I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how continually shocked people are over the way white evangelicals have continued to stand by Donald Trump. A 10/2018 Public Religion Research Institute poll showed that 71% of white evangelicals still approve of Trump’s presidency. If we use a 2017 number from The Economist, the overall total # of self-identified white evangelicals is around 55 million – that is 17% of that year’s population. This would mean that as recently as 3 months ago, around *39 million* white evangelicals think Trump is doing a good job.
But if you grew up in the evangelical church, it’s not at all shocking.
When most people think “evangelical,” they probably think of the 1980s – televangelist scandals, Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority – or the mid-1990s and the drive behind the Clinton impeachment proceedings. But what they need to be looking at are the actual teachings of the evangelical church, in addition to paying attention and giving voice to those who were raised in the church and have since left it.
The evangelical church has always been about power consolidation and maintaining authority under the guise of “family values.” Ask any former evangelical. It’s about imposing their will and their personal beliefs on others, whether the rest of the world likes it or not. You are told from a young age (even before you can fully comprehend) that evangelicals are the true Christians. Catholics and mainstream Protestants are all cultists who worship saints or “fake” Christians who are too progressive to be “real.” Once you are born-again, your main goal is A) being as moral as possible and B) converting as many souls before the imminent Rapture. But B) converting is always the most important thing, which I will come back to later..
If you’re used to regularly rejecting facts — the idea that anyone but your specific group of people knows what’s best for the whole population, for instance — blindly accepting the idea of “fake news” is a logical next step. Evangelicals already willfully ignore so much for the sake of their convictions – climate change, evolution, biblical inconsistencies. They are used to pushing away incontrovertible evidence. I know, because I’ve been there. It is not at all surprising to me or any other ex-evangelical. As an evangelical, I lied to myself constantly. The church lied to me, too. And if I were to let go of those lies, it would mean letting go of who I was as a person. Trump regularly lying is not only acceptable to evangelicals, it is already the status quo.
When I was in junior high, I was in a youth group at a very small Pentecostal church. Our youth pastors, M and his wife G, were an inexperienced couple who simultaneously wanted to be our best friends (see Trump’s obsession with being liked) but also wanted our unquestioning obedience and trust (see the way Trump demands loyalty and how he acts toward those who ‘betray’ him.) Questioning them, even having any sort of discussion that did not go with the plan for that Bible study or youth group event, was very much frowned upon. I remember once when someone brought up the subject of horoscopes. Most evangelicals view astrology as Of The Devil™. One of the girls said she thought horoscopes were all in good fun – as long as you knew they weren’t real, what was the harm? G said that it was wrong because only God knows the future and it wasn’t for us to try to predict it. Not only that, but M added that he would never look at anything that even hinted at predictions of any sort. (An absurd, random claim that no one asked for? How Trumpian.) One of the kids, in response to M’s over-the-top reply, said, “What about the weather? Don’t you ever look at the weather forecast?” Red-faced and irritable, M doubled down, insisting that he never looked at the weather forecast. We all immediately shut up and unquestioningly accepted this as truth, despite how far-fetched it seemed. In the next moment, M and G were back to being our best friends, complimenting us and reminding us how Godly and chosen we were.
Another time, a traveling evangelist came to this same little church and decried people who were “half-way Christians” — those who didn’t give their full devotion to God. They talked the talk, but didn’t walk the walk. In his sermon, he referred to them as “sissy la-la Christians.” From that time on, our youth pastors admonished us not to be “sissy la-la Christians.” Any time the pastors’ or the youth group’s way of thinking was questioned, the disruptor was called a “sissy la-la.” It went from M and G saying it to us and us as individuals feeling embarrassed or ashamed…to us as a group pointing and laughing at selected individuals as we mocked them and called them “sissy la-la.” Thinking about this now makes me queasy. It also reminds me of Trump’s behavior toward those who don’t fall in line, and the way that his supporters are quick to both excuse his behavior and just as importantly, to mimic it. Because the alternative is, next time they’ll be chanting “Lock them up” at you.
These instances are only two small imprints on my ex-evangelical brain. For nearly 20 years, I, like countless other people in my generation, was indoctrinated in these authoritarian-like church environments. Like the evangelicals who still give Trump their stamp of approval, I was as faithful as can be. I led Bible studies, gave testimonies, spent spring breaks and summers doing missions work both in Mexico and stateside. When Trump fires up his army of believers at rallies, I am taken back to the church camps and retreats of my youth, and even enthusiastic Sunday School lessons, where we devoutly raised our hands and declared that we were in God’s army. (Seriously. One of the first Sunday school songs I can remember is called I’m In the Lord’s Army. We translated it to Spanish on a mission trip in high school so we could teach poor little Mexican kids this creepy shit.)
To that end, one of the most important aspects of being part of “God’s army” is the call to convert non-believers. Evangelicals believe in the Great Commission, the call to spread the gospel to every corner of the earth. They want to impose their beliefs on everyone, no matter the cost, even as they harp about liberals over-regulating everyone. They genuinely believe they know what’s better for the marginalized groups they seek to oppress.
In today’s terms, the “cost” of pushing their beliefs–in the form of Supreme Court justices and rolling back civil rights legislation, among other things–on the rest of the country is Trump’s violence-inciting rhetoric and hateful, harmful policies. Babies–especially brown ones–in cages do not matter to white evangelicals who already believe they alone are the chosen few. Saying “but there are babies in cages” does not make a difference. They have already been told “Democrats’ lax immigration policies put the babies there” and “these people are all criminals and it’s their own fault their babies are in cages.” People from Mexico, to the white evangelical, are nothing more than faceless masses that need to be saved. You don’t save them by demanding an end to the cruelty at the border. You save them by sending money to white missionaries, who know what brown people need more than the brown people themselves do.
But what about facts, you ask? What if we attack them with facts? They can’t deny FACTS. Did you miss the part where I said that evangelicalism mirrors authoritarianism? These people have already been conditioned to accept lies as truth. It’s embedded in the DNA of evangelicalism. Because in order to believe the Bible is the inerrant, literal, not just inspired by, Word of God, in order to believe that Jesus is coming to Rapture the Chosen Ones and everyone else is going to Hell, in order to have the audacity to believe that the evangelical church alone knows best…you have to constantly shut down any conflicting truths, even if they are easily provable ones. And so when a pathological liar and con-artist comes along and declares “I alone can fix it” …well, that’s comfortingly familiar, and so is the way he demands your loyalty at any cost. And maybe what he’s saying isn’t all true, but the end result–your beliefs being forced on others for their own good–is worth it.
I don’t have a good ending for this, honestly. The more I’ve written, the more upsetting this has all become. I will, however, leave you with two final thoughts.
The first comes with the help of a quote from the same Economist article I referenced at the beginning of this post:
“Older evangelicals also know what Mr. Trump is. (Last year they flipped from being the voter group most likely to say personal morality mattered in a president, to being the group least likely to say that.)”
They know babies are being caged. They know journalists are being murdered. They know he is complicit in who-knows how many other things. They don’t care. Facts do matter and Trump should continue to be fact-checked and the media/those who shape narratives should continue to be pushed to do their jobs properly. But instead of wasting your breath shouting “Why don’t evangelicals care?? Where is the line???” recognize that there is no line any more.
Then what can you do?
Listen to ex-evangelicals. Amplify their voices. The ex-evangelical, or “exvangelical,” movement is only getting stronger. Tell the media that you want more coverage of this whole generation of people who left the harmful, toxic belief system that is currently dictating how our country is being run. You’re not going to get the white evangelical vote away from Trump, but we can tell you how to understand that bloc of people better than anyone, better than any “I’m an evangelical who voted for Trump” article. Additionally, many of us are actively working to counter the damage that has already been done.