Trump’s appeal to evangelicals has been vastly overstated, but it does exist. How could a Biblically illiterate, philandering New York billionaire all of a sudden come to represent evangelical Christians’ best hope for turning the culture around? Well, he doesn’t, but his evangelical support does not reveal political cynicism. Trump reflects, through the crazy mirror of his singular personality, a tale evangelicals routinely tell themselves.
Ross Douthat wrote a column last year criticizing evangelicals’ tendency to throw their hopes for a political future in with a single Presidential candidate, whose life story reflects the salvific narrative they preach. Since Christ saves our souls from death through a dramatic act of salvation, then the plan to save of our nation must also include a similarly dramatic event: the election of a Christian candidate to the Presidency. It matters little how likely the candidate’s chances are, since salvation by grace is the most unlikely thing imaginable: a miraculous, supernatural salvation offered from an all-powerful God to an undeserving creature. That candidate’s credibility only increases if he has a “Pauline” history of sinfulness before his conversion who can speak to an unbelieving world from a position of experience. Ben Carson’s conversion from abortion doctor to Pro-Life activist is the very template of this narrative and it explains the support he enjoys from evangelical voters. His bizarre personality and complete inexperience as an officeholder only increases support since God routinely chooses the most unlikely people to represent him.
Donald Trump, it should go without saying, does not claim this grace, but parts of his persona and appeal, strike a similar outline to the preferred evangelical candidate. Here they are as I see them:
Trump is powerful. As I mentioned before, evangelicals rarely display the realism required for strategic political thinking over the long term. They tend to throw in with a single great man with a plan for the nation’s salvation. Trump is nothing like a Christian, but he does pass himself off as a great man. His populist slogan on his signature red hats, “Big Guy for You” probably harmonizes with the prosperity gospel picture of God that still holds currency in some evangelical circles. It is a perennial religious temptation to think that God is nothing but the big guy on the side of little people like you? Trump doesn’t claim God, but he sure acts as though he has his power. How easy it is to imagine him reversing American culture’s turn toward impiousness and secularism with a sweep of his porky hand! “When I am President all department stores will say Merry Christmas!” Trump claims. Never mind how a sitting President could accomplish this. All we need is a miracle.
Trump is a convert. Not a convert to Christianity mind you, but at least a convert away from the progressivism and cultural liberalism that are so dismissive of evangelicals and their beliefs. Trump’s appeal in this regard goes beyond his usefulness as an ally against ascendant progressive social dogma. Evangelicals respond to conversion stories. Though it’s not terribly clear what Trump has converted to, it is clearly enough for some evangelical voters that he has at least turned away from the world that has turned away from them.
Trump is immodest. By definition, evangelicals lack modesty. Since their worldview turns on the bold proclamation of eternal truths, modesty and circumspection are virtues that evangelicals find little use for. Trump’s abandonment of modesty even beyond the regular self aggrandizement we have come to expect from politicians’ constant self-promotion may be just the thing that has struck a chord with particularly frustrated evangelicals. Politeness and political correctness are human inventions. God is grandeur. Now, evangelicals are some of the humblest people you will meet. I won’t argue with that, since it is empirically true. But modesty and humility are not the same things. One important objection is that Trump is neither humble nor modest. This too is empirically verifiable. But it is possible that evangelicals, energized by the lack of modesty to the may ignore his lack of humility. This goes down easier since Trump is, of course, not a Christian. How much virtue can we really expect from the guy until he is properly converted? We’re all saved from arrogance by grace. Trump’s name on the roll call up yonder just hasn’t been written yet.
Evangelicals’ political witness is very often hobbled by applying the Christian narrative of supernatural salvation to the political realm in our present age. This is also the reason that many evangelicals, when they pay attention to politics, go through cycles of elation and despair, expecting the kingdom to come through one candidate or another (not always from the GOP) and then being so disappointed when the second coming is put off another four years that they start quoting Haerwaus and pondering withdrawal from politics altogether. This kind of oscillation is a recipe for making little political gains of any kind. A constituency without interest in the push and pull of politics–whether they be “as usual” or no–should not expect to see their interests advanced. If evangelicals could more on the process than their people, we might just get some things done and avoid the absurdity of considering joining hands with nasty, impious demagogues like Trump. “Trust not in princes.” It’s good politics.