The Enduring Puzzle of the White Evangelical Voter

White Evangelicals, like every other political coalition, vote their own interests.

Since the 2016 White Evangelical Christians have become a political mystery so profound, so ineffable, that all the thinkpieces in the world cannot perceive. Apologists and detractors alike peer into graphs and pew polls to try to divine their eldritch intent when they pull the lever in droves for Republicans. They must harbor some secret desire for a return to racial segregation, to turn the country into one big LARP of The Handmaid’s Tale, they are a cult of capitalism, the religious arm of American interests.

Few seem to want to take them at their word. Evangelicals have had two priorities since the Obama years: to get rid of the Supreme Court decisions that have made abortion and gay marriage unassailable rights by fiat and to secure an expansive definition of religious liberty. In short, they have a moral agenda for the country they would like to see enacted and they don’t want their constituents penalized for living by it. Whatever one thinks should be evangelical political priorities, they are not so different from those of any other political coalition. Progressive white liberals have a moral vision for the country too: that the government ought to regulate and control society such that every individual person may have the right to be and do exactly what they feel they should be and do. They want to secure a restrictive definition of religious liberty and free speech, and expand the definition of individual liberty and hate speech for the exact same reasons evangelicals want to do the opposite: so that they can live out their values without being hassled by people who find their values abhorrent. It takes about as much expertise to explain why Progressives vote the way they do in order to explain why Evangelicals vote the way they do.

But no, it must be harder than this. All the breathless commentators and apologists trying to understand how Evangelicals could have voted for The Wrong Candidate in 2016, have defined them as a peculiar political coalition that cannot be either understood as (or be allowed to be) voters who vote in their own interests. It does not matter to the people who are paid to tell us what’s really going on in politics, that The Candidate They Should Have Voted For never addressed them directly except when she was actively promising to work against their interests. It is not whataboutism to point out that when one party despises everything a political coalition stands for, who defames them as bitter clingers to guns and Bibles, theocrats, and heartless patriarchs, they will vote for the other party. The undiscovered country of incessant commentary on White Evangelicals is to proceed from the  assumtion that they make rational choices.

That’s not to say that rational choices are always good ones. But it is easy to answer the question of how is it possible that so many who profess to uphold traditional definitions of sexual purity could pull the lever for those who have violated them so flagrantly. The answer is that they pull the lever for Republicans, (for the reasons mentioned above) and a couple of the most high profile ones are lechers. The moral panics issued by Democrats were deployed to erode support for Trump and Moore. That’s perfectly fair play in politics. But politics is a game and two can play at it. Progressives don’t want Evangelicals to actually vote by what they believe about sexual morality, they want them to lose and go away. Again, all’s fair here, (and the tactic may even work over the long-term) but nobody should be surprised when the people you’re trying to bait don’t take it. This is why Evangelicalism leads to Republicanism, because the GOP is the only party that, even in its presently dessicated state of perpetual moral torpor and hypocrisy, at least gestures toward their interests. It should not be this hard to grasp why Evangelicals vote the way they vote.

A couple of concluding thoughts:

My purpose in writing here is not to apologize for White Evangelical voting priorities. They may be the wrong ones, they may be disordered. My point is to ask why on earth commentators refuse to understand and judge White Evangelicals according to those priorities. Why opt for social structures, psychoanalysis, and long diatribes on the history of American anti-intellectualism when you can just ask how many votes you think your party’s support of Planned Parenthood will cost you? How much of a hit will you take if you support prosecuting civil rights cases against Christian nuns, bakers, and florists? The solution to all of this “analysis” is to just treat White Evangelicals as you do any other political movement: one that has a few discrete policy interests and voting priorities and you’ll either woo them by moderating your opposition to them or you will lose them by hardening it.

It may very well be that Evangelical Christians who profess to believe in God ought to put their faith and their morality above their politics and refuse to cooperate with those who profess to represent them. But it is worth remarking that if this is indeed the case–and I happen to think that it is–Evangelicals represent the only political coalition that this kind of noble political sacrifice is expected of. For any other identity group that complicates the righteous agenda of Our Party of Eschatological Hope, the answer is usually to give them a better deal. But in the case of Evangelicals, our best and brightest minds prefer to render contradictory judgments: that Evangelicals are both stupid and ought to know better. They have a different idea of what is good, but they should have voted by what we think is good. The bottom line is that they are Republicans and they ought to be Democrats. Well, how about giving them a single reason to switch sides?

It may also be that Christians who profess to believe in God ought to withhold their votes given egregious moral failings and refuse to enter into pacts with modern Pharaohs. But this is America where we were told from age 5 to 95 that to vote is a moral duty. The American creed is that to fail to vote means refusing one’s democratic birthright. For us, the only way to lose the game is not to play. Whether this is wrong or right is not at issue here. What is at issue is how you get voters who are going to stand in line to vote even if just to feel that rush of civic pride to pull the lever for your guy. For pretty much every other identity group, politicos and wonks understand that psychoanalyzing them and forcing them at rhetorical gunpoint to fall in line or go away is not a good strategy. But that’s apparently the only way to deal with the strange chimera that is the White Evangelical Voter.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>