Many folks have been scratching their heads over conservative evangelicals’ strange attraction to Donald Trump.
After all, Trump is a twice-divorced tycoon who appeared in a Playboy soft-porn video, claims that he doesn’t need to ask God for forgiveness, and has a notoriously shaky command of the Bible. He seems an unlikely choice for evangelicals, to put it mildly. Yet they continue to back him even after video surfaced of Trump boasting about committing adultery and sexual assault.
Another possibility came to mind recently when the Observer tasked me with checking out The Gathering, a slickly-produced televised revival that brought together some of the leading lights of evangelical Christianity. Held in mid-September at the sprawling Gateway Church in the Fort Worth suburb of Southlake, the event offered a revealing glimpse into the horrors that haunt the conservative evangelical mind: reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, LGBT equality and secularism. In other words, the same Culture Wars bugbears that have bedeviled conservative evangelicals since the 1970s.
Though presented as non-political, The Gathering demonstrated how effectively the evangelical myth of a fallen America links up with Trump’s own dystopian fearmongering.
Judging from the online simulcast, Gateway’s 4,000-seat sanctuary was mostly filled. The speakers were a diverse lot — men and women, African-Americans, Hispanics and whites. The audience, however, looked to be overwhelmingly white.
While the slogan was never mentioned, a Trumpian “Make America Great Again” theme pervaded the speeches and prayers. Speaker after speaker suggested that America has fallen from some earlier, unspecified state of faithfulness and blessedness. According to a recent study, 72 percent of white evangelicals think America has changed for the worse since the 1950s — the era that preceded Selma, second-wave feminism, Roe v. Wade and Stonewall.
Kay Arthur of Precept Ministries International prayed aloud in a cracking voice as if on the verge of tears, confessing to the Almighty that “Immorality in all its deviant forms has become normal.” Southern Evangelical Seminary president Richard Land, a member of Trump’s Evangelical Executive Advisory Board, described an American landscape “littered with the casualties of moral relativism and political correctness and licentiousness and idolatry and self-worship.”
The climax of the evening came when Fort Worth televangelist and Trump advisor James Robison stepped to the podium. Robison launched headlong into a dark account of godless, secularist America. He complained that everything “precious” has been “redefined”: “marriage redefined, sexuality is redefined, gender is redefined, and human life is expendable and no longer precious.” Though Robison declared that America’s hope lies not in a candidate or a party, but only “in the principles of the word of God,” the message was clear: Christians must stop being “politically correct” and begin restoring America to the “biblical” path.
In other words: Make America Christian again.
Here’s where conservative white evangelicals and Trump intersect. It’s not so much a convergence on issues — Trump has been inconsistent on LGBT equality and same-sex marriage and on abortion. Instead, they converge around a vision of restoring a fallen America.
A 2015 Public Religion Research Institute study showed that 60 percent of white evangelical Protestants believe that America’s best days are behind us. (Majorities of Catholics, black Protestants, non-Christians and religiously unaffiliated Americans disagree.) Indeed, Trump’s view of America is as bleak as that of any of the speakers at The Gathering. His Cleveland acceptance speech painted a gloomy picture of an America where the economy is tanking, homicides are on the rise and over 180,000 illegal immigrants are “roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens.”
No wonder white conservative evangelicals gravitate to Trump: He, too, sees a fallen America. He’s speaking their language.
Rooted in beliefs about the utter depravity of humankind, this pessimistic view of America has a long pedigree among evangelicals. As far back as the early 1800s, Connecticut preacher Lyman Beecher complained that “irreligion” was spreading across the young nation; he worried about drunkenness and failure to observe the Sabbath. Even in the supposedly “good ol’ days” of the 1950s, evangelicals obsessed about saving America from internal subversion by “godless Communism” and its (liberal) fellow travelers.
However dubious those earlier concerns may have been, conservative evangelicals may have legitimate cause to fret these days. Americans are moving away from traditional attitudes about marriage and sexuality that evangelicals consider “biblical.” And America’s religious landscape has become much more diverse in recent decades.
Yet the doom-and-gloom scenario painted by Robison and other Gathering speakers is overblown. Contrary to dire warnings by conservative Christians, same-sex marriage and civil unions have had no negative effect on opposite-sex marriage. Christianity continues to be overwhelmingly dominant in the United States, the faith of just over 70 percent of Americans. True, the number of religious “nones” has risen to 23 percent. But Christianity is in no danger of dying out anytime soon. And its influence on politics and government (especially here in Texas) is as great as ever.
Yet even at The Gathering, there were signs that some evangelicals are looking beyond the tired old Culture Wars obsessions to the real sins that confront us all.
Near the end of the evening, John K. Jenkins Sr., an African-American pastor from Maryland, took the podium. He spoke plainly and forthrightly about the dangers of “Driving While Black.” He told of being pulled over by a police officer on a Sunday morning while on his way to church. Jenkins knew the reason: “I was a black male, driving a nice car, in a neighborhood that I should not have been in.” Situations like this, he said, are “repeated every day in our country,” and it’s “creating a mounting level of rage and discontent and worry.” And, he told the audience, “the church has stood silently with little or no action or comment.”
This drew a smattering of applause from the mostly white congregation; they seemed as surprised as I was to hear this message in this context. “While the world accepts racial disharmony, the church must not,” Jenkins declared. “We know how to interpret Greek and Hebrew, but we don’t know how to communicate in English with somebody who doesn’t look just like us.”
By the time he ended his remarks, the audience had recovered from its surprise (and perhaps discomfort), and Jenkins left the stage to warm applause — though not the cheers that followed Robison’s screed. Thousands of conservative evangelicals had just heard — some, perhaps, for the first time — the personal witness of a black man who had come face to face with the fact of institutionalized racism.
Maybe that witness isn’t enough to turn conservative evangelicals away from the siren song of culture warriors like Robison or demagogues like Trump. But it’s a start.