with one’s person is turn it into text. Culture on CIEL consists entirely of grafts – elaborate acts of storytelling scarified deep into pallid tissue, scrolls of skin stretched out and pouring down from the body, faces barely recognisable as faces after extreme modification. Christine is one great artist of the form; the other is Jean de Men, CIEL’s despotic leader, who converted trash fame into tyranny as the world fell apart. And yes, that does seem like a very on-the-heavily-customised-nose reference to Trump – but that’s not all the character is.

De Men is also a resurrection of his medieval The Romance of the Rose-author namesake, vicious misogyny and all – “all the women in his work demanded to be raped. All the women in his stories used language and actions designed to sanction, validate, and accelerate that act.” Stories are inscribed on bodies, shaping them to the culturally-imposed narrative; but stories can also be rejected, new ones written. Like the historical Christine de Pizan who blasted The Romance of the Rose in her 1405 The Book of the City of Ladies, Yuknavitch’s Christine kicks against the patriarch in writing. She authors a resistance by grafting a new and forbidden myth about the girl-soldier Joan of Dirt, who opposed Jean and was burned for her insurrection.

In Danny Denton’s debut The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow, the dystopia stays on the ground, in a version of Ireland where the rain is constant, surveillance universal and violence ubiquitous: “The city festered; the suburbs drowned. And the countryside changed forever… Ireland became a cesspool for deranged life.”

Like Yuknavitch’s, the tale Denton tells is one of storytelling. There’s a Sweeney who sits on a barstool, sputtering disregarded truths into his cups like the mythical mad king. The slammed-together science fiction and folklore echo Flann O’Brien, and so does Denton’s dizzying playfulness as he flits through narrators – parts are told by a Death-like figure called Mister Violence, parts in script form, all in a densely allusive future-dialect.

It’s another world where resources are overstretched and fertility is at a premium. “Are simply too many people fighting over what’s left?” asks one character, and the most fought-over thing of all is the baby that the Kid in Yellow begets by T, the daughter of gangster chief the Earlie King. T dies in childbirth, and now the two men (well, the Kid and the man) war for custody of their progeny, to Mister Violence’s delight. This leads to some spectacular set-pieces, but for all Denton’s stylish bluster, the story slips away. These are ciphers, not characters (compare The Third Policeman for proof that it’s entirely possible to do character while populating a fantastical hellscape), and what happens to them holds little weight.

Slight as the Kid, the King and the rest of them are, they do at least have the benefit of existing. Women, on the other hand, are thin on the ground. The Kid wonders: “Where the fukk are all the mothers?” It’s a good question, but an even better one is this: where has Denton put all the women who aren’t mothers, or substitute mothers, or whores, or dead? Unlike those of Yuknavitch, Denton’s metatextual flits don’t extend to an interest in the politics of who gets to tell these stories.

Maybe it takes Yuknavitch’s smarts about gender to write environmental dystopia: it’s impossible to think seriously about what humans are doing to the planet if you can’t think beyond the old macho ideas that fix the human subject as male (penetrating, hard, whole) and women (penetrated, soft, holed) as a subsidiary material. Vulnerability and humanity are not mutually exclusive, although our stories have long insisted otherwise.

In her own reading of the Joan of Arc story, Andrea Dworkin noted that Joan’s virginity wasn’t a statement of purity but “a radical renunciation of civil worthlessness rooted in real sexual practice”. In other words, Joan refused intercourse because
it would have marked her as female, with all the inferiority that entailed.

Yuknavitch’s weirdly beautiful Joan is a reinvention of what being human is. We are not something against nature but something within nature, permeable and dependant on the world, no matter how we tell ourselves we can stand above our planet and exploit it. 

The Book of Joan
Lidia Yuknavitch
Canongate, 288pp, £14.99

The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow
Danny Denton
Granta Books, 368pp, £12.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist