Trump and the Evangelical Imagination

Evangelicals want their city on a hill to be a gated community. This tension between the desire to transform the world and to retreat from it always ends with seclusion the victor. Understanding this impulse sheds light on the political strategies of evangelicals and provides an explanation of why they can support Trump for president when his message and manner seem to contradict any meaningful form of Christianity.

Trump himself appears baffled by his popularity among evangelicals at times. He has expressed surprise and commented he isn’t sure he has earned the respect he currently enjoys. But what Trump gets right, even if he doesn’t realize it, is his insistence that the world stands on the brink of destruction. That’s the message evangelicals hear above all the other indications Trump shares nothing in common with the traditional tenets of evangelical faith. Because heralding the apocalypse justifies the isolation evangelicals end up craving when their worldview meets with resistance.

When I attended a Baptist university in the 80s, the Moral Majority and other evangelical groups had begun to flex their political muscle, rallying around an end to abortion and the secularization of American institutions. They earnestly believed they could legislate the culture to Jesus. A feeling of hopefulness surrounded the movement, spurred on by the sunny disposition of Ronald Reagan, that morning in America would include full churches on every corner and the mythical return of the Christian nation that had never really existed.

But that optimism quickly dissipated in the face of constant setbacks, with the exception of drastically restricting abortion at the state level, and the cynical manipulation of Republicans who learned they could justify any policy and behavior as long as they used the correct magic words to frame it.

Evangelical theology has a very simple message of sin and redemption. You are either in or you are out. It has no interest in diversity or compromise or the possibility of more than one path to the truth. In other words, it has no ability to operate in the political sphere or in a culture that values a spectrum of opinion. That theology has no means to cope with a community in which it perceives itself as a minority. The only explanation for a world in which evangelical belief is losing is that such a world is literally coming to an end.

Enter Donald Trump. He has announced that indeed America has fallen into ruin, and he is the only person that can save it. Evangelicals hear the former and ignore the latter. In the same way they support bigoted legislation and restrictive voting laws and discrimination against other religious expression. They must protect what little remains of their beleaguered city. That is why evangelicals can behave like racists and then express utter shock at the suggestion they are racist. For them there is no contradiction. In their minds, they are doing what must be done to save us all. They should be thanked not criticized.

Evangelicals gave up on America soon after 9/11. They will support any candidate that expresses their vision of a bleak present and even bleaker future whether they are a Christian or a tyrant or Satan himself. The sooner the end comes the sooner Christ will appear to make them winners again without any dissent.

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