Editor’s note: This post is part of a summer-long series, The Sociology of Trump. Every Friday RI Future will feature an essay written by a Brown University sociology student on an aspect of Trumpism. Read the introduction: Culture, power, and social change in the time of Trump.
The election of Donald Trump surprised many. His continued authority, despite many offending words, policies and practices, also challenges. Understanding how race works in America is obviously critical to rethinking class and gender in Trump times, but what about religion? In particular, how can we understand the allegiance so many white evangelicals pay to a president whose speech and behavior are so distant from Biblical injunction? While business leaders and artists might withdraw from consulting Trump, only one evangelical leader left his religious council. Why the difference? Drawing on her critical sociological repertoire as well as her deep familiarity with this orientation, Rebekah Yang complements more sympathetic treatments of this faith community with an account emphasizing this religion’s affinities with racist, misogynist and colonialist dispositions. – Michael Kennedy, professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs, Brown University.
In the months before the 2016 presidential election, I was amazed and horrified to see #MAGA and #TrumpTrain posts emerging on my social media platforms. During my few months on campus, I hadn’t met any vocal Trump supporters, yet they seemed to have grown insidiously in the community I left in Maryland. Having been raised in a religious, Christian household, I am accustomed to conservative politics. I am also accustomed to the set of moral guidelines often associated with religion: be kind to your neighbor, practice humility, wear modest clothing, and the like. Under these conditions, I was shocked that many members of the Christian community publicly endorsed Donald Trump. With his egregious record of hostility towards women, narcissism, and business scandals (to name only a few), Trump bears no resemblance to a moral figure. How did the white evangelical community reconcile their strict moral code and Trump’s blatant violation of it?
According to exit poll survey information, my fears about the voting patterns of my white evangelical peers were realized. In the 2016 presidential election, 81% self-identified white evangelical Christians claimed to have voted for Donald Trump. This percentage is higher than white evangelical support for any presidential candidate since before 2004.
My intention is to investigate the seemingly counterintuitive endorsement of Trump by the white evangelical community through a sociological framework. My primary data sources are my personal experiences with this community, in conjunction with an analysis of Trump’s political rhetoric and some biblical scripture. My observations are specific to the predominantly white evangelical community of my home church, an analysis of which may be extended to similar congregations in relatively affluent, highly educated, suburban areas. I hope to provide supplementary insight into the foundational undercurrent woven into the fabric of the white evangelical church that may help explain its endorsement of Trump.
Throughout this essay, I argue that, despite superficial contrasts in moral behavior, there are striking similarities between the sociology of Trump and that of the white evangelical community, which are illuminated when evaluating perspectives on gender, race, and nationalism. While these are not the only domains in which Trump and the white evangelical community converge, I analyze them specifically because they are pertinent issues that clearly delineate the parallel between the two.
Institutional and Biblical Sexism and the Misogyny of Trump
Sexism is deeply embedded into the institution and practice of the white evangelical church. At many churches, women are not allowed to hold leadership positions, including the role of pastor. A common explanation for this policy is that the Bible does not support women in roles of teaching or exercising spiritual authority over men, which is informed by inherent differences between men and women.
Women who grow up in the church are often encouraged to embody the notorious “Proverbs 31 woman,” also known as the “wife of noble character,” a matriarch described in Proverbs 31. Some descriptions from Proverbs 31 include:
She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family and portions for her female servants. (Proverbs 31:15)
She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her. (Proverbs 31:17-18)
This biblical framework suggests that a woman’s role is fundamentally and functionally distinct from that of a man – she is expected to be a submissive wife and a dutiful mother, but never a strong leader or independent of her familial obligations. It should be noted that there are biblical stories of strong female leaders, such as Esther of the Old Testament, a Jewish queen who single-handedly rescues the Hebrew nation from an oppressive, foreign power. However, in many white evangelical churches, the dominant rhetoric regarding women’s role aligns with that of Proverbs 31 – to marry, bear children, and find contentment in a role of continual service.
Though hardly a pious man, Trump similarly embodies the belief that women must submit to him and inflicts violence on those who refuse. He has been accused of sexual misconduct on at least 15 accounts since the 1980s, has openly bragged about groping women, and even made lewd sexual comments about his own daughter (Resnick). Many expected that the leaked video of Trump on Access Hollywood bragging about his sexual aggression towards women would lead to the decline of his support by white evangelicals. However, an understanding of sexism in the church provides an explanation of how and why many white evangelicals reconciled the dichotomy between their moral standards and Trump’s immoral reputation.
Given the church’s sexist teachings and practices, it follows that white evangelicals do not view Trump’s blatant misogyny as problematic. Many white evangelicals believe that women’s role is to serve and not lead, and Trump’s exploitative attitude towards women corresponds with that perspective. Though Trump’s behavior towards women is widely viewed as crude and tactless, many white evangelicals do not believe that it is fundamentally wrong. The white, evangelical community’s excuse of Trump’s blatant misogyny is a direct product of the sexism that is deeply rooted in the church, upheld by narrow interpretations of scripture and policies that exclude women from exercising leadership.
The Illusion of Post-Racism and Anti-Violence for the Church and Trump
During the spring of 2015, when protests were occurring in nearby Baltimore in response to the death of Freddie Gray, I recall discussing the recent events with my bible study group. I had hoped to hear comments of empathy towards those who were grieving and solidarity with those who had experienced injustice. Instead, many of my peers dismissively claimed that the rioters were too violent and that racism had ended in the 1960s.
This narrative of post-racism is the dominant perspective on racial justice in many congregations. In addition to ignoring issues of race post-Civil Rights era, the white, evangelical church often talks about promoting justice and simultaneously disparages any social activism that may precipitate violence. In reality, activism that results in violence is often due to state-sponsored violence against activists, indicated by unwarranted police brutality at peaceful #BlackLivesMatter protests throughout the country and more recently in the #NoDAPL resistance. Blaming activists of color for state-sponsored violence contributes to the narrative that people of color are inherently violent, and especially those who advocate for justice.
Historically, churches have often played a role in volunteering in local communities. In my home church, there are plenty of opportunities for volunteering to feed the homeless and spend time with inner-city youth, as well as short-term mission trips. However, when the discussion shifts to activism and advocacy, many actively oppose it or fall silent. White evangelicals are too often absent in conversations about enacting social change on an institutional or systematic level, where there may be a higher risk of violence or controversy, but solidarity is even more critical. This attitude is reminiscent of the “white savior complex,” in that a masturbatory action of service is preferred over the type of solidarity that supports affected communities in their struggle against institutional forces.
The narrative that is perpetuated by white evangelical churches about violence in communities of color aligns with those that Trump used in his campaign platform. Trump describes communities of color as illegal, violent, and drug-ridden. He speaks about rising violence in the African American community, but offers no real data or practical solutions, which only perpetuates the harmful, pervasive belief that the community is inherently violent and criminal. Thus, white evangelicals who show their commitment to social justice through volunteer work but disparage activism by people of color resonate with Trump’s racist rhetoric partially because of their lack of understanding of state-sponsored violence in communities of color. White evangelicals’ dismissive attitude towards activism in communities of color is part of a racist façade that claims to support social justice, but only under the terms and conditions of the white, evangelical community and its white savior approach.
Islamophobia and Nationalism for the Church and Trump
There exist striking similarities between Trump’s #MAGA platform and white evangelicals’ colonial desire to spread Christianity, both of which espouse Islamophobia and nationalism.
Throughout the years, I have heard numerous white evangelicals claim and imply that Muslims are backwards, morally deficient, and fundamentally violent. While many non-religious white folks’ Islamophobia is primarily linked to fears of terrorism, white evangelicals have additional anxiety related to the potential threat Islam poses to Christianity in the United States. This anxiety bears striking resemblance to a colonizer’s fear of dispossessing territory and power.
In the Bible, Jesus instructs his disciples to spread his teachings to all nations of the world, a calling known as the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20). In response, Christians are tasked with proselytizing in the hopes of spreading Christianity. In 2015, Pew Research Center published research findings that suggest that Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world. With the perceived threat of America becoming a Muslim nation, many white evangelicals’ Islamophobia may be linked to fear of losing religious dominance in American society.
It should be noted that Islamophobia in the United States is also an expression of racism and xenophobia. White evangelicals’ Western, Christian perspective approaches Muslim people as an unknown, dangerous threat to be eradicated. Within the evangelical community, this perspective seems to be particularly unique among white evangelicals, whose history is Western colonialism that has ravaged indigenous land and enforced White Christian hegemony. White evangelicals’ Islamophobia is another iteration in an extensive pattern of Western colonialism.
Trump also seeks to get rid of and otherize Muslim people in the United States, but not for a religious agenda. Capitalizing on deceitful Islamophobic rhetoric, Trump legitimizes white evangelicals’ preconceived Islamophobia in the hopes of attracting their support. By scapegoating Muslim people, Trump amplifies Islamophobia to mobilize white voters. Thus, Trump’s #MAGA platform, which incites nationalistic sentiments and actions primarily driven by white fear, resonates with white evangelicals who already carry pre-existing Islamophobia.
In conclusion, white evangelical support for Trump is possible because of converging perspectives on gender, race, and nation. Trump and the white evangelical church operate within the same systems that give both immense societal privileges. American white evangelicals are both the racial and religious majority. As a white, heterosexual man from an economically privileged background, Trump also has a privileged identity. And both manipulate their privilege to promote self interest at the expense of marginalized people.
Conservative white evangelicals are not the only group that espouses racism, sexism, and Islamophobia, and obviously not all white evangelicals share the same ideologies. However, I chose to analyze the white evangelical community as a whole to provide an explanation for a question that has confounded me, and which was not satisfied by explanations that simply dismissed sexism, racism, and nationalism as an individual’s psychological flaws.
White Christianity carries a legacy of colonialism and religious intolerance. Historically, white Christians have manipulated biblical scripture to justify slavery, destruction of indigenous lands, and hate crimes. Today, white evangelicals continue to uphold sexism, racism, Islamophobia, and #MAGA through their vote. While most white evangelicals probably do not explicitly support oppressive systems, they also do not recognize the complicity of the white, evangelical community in perpetuating oppression in the past nor present. Thus, white evangelicals saw Trump as leader to push their conservative, self-interested politics, but chose not to imagine the potential destructive impact of his platform for others without similar privileges. Even though many expected that Trump’s offensive behavior would prevent him from winning the white evangelical vote, the results of the 2016 election indicate that electing a leader with similar moral values is a lower priority for 81% of white evangelicals than one who is committed to upholding sexism, racism, and Islamophobia.