The failure of ‘respectable’ evangelicalism, part I

Trump did not cause the rise of authoritarian Christianity. He is its symptom.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, prominent conservative commentator Peter Wehner, who worked for the Reagan and both Bush administrations, lamented the “Faustian bargain” his fellow white evangelicals have made in aligning themselves with Donald Trump. But the coreligionists Wehner finds so problematic represent the base that made his own high-profile career possible, and they do not agree that they are dealing with the devil. That the vast majority of white evangelicals have embraced Trump has caused prominent evangelicals invested in respectability, like Wehner and Michael Gerson of The Washington Post, considerable consternation. Gerson also played an influential role in the George W. Bush administration, and his hand wringing over the alliance between the Christian Right and Trump likely represents concern for his own legacy and that of “compassionate conservatism.”

The fear is not misplaced. One key lesson the American public should take away from the Trump years is precisely that the project of “respectable evangelicalism,” to which men like Wehner and Gerson have devoted much of their careers, has emphatically failed.

Specifically, the avatars of this “genteel” conservative Christianity have failed in three interrelated ways:

  1. they have failed to convince their coreligionists that supporting Trump is hypocritical or damaging;
  2. they have failed to take responsibility for the harm they have done by encouraging the culture wars and trying to put a benevolent face on them;
  3. they have failed to maintain control of the national conversation around evangelicalism to the extent they once did, which contributed to the major U.S. media’s tendency to normalize extremism.

If the United States is to have a healthy democratic future, Americans will have to reckon with the consequences of these failures.

Wehner and company still represent the conventional wisdom, but their hold on the dominant narrative is cracking. Increasingly, ex-evangelical and other critical voices are breaking through, because the would-be respectable conservative Christians have failed to provide a satisfying answer to the nagging American question, “What’s wrong with evangelicals?”

I will be devoting this and my two upcoming monthly columns here to addressing each of these three failures, starting with the first: the failure of the Wehners and Gersons of the world to influence white evangelicals away from support for Trump. As I will argue in subsequent months, this failure is essentially a symptom—a reflection of respectable evangelicals’ complicity in fueling the culture wars, which they can no longer contain. The fallout from the culture wars has also finally allowed ex-evangelicals to begin to be heard in the public sphere.

Wehner argues that Trump is a cause of authoritarian Christianity’s rise, rather than the symptom of a decades-old movement, which he helped build, that is centered implicitly around protecting white privilege and explicitly around paranoid sexuality politics. In his recent article, Wehner writes, “The Trump presidency… has inflicted gaping wounds on the Republican Party, conservative causes, and the evangelical movement.” He is particularly concerned with the reputation, or “witness,” of evangelicals, which is vitally important to members of a faith community grounded largely in valorizing the conversion experience and the concomitant drive to convert others. But while the reputation of the evangelical movement has deservedly suffered greatly in the Trump era, we now have the data to show that, despite warnings from men like Wehner and Gerson, most conservative evangelicals simply don’t see this.

The vast majority of white evangelicals support Trump because they believe he is doing the will of God. There is some disagreement among them over whether Trump is a Christian or simply an irreligious man willing to fight for Christians, but his white evangelical base does not doubt that the president fights for them. Of course, when they maintain he fights for Christians, they mean Christians “of the right sort”—i.e., those who oppose same-sex marriage and abortion, and who dislike immigrants and refugees.

If a large, powerful body of Christians insists that backing a strongman credibly accused of sexually assaulting numerous women in order to grab power is Christian behavior, then, empirically, it is Christian behavior. Religions are complex cultural systems with traditions and texts that are subject to communal mediation and interpretation, which means that well-meaning liberals who dub Christian Trump supporters “fake Christians,” fail to see that authoritarian Christianity is just as “real” a version of the faith as any sort of progressive or liberationist Christianity. Meanwhile, “respectable” commentators like Wehner who mostly agree in substance with the majority of white evangelicals’ illiberal Christianity may see Trump support as a bridge too far, but their cries to this effect fall on deaf ears among their more uncouth brethren.

According to findings by Denison University political scientist Paul A. Djupe, about three quarters of white evangelicals either disagree (46.5 percent) that “Christian support for Donald Trump has hurt Christian witness” or believe that it has neither hurt nor helped Christian witness (28 percent). Probing further into the influence of whether respondents to his study perceive their friends as mostly supportive or mostly opposed to Trump, Djupe argues, “these results help us see that, at this point, it is difficult, for instance, for evangelicals to see that the Christian brand has been damaged in society by its close association with Donald Trump. In part, that is because it has probably not been damaged among their bits of society.”

Men like Wehner interact with a much more ideologically diverse crowd than rank-and-file evangelicals do; they are able to see the damage that evangelical support for Trump has caused, and thus fret about their inability to rein it in. Wehner’s willingness to call out his fellow evangelicals for accepting Trump’s overt racism (for example, Trump’s pejorative use of “kung flu” to refer to COVID-19 and his pushing the birther conspiracy about President Barack Obama) accomplishes nothing except, perhaps, to assuage his own conscience.

In his analysis of the Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, Wehner argues that evangelicals, despite their “devil’s bargain” with Trump, have largely failed to get what they want. This is simply wrong. Trump has delivered in numerous ways on what he promised white evangelicals; and while they might see Bostock as a setback, subsequent “religious liberty” decisions have granted evangelicals sweeping exemptions to civil rights laws and education regulations.

Since I cannot see “his heart,” to use the evangelical speak of my youth, I cannot say whether Wehner truly believes that Roe v. Wade will remain settled law when it is very much threatened. I can say, however, that he is out of touch with the evangelical movement if he sincerely fails to see that their embrace of Donald Trump is not a betrayal of their values, but rather a reflection of them.