How Trump Is a Kind of Miracle for the Religious Right, Previously in Decline
Donald Trump’s conquest of the White House, buoyed by the overwhelming support of white evangelicals, has, for the moment at least, quelled the semi-regular pronouncements of the death of the religious right. As the numbers of non-white and non-religious Americans have increased, the demographic weight of white evangelicals has fallen. But rather than withering away, the religious right in its 2017 version seems poised to capitalize on unexpected access to power—a miracle, if you will. They are ecstatic over Trump’s Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch, and what they see as his steadfast protection of religious liberty and opposition to abortion. They also see trusted longtime allies in Vice President Mike Pence and at the helms of the Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services; a co-religionist, climate-change denier as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency; and an opponent of public schools, long the movement’s “secular humanist” bogeyman, as secretary of education.
Americans have been puzzling over how the religious right made a Faustian bargain with one of America’s most boastful violators of the “values” that the movement claims to uphold. Given the unprecedented circumstances, it would be tempting to characterize 2016 as a fluke election in which a Kremlin-backed charlatan upended our electoral process. The religious right’s coattail victory would then be evidence not of a lasting resurgence, but of a temporary victory followed perhaps by an inexorable decline. After all, how can this movement, not even popular among all Republicans, keep going? Isn’t the rest of America—feminists, secularists, liberal Christians, religious minorities, and anyone who has yielded to hedonistic impulses—finally poised to prevail over the religious right?
Two new books, in very different ways, offer crucial insights into how we got here and why resistance to the enduring influence of the religious right is a long game, perhaps even a defining feature of the republic. The first, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Frances FitzGerald’s The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, is a sweeping and vibrant history of white evangelicals in America from colonial times to the present—or, rather, up to the Trump presidency.
If FitzGerald tells us the comprehensive and often lurid tale of how white evangelicals shaped our politics, Yale sociologist Philip Gorski’s American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present offers an antidote of sorts. An ambitious account of American civil religion, his book explores the tension between “religious nationalism” and “radical secularism”—in other words, the culture war over whether America is a Christian nation or a purely secular one. FitzGerald shows us how white evangelicals shaped our politics; Gorski asks why their religious nationalism should prevail in a pluralistic republic.
Both authors finished their books before Trump was elected, and FitzGerald’s conclusion—that the religious right finally has lost its luster—feels regrettably premature. Still, her book should be of great interest to any number of readers, whether they are merely curious or deeply preoccupied about evangelicals and the turbulent intersection of religion and politics. If you’ve ever wanted to understand the First and Second Great Awakenings, abolitionist evangelicals, the history of Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians and all their internal turmoil and schisms, the origins of biblical “inerrancy,” or the full history of the fundamentalist-modernist split, FitzGerald has you covered. If your tastes run more contemporary, you could start with FitzGerald’s history of Billy Graham’s rise after World War II and read through the period covering the religious right’s travails during the Obama era.
Much of the section on Graham—-ably recounted by FitzGerald—will be familiar to readers from the iconic evangelist’s biographies and other religious histories of the period. Fitz-Gerald also gives us vivid accounts of the ascent of Oral Roberts, founder of the eponymous university in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and a pioneer of religious broadcasting and the “seed-faith” theology of the prosperity gospel. She recounts the shenanigans of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, whose scandal-plagued PTL (“Praise the Lord”) television network and Heritage USA megaplex came crashing down, landing Jim Bakker in jail for fraud.
Some important aspects of the history of televangelism’s popularization of Pentecostalism and charismatic Christianity don’t get adequate attention in FitzGerald’s book. For example, she mentions Word of Faith pioneer Kenneth Hagin only in passing and omits the history of the Trinity Broadcasting Network. But her account of the rise of Pat Robertson and building of the Christian Broadcasting Network and the Christian Coalition is an essential contribution, especially given the network’s role in promoting Trump.
FitzGerald’s treatment of R.J. Rushdoony, the founder of Christian Reconstructionism, and of Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell provides a critical backstory for understanding Trump’s appeal to white evangelicals. Her discussion of the reclusive and prolific Rushdoony is the best non-academic treatment that I’ve seen, capturing both his rigid Calvinist drive to replace civil law with biblical law and his propensity for conspiracy theories to undermine perceived enemies. Most on the religious right today would publicly reject Rushdoony’s specific proposals—such as advocacy of slavery and punishment by stoning—but FitzGerald correctly points out that his broader ideas “made their way into a variety of Christian right circles whose members adopted those they found useful for filling in intellectual gaps.” Rushdoony’s America, she adds, “was white and Calvinist, and at the heart of his politics was not just racism but an all-purpose full-service bigotry.” He was “completely straightforward in rejecting democracy,” FitzGerald notes, as he wrote that “Christianity is completely and radically anti-democratic,” and only “the right have rights.”
Rushdoony peddled in conspiracy, too, promoting Bircher tracts and arguing that “the view of history as conspiracy … is a basic tenet of … orthodox Christianity.” It’s not hard, then, to see how the seeds planted by Rushdoony could have led to Trumpism—to the idea of a white elect purifying the nation by promoting supposedly Christian answers to sinister threats.
In its early days, the religious right also needed a political player, or, more to the point, a political compromiser, and that’s where, in FitzGerald’s telling, Falwell comes in. Falwell’s achievement, FitzGerald suggests, emerged not from any demand that politicians adhere to religious or ideological litmus tests, but from his willingness to present the movement as a “loyal constituency” to the Republican Party. Falwell, she argues, didn’t insist on a particular piece of legislation or policy result from Reagan, recognizing that gauzy speeches about traditional values did “more to spread the Christian right message than Falwell ever could.” Reagan, she writes, was the “other half of the epoxy” in gluing white evangelicals and the GOP. For Falwell, then, the culture wars were performative, not political; it was more important to keep waging those wars than to obtain solutions from Washington.
Through this lens, one can see how Falwell’s son Jerry Jr. follows in his father’s footsteps, not just as heir to the presidency of Liberty University but as one of the earliest evangelical endorsers of Trump. Trump’s pledge to make America great was more important to Jerry Jr. than Trump’s adherence to religious-right litmus tests. As he told me last spring: “This is not a race for the pastor-in-chief, it’s the commander-in-chief. I think it’s obvious to the vast majority of rank-and-file Christian voters.” His father’s Moral Majority, as an organization, faded away long ago but left a legacy of white evangelicals who see their role in politics as choosing an anointed strongman who will save America from the disobedient, the un-American secularists, and the infiltrators—and ultimately from God’s judgment.
A CRITIQUE OF THAT kind of apocalyptic religious nationalism lies at the heart of Gorski’s book, a vastly different project that is, in many ways, a welcome counterpoint to FitzGerald’s chronicle. FitzGerald acknowledges that she is presenting a history of white evangelicals in an effort “to understand the Christian right and its evangelical opponents.” Accordingly, she “omits the history of African American churches because theirs is a different story, mainly one of resistance to slavery and segregation.” Gorski, in contrast, positions that story of resistance as central to the broader American religious experience and includes in his wide-ranging account the contributions to American civil religion of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., and Barack Obama.
Gorski’s guiding principle is the quest to recover a centrist civil religion and to save the republic from the polarized oppositions of the culture wars. On the one hand, the “religious nationalists,” aka the religious right, press their “persistent claims that the United States was ‘founded as a Christian nation’ or that the U.S. Constitution is ‘premised on Judeo-Christian values,’” which Gorski argues, correctly, “are neither historically accurate nor politically harmless.” He pits this camp against “radical secularism,” which he describes as “little more than a misguided effort at cultural censorship” and “political illiberalism dressed up as liberal politics.”
Gorski’s setup here contains a critical error. In his opening chapter, he asks, “How have religious nationalism and radical secularism come to exert so much influence over our public life?” The reality, however, is that religious nationalism exerts far more influence in our politics than “radical secularism” does. Gorski maintains that this dichotomy “has arisen in part because both sides have been supported by vocal and well-organized minorities,” and they serve, in effect, as each other’s foil: “each tradition strongly confirms the other’s prejudices.” The two sides, then, crowd out the middle ground of Gorski’s civil religion, which rejects the “conquest narrative” and apocalypticism of the religious nationalists as well as the total separation of religion and politics he says the “radical secularists” demand.
Despite this flawed formulation of the sparring sides in the culture wars, Gorski delivers a rich, detailed account of the history of efforts to define American religion. The central theme is how a more pluralistic, but not anti-religious, civil religion is part of our history and perhaps even a larger part of our future. Along the way, he introduces us to the Puritan progenitors of apocalypticism and to a competing religious narrative of the American founding based not on the New Testament’s Book of Revelation, but on the Hebrew Bible’s Exodus narrative. That struggle between a religious narrative of doom versus one of liberation from oppression is the real central battle in America’s religious wars—not the false opposition between religious nationalism and radical secularism that today pervades our politics.
Gorski finds the seeds of his middle ground in Barack Obama’s brand of presidential religion and even commends to the reader Obama’s preferred authors, including St. Augustine and the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr, Gorski writes, “traced the roots of American religious nationalism to the hidden conceit that lurked deep” in the Puritan covenant: “the belief that God had chosen [the Puritans], not out of his own divine mercy and sovereign grace, but on account of their peculiar individual and collective virtues.”
Gorski’s nuanced treatment of the intellectual roots of Obama’s thinking suggests that as he wrote American Covenant, Gorski may have thought that his hopes for civil religion were in reach, only to find now that Trump signals a cruel return to religious nationalism. But as both books show, Trumpism has deep and abiding roots. Our irreligious and biblically illiterate president may not be an aberration in the turbulent history of the religious right. In light of the history of religious nationalism in America, he may be its apotheosis.