White Evangelicals and the Trump Paradox

Why the 'moral majority' is willing to tolerate so much immorality from their leader.

President Donald J. Trump addresses the nation from the Oval Office of the White House Wednesday evening, March 11, 2020, on the country's expanded response against the global Coronavirus outbreak. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

In the comments on Steven Taylor’s post relying Rod Dreher’s disgust over President Trump’s coronavirus speech, OTB regular @Moosebreath commented,

While I am glad (entirely non-sarcastically) that Dreher recognizes this, up until a couple of weeks ago, his position was that pretty much all of this was true, but it was worth it for the judges and executive orders protecting conservative Christians. So I am also glad (more than a bit sarcastically) that he now realizes that the President’s ability to handle a crisis is more important than protecting the rights of Christians to treat gays and members of other religions as second class citizens.

Leaving aside whether that’s a fair or charitable interpretation of Dreher’s preferences (I haven’t been a regular reader in a long time), he is hardly alone in that conflict.

The Pew Research Center has a fantastic study out today on this very topic titled “White Evangelicals See Trump as Fighting for Their Beliefs, Though Many Have Mixed Feelings About His Personal Conduct.” It’s quite detailed and I won’t attempt to cover it all here but a couple of excerpts illustrate the point.

Heading into the 2020 election season, a new Pew Research Center survey delves into the relationship between religion and politics, including perceptions about President Donald Trump among white evangelical Protestants, a key part of his electoral base. It finds that white evangelicals largely see Trump as fighting for their beliefs and advancing their interests, and they feel their side generally has been winning recently on political matters important to them. But when it comes to Trump’s personal qualities and conduct, many express mixed feelings. Even among this strongly supportive constituency, most do not view Trump as a very religious, honest or morally upstanding person (though many white evangelicals say he is somewhat religious, fairly honest or fairly morally upstanding).

Now, I find it baffling that people think Trump is moral or religious. But note the breakdowns of the polling here:

White evangelicals have identical views as adults in general on the importance of a President leading an ethical or moral life. But they’re almost twice as likely to care that he stands up for people with their religious beliefs and more than twice as likely to care that he shares their religious belief.

And white evangelicals say Trump fits the bill: Fully eight-in-ten white evangelical Protestants say that the phrase “fights for what I believe in” describes Trump “very well” or “fairly well,” including roughly half who say this describes him “very well.”

The disparities here are shocking. But white evangelicals overwhelmingly think Trump fights for their interests, has served their interests, and they therefore (I believe) agree with him on many or most issues.

And here’s the Dreher paradox: they believe all that despite also believing Trump is less than moral personally.

Just 15% of white evangelicals say the phrase “morally upstanding” describes Trump very well, and about a quarter say “honest” is a very good descriptor of the president (23%). About one-third of white evangelicals (31%) say they like the way Trump conducts himself as president (aside from his positions on the issues). Fully two-thirds either have “mixed feelings” about his conduct (44%) or say they don’t like it (22%). And only about one-in-eight white evangelicals (12%) think Trump is a very religious person.

None of this should surprise us. White evangelicals have long felt—with good reason—that their way of seeing the world is in decline. They, quite rightly, see elite institutions—the mass media, the academy, the courts, etc.—as overturning the world they believe in. We’ve known that for a long time but Pew reinforces that:

Fully two-thirds of white evangelicals think Christianity’s influence is decreasing in American life. And a similar share of white evangelical Protestants (66%) say there is at least some conflict between their own religious beliefs and mainstream American culture, including three-in-ten who say there is a “great deal” of conflict.

Why do people feel this way? The survey asked respondents who said Christianity’s influence is declining a series of follow-up questions to gauge several possible causes for this decline, and the most common reasons cited as “major causes” are growth in the number of people in the U.S. who are not religious and misconduct by Christian leaders. But among white evangelical Protestants, the most commonly cited reason for Christianity’s declining influence is “more permissive attitudes about sexual behavior and sexuality in popular culture” (see Chapter 2 for full details).

While Moosebreath and others characterize this as a fight over “the rights of Christians to treat gays and members of other religions as second class citizens,” white evangelicals (and not an insignificant number of the Southern blacks who helped make Joe Biden the Democratic frontrunner) see it as being true to their faith.

And they’re willing to look the other way on Trump’s transgressions because he not only tells them that they’re right and the elites are wrong but he takes concrete actions like appointing conservative judges to the bench as a bulwark.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Religion, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. DrDaveT says:

    Earth to evangelicals: Urgent Bulletin

    God cares waaaaaaaaaay less about sex than you do.

    15
  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    Not surprising. Evangelicals, as a group, are not well-represented on the right side of the IQ bell curve. Have they correctly seen that their worldview is in rapid decline? Yes. Have they taken that as a suggestion that maybe they should re-evaluate their beliefs? No, because they are rigid and rather stupid.

    Religion is the virus that empowers stupidity. No one seems to agree with me when I say (repeatedly, boringly) that religion is the underpinning of broader irrationality, but once you’ve decided to believe utter nonsense, once you’ve decided that facts are only facts if they support your prejudices, what’s to stop you believing any nonsense?

    Evangelicals are reliving Exodus 32:

    When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods[a] who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”

    2 Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods,[b] Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”

    They got tired of waiting for Jesus to come down and smite gays and trans folk and uppity negroes and smartass college kids. So they decided to worship a tangerine calf. That this was heresy never occurred to them, because all those Bible stories they grew up on don’t apply to them – they have the Truth straight from God, they’re special and better, so they couldn’t possibly be in the wrong.

    So much for the usefulness of parables and Bible stories.

    22
  3. mattbernius says:

    Look, let’s just address the elephant in the room here… the emphasis is getting placed on the wrong syllable here — the defining identity part is at the start of the phrase “white evangelical Protestants” not at the end.

    Without a doubt, Christians of all sects are facing difficulties in reconciling themselves with the cultural changes of the last century. But there are significant racial differences when it comes to voting patterns, regardless of sect. White Catholics* also significantly supported Trump as well:

    https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/09/how-the-faithful-voted-a-preliminary-2016-analysis/

    We can dance around this as much as we want to, but racial identity — in particular “whiteness” appears to be the critical factor here.

    * – Admittedly White Catholic support of the President was 20 points lower than White Evangelical (~60% vs ~80%). But that’s still a significant majority break along racial lines.

    15
  4. Jay L Gischer says:

    This is where, politically speaking, Trump has been very effective. I don’t think he cares at all about Obergefell one way or another.

    I think all those conservative judges being nominated by the Federalist Society, I mean Trump, will take very, very few decisions that address SSM or abortion or trans people. And in the meantime, they will collaborate in further rigging the system in the very way Trump proclaimed.

    But he’s convinced many people that he is their bulwark, rather than their oppressor, and that anything I might say is a lie of Satan.

    I was part of the Evangelical movement in the Seventies. I might have met Michelle Bachman, we were in the same sort of circles, but I didn’t. Then I went to grad school and met some, you know, actual gay people. Including one house mate who came out three years in. I have to tell you there was a re-evaluation that came over several years. I know what the scripture says, but I also know what the reality in front of me was. Perhaps the problem was with my understanding of scripture, not with God, or with gay people.

    I think other evangelicals will go through this transformation. The ones left in the movement are the ones who have resisted this re-evaluation the hardest. I don’t think that has much to do with intelligence, though. It has more to do with how fiercely one resists change and re-evaluation.

    I am expecting a time of “capitulation” where they just sort of give up, and lie dormant for a bit, then come back with a formulation of the eternal message that is more in harmony with our times and the truths in front of our eyes. This will lead to a sort of spiritual awakening. Americans are very spiritually oriented as a general rule.

    16
  5. DrDaveT says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    I know what the scripture says

    Me too. It says “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” That seems remarkably clear to me, especially for religious dogma, yet people seem to be entirely unable to internalize it.

    9
  6. Argon says:

    Dreher’s schtick is to foment fear and cultivate an irrational sense of victimhood. He’s got a dozen fainting couches at home and around the office. So of course the Chicken Little of The American Conservative was going to go apesh*t over the virus. Heck, at least this issue is real for once…

    9
  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    I don’t think that has much to do with intelligence, though. It has more to do with how fiercely one resists change and re-evaluation.

    The reason homo sapiens survived is because we evolved a quick, flexible intelligence. The very purpose of intelligence is to analyze threats, find responses to changing environments and communicate data useful to adaptation. Rigid intelligence is useless intelligence, we can get by day-to-day just following well-worn paths, like every other animal, very little IQ required.

    That rigidity, that refusal to re-evaluate, is either stupidity, or a form of self-inflicted stupidity, the self-harming handicapping of intelligence, by faith. Faith and reason cannot co-exist. You cannot say, well, I believe in facts aside from this massive exception I’ve decided on. I believe in gravity except I think ginger people can fly. I believe in in astronomy except I also believe the sun orbits the earth. I believe in math except for fractions, because only angels can do fractions.

    I’m not trying to knock you, it’s good that you broke free. But that is what happened, it seems to me, you had to free yourself from mental shackles. So did I at age 16 when I actually thought about the religion I’d been taught and saw that it was simply nonsense. If you did it, and I did it, then it is precisely because of intelligence, and if others are not able to do it, it follows logically that a lack of intelligence is largely to blame.

    6
  8. Barry says:

    “… white evangelicals (and not an insignificant number of the Southern blacks who helped make Joe Biden the Democratic frontrunner) see it as being true to their faith.”

    Yes, an insignificant number of Blacks. The rate of even Black *men* voting for Trump is trivial.

    4
  9. Barry says:

    @Argon: “Dreher’s schtick is to foment fear and cultivate an irrational sense of victimhood. ”

    I find the significance in what he’s saying now to be the fact that he’s no longer trying to give a ‘but the judges!’ defense of Trump.

    9
  10. dazedandconfused says:

    The author’s forgotten or is dodging the issue of race. Maybe he’s tap-dancing around it, only he can say. There is only one value Trump shares with this particular set of Christians, and his dog-whistle on it is damn near a fog-horn.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1q881g1L_d8

    2
  11. JDM says:

    Looks like Trump and Pence met with Brazilian who has coronavirus.

    https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/12/coronavirus-brazilian-official-who-met-trump-tests-positive.html

    President Pelosi sounds good to me.

    6
  12. Kathy says:

    When a candidate uses dog whistles and euphemisms, some people can plausibly overlook the implied bigotry, and focus on the candidate’s other qualities, like experience, leadership, etc.

    In Trump’s case, the bigotry was out in the open, and he had no qualities at all (unless pettiness, vindictiveness, and ignorance are qualities), so it was quite clear to me the bulk of his support was for bigotry and for nothing else, even if many of his supporters resorted to euphemisms like “he talks straight,” to justify their support.

    Some of his supporters may be excused, as the assumption that El Cheeto would pivot to the center (how’s that going, BTW?), and act in a more civil fashion would follow if he won the election. Others may have thought they were throwing away their vote on a lost cause.

    Such excuses won’t work now. A vote for Trump is a straight-up vote for bigotry, plus cruelty, ignorance, and incompetence.

    11
  13. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I’ve played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons (TM) in my life. One of the key insights of that game is that wisdom and intelligence are not the same thing. It is quite possible for someone to have high intelligence and low wisdom. In fact, I have observed people like that.

    I think the critical aspects of my own story are that I held firmly to the idea that the most important thing is to love, and that I had person-to-person contact with out gay people. I’m not sure intelligence had a lot to do with it, but wisdom sure did.

    I don’t want to get in a food fight with you about this, it seems like it might be a quibble about terminology. But I’ve never felt that intelligence, which I have in abundance, was the most valuable quality I held or sought.

    8
  14. DrDaveT says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I believe in in astronomy except I also believe the sun orbits the earth.

    For what it’s worth, Tycho Brahe’s model of the solar system had the sun orbiting the earth, and everything else orbiting the sun in the usual way. If you think about it for a moment, you will realize that this is an exactly equivalent (but needlessly complex mathematically) description to the one that has the Sun at the center of all of it.

    On the flip side, Copernicus only put the sun at the center for religious reasons — he was a sun-worshiper. Galileo, often put forward as the paragon of empirical science over dogma, insisted that orbits had to be perfectly circular because anything else was unthinkably inelegant. Separating science from religion is harder than it looks.

    6
  15. Matt says:

    @DrDaveT: “God does not play dice with the universe.”

    1
  16. MarkedMan says:

    I was raised a Roman Catholic and served my 12 years in the school system. Talking about what Catholics are like is about as meaningful as talking about what Americans are like. If I were to sum up my religious training it would be three things: “You are guilty”, “Your emotions don’t matter, look to the cold hard facts”, and “Don’t expect Jesus to wipe your ass or you’ll end up stinky”. But even my classmates no doubt came away with very different experiences. Bottom line, I’m used to seeing “The Religious” as spanning a wide, wide variety of experiences and world views.

    With that said. Sheesh. Evangelicals. Sure there’s a variety. In fact I have some fairly close friends that I would categorize as Evangelical although we’ve never actually talked about religion (I know, I know… so maybe not Evangelical in that sense). They are most definitely not superstitious fearful goobers. But they seem to be the 15% exception. I think there is something about growing up in an environment that takes some random man with pouffy hair and a suit that costs twice as much as your dad’s best and imbues him with absolute authority. “The Bible is the inerrant word of God! Why? Because the man in the suit said so.” What most religious people I have met have in common is that they worship Faith, not god. They value people to the extent they hold faith despite all evidence to the contrary. Not on whether they are actually Christian (or Buddhist or Jewish or any of the various other belief systems – every religion has their zealots). And so it is no surprise whatsoever that they can’t see through Trump or Jim Baker or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell or, for Chrissake, the pool boy swinger Jerry Falwell Jr. They consider themselves exalted when they believe in a phony. There is just no way to overcome that.

    10
  17. Robert Moehle says:

    “Nobody ever went broke underestimating either the taste or the intelligence of the American public.” “The love of money is the root of all evil (! Tim. 6:10)” How much more do you need to explain Trump and his entire entourage?

  18. Kathy says:

    @Matt:

    “Stop telling God what to do with His dice.” Attributed to Niels Bohr.

    1
  19. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Jay L Gischer:
    No food fight.

    wisdom and intelligence are not the same thing. It is quite possible for someone to have high intelligence and low wisdom. In fact, I have observed people like that.

    Dude, you are currently communicating with one. I have a super-smart kid, and I’ve been at pains her whole life to say, ‘Look, IQ is horsepower. Great stuff unless the driver’s a damn fool.’ And then I point to my life and say, ‘See?’ And she listens to me every bit as much as I used to listen to people at that age. Facts can be taught, wisdom you have to earn. Little known fact, I was not born the all-knowing font of wisdom I clearly am, first I had to be a damn fool.

    7
  20. Kylopod says:
  21. An Interested Party says:

    A vote for Trump is a straight-up vote for bigotry, plus cruelty, ignorance, and incompetence.

    The Dems need to make this ad and blast it nonstop…

    2
  22. MarkedMan says:

    I doubt this is original with me but FWIW:
    Intelligence is the ability to learn from your mistakes. Wisdom is the ability to learn from others mistakes

    6
  23. 95 South says:

    @An Interested Party: That would guarantee a Trump win. The people who agree with you are going to vote for the Democrat anyway, and it would alienate anyone on the fence.

  24. Kathy says:

    @An Interested Party:

    If they want to, they have to pay me royalties 😛

  25. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Evangelicals sold their souls the second they said, “I am saaaaaavvvvvved!!!” Once they have convinced themselves of this fantasy, they are capable of convincing themselves of all the others, and all on their own say-so.

    The hubris alone is more than enough for Jesus to throw them into the darkest pits of purgatory for an eternity or 3.

    2
  26. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @95 South:

    it would alienate anyone on the fence

    There is absolutely no one left on the fence. There are however a bunch of people who don’t want to say they are Nazi’s.

    3
  27. An Interested Party says:

    That would guarantee a Trump win.

    Ahh, so stating the truth will now help Trump? That seems a bit like…fake news…

    …and it would alienate anyone on the fence.

    Oh really? Seems like one of the reasons a lot of fence sitters voted for Democrats in 2018 was precisely because they realized that Trump is repulsive…

    2
  28. gVOR08 says:

    @dazedandconfused:

    The author’s forgotten or is dodging the issue of race.

    I can’t speak for the author, and why he wasn’t more explicit. But “Evangelical” is more of a tribal identification than a religion. There are black evangelicals, but when a white evangelical pictures a typical coreligionist in his mind, what ethnicity do you think they picture? Which is not to say evangelicals are overtly racist, but blacks aren’t in the tribe. And Trump, and Rs in general, are very good at triggering the implicit racism.

    2
  29. gVOR08 says:

    @DrDaveT:

    Galileo, often put forward as the paragon of empirical science over dogma, insisted that orbits had to be perfectly circular because anything else was unthinkably inelegant.

    Modern physicists are still influenced by elegance. It’s kind of a version of Occam’s razor.

    4
  30. Teve says:

    A lot of evangelicals are stupid people with shitty values, among them racism. Donald Trump is a stupid person with shitty values, among them racism. No paradox.

    The religious right didn’t form to oppose abortion. They formed to oppose desegregation.

    As far as the IQ of these people, just look at the career of Jim Bakker.

    9
  31. grumpy realist says:

    @gVOR08: Indeed, we physicists are the last Platonists in existence…..one of the reasons why we can look at a graph of measured data and throw out half of its points as “irrelevant” or “experimental error”.

    1
  32. Teve says:

    @grumpy realist: General message to the world, maybe some theoretical physicists think like that, experimental physicists don’t.

    But theory has very fancy math!

    1
  33. Kingdaddy says:

    Just to be clear, Rod Dreher has more in common with William Barr or Mel Gibson (extreme Catholic views) than Rick Warren or Paula White (evangelicals). His “Benedict option” advocates building a wall against or withdrawing from the modern world, which is incompatible with his view of Catholicism. It’s a point of view that has roots in elements of Catholicism like Pope Pius X’s Oath Against Modernism.

    https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/meaning-of-the-benedict-option/

    2
  34. Teve says:

    I would be happy if Rod Dreher withdrew from the modern world and spared us his terrible opinions, but I doubt it will ever happen.

    4
  35. MarkedMan says:

    @Kingdaddy: I don’t know that I would describe Dreher’s extreme opinions in terms of Catholicism, Orthodoxy or any other “ism” he holds dear. There is a personality type that craves certainty to the point it is detrimental to them and others they connect with. Dreher most certainly has that trait. It manifests in the way he exalts his personal distastes and predilections to Absolute Moral Certainty. Most recently it is the gays and trans and all the other things that make him nervous, but in truth he works his way from one obsession to another. He is virulently anti-abortion, working himself up int a moral lather and so justifies voting for Trump on that regard.

    2
  36. grumpy realist says:

    @MarkedMan: So now he’s getting faced with the following result: he gets the judges he wants on SCOTUS to save theoretical lives (fetuses), but due to Trump’s stupidity and incompetence some of Dreher’s relatives are much more likely to die (actual lives).

    Dreher is like the Leaver idiot who got stuck in a line at Schipol and protested “I didn’t order THIS Brexit!”

    Wetoldyouso wetoldyouso wetoldyouso….I have no sympathy for Dreher.

    5
  37. gVOR08 says:

    @Teve: The old line – If you’re going Galt, why can I still hear you? Go already.

  38. de stijl says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    Intelligence and wise choices are distinct.

    I am swimming in intelligence as measured by tests and academic measures.

    I often do not choose the optimal solution in navigating life’s difficulties. I often chose a very stupid path.

    We are not our frontal cortex. It is a player in our decision making process, yes, but not the trigger puller.

    That informs us and contributes to our choices. It is not what decides things.

    We are as much glandular driven as we are brain driven.

    Intelligence can be measured in dozens of ways. The scales we choose priveleges one out out many.

    I am measurably smart.

    I am extraordinarily dumb.

    I made a lot of smart choices when I was young. However, I made more dumb choices than smart in that span.

    You want to change the ratio as you mature.

    Intelligence is not a thing. There are many types.

    1
  39. de stijl says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Dreher is no longer culturally important. Stopped paying attention when he stopped mattering. Stopped valuing his input when he abided blatantly white power commenters for years.

    He is now an obscure wanna be influencer flogging his latest merch endlessly…

    That is a just outcome.

  40. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kingdaddy: I came away with a little different read. Particularly when he was mentioning the book for which he’d written a foreword, I was seeing him more as advocating the formation of home churches “to reclaim”…well whatever he thinks the establishment in Rome et al have taken.

    I remember home churches. I’ve belonged to one from time to time. Evangelicals (both in the contemporary and traditional–missionary evangelism–sense of the word) have done home churches a lot over my lifetime. Sometimes they’re pretty good, but it works as a plan only until it doesn’t. Some of them grow up to be Mars Hill Church in Seattle–this is a bad thing (you can look it up in Wikipedia) because all of the excess of the past arises again.

    As I’ve noted before, the whole “you’re the only Jesus most people will ever know” thing seems to work against God’s interests a fair amount of the time. Rod Dreher is no exception.

  41. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Jay L Gischer: Intelligence as we understand it is a Western(white) cultural concept. It mostly describes a persons ability to ingest data, recall it, and to a lesser extent expound on it. Wisdom is a eastern concept that describes the wielders ability to apply knowledge they’ve attained. Its the degree of problem solver one is– specifically, ones ability to resolve the paradox that any worldview ultimately places before its adherents.

    When is a “Judge Not” approach called for over an “eye for an eye”? King Solomon decided neither was applicable and decided to split the baby. That’s Wisdom. A far more relevant measure for evaluating people that intelligence.

    2
  42. ABC says:

    No one is in heaven or hell until Judgment Day. – Hebrews 9:27