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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

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia