I’ve spent the better part of the last decade studying how Americans understand, use, and fight over competing visions of history. These culture wars have dominated our discourse about schools, students, knowledge, and our very identity as Americans. The Trumpening upended some of the traditional narratives on the topic– though I would note that these static impressions of what it meant to be liberal or conservative in modern America were very flawed in the first place. Some seek to reconcile how the values voters could have so enthusiastically supported the most morally suspect candidate in the modern era (evangelicals supported Trump at a greater rate than they had any prior presidential candidate). A few on the right see this as a triumph that will let Trump and his conservative supporters rollback the gains of liberalism in the political and cultural sphere over the last fifty years. But a more accurate historical reading on Trump’s rise would be to see it as the death throes of a very particular type of White Christian American culture: the 20th-century conservative evangelical.
Robert Jones, founder and CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, recently wrote a book outlining this decline and published excerpts of it in The Atlantic this month. His penultimate and closing paragraphs lay out the essence of his argument:
White evangelicals have entered a grand bargain with the self-described master dealmaker, with high hopes that this alliance will turn back the clock. And Donald Trump’s installation as the 45th president of the United States may in fact temporarily prop up, by pure exertions of political and legal power, what white Christian Americans perceive they have lost. But these short-term victories will come at an exorbitant price. Like Esau, who exchanged his inheritance for a pot of stew, white evangelicals have traded their distinctive values for fleeting political power. Twenty years from now, there is little chance that 2016 will be celebrated as the revival of White Christian America, no matter how many Christian right leaders are installed in positions of power over the next four years. Rather, this election will mostly likely be remembered as the one in which white evangelicals traded away their integrity and influence in a gambit to resurrect their past.
Meanwhile, the major trends transforming the country continue. If anything, evangelicals’ deal with Trump may accelerate the very changes it was designed to arrest, as a growing number of non-white and non-Christian Americans are repulsed by the increasingly nativist, tribal tenor of both conservative white Christianity and conservative white politics. At the end of the day, white evangelicals’ grand bargain with Trump will be unable to hold back the sheer weight of cultural change, and their descendants will be left with the only real move possible: acceptance.
Indeed, conservative evangelicals have made a deal with the devil. They agreed to ignore Donald Trump’s clear opposition to Biblical principles and teachings in his personal life, professional behaviors, and public policy positions in exchange for power. Namely, the power to stop the changes to American culture. Replacing morals with realpolitik, in a way that would have made even Nixon blush, they gave up their principles in exchange for the power to stop immigration, to fight against the residence of Muslim people and the practice of the Islamic faith, to “secure the rights” of evangelical churches (and to undermine the rights of other faiths, including non-conservative or evangelical forms of Christianity), and control of the Supreme Court (in the hopes that they will impose from the bench a sweeping change to the legal status of abortion). The thought process was clear (and stated openly by many evangelical leaders, like Jeffress, Graham, and Fawell): whatever it takes to achieve power is worth it if it will allow us to reverse the losses of the last half-century.
Jones is right to say that this Faustian bargain may well accelerate the demise of WCA– their ugly nativism, naked racism, and “we finally get to thumb our noses at you” attitude are noxious to the ever growing number of non-whites, non-Christians, and non-conservatives in the country. But it is bigger than that. This deal with Trump is just the latest and most dramatic attempt by the evangelical right to fight against something it never understood. The entire identity of “conservative Christians” in the late 20th and early 21st century is one of evangelical faith applied as a veneer over a southernized version of modern popular culture.
I won’t get into all the details of this claim here– it is the 4th of July, I haven’t written in months due to work/life, and I have a much bigger project I am working on regarding this subject– but the gist of it is this: evangelical leaders sell a version of Christianity that focuses little on the words and deeds of Christ, instead preferring to offer an identity based on conservative political goals wrapped in the flag, drenched in cheap beer, and serenaded by country music (with UFC, NASCAR, or the NFL on tv in the background).
That isn’t to say there are no true believers. There are. I’ve known many since my birth. I’ve met many others in my work at seminaries and schools across this nation. Even some of the leadership– both in church and in politics– believe in it. Many others do not. There are clear opportunist among them. The fabulous fortunes and the personal fame they have captured tell that story very clearly. But the masses, that 81% of evangelicals who rallied to support Donald Trump, most assuredly do not. And they never have.
They believe in fried chicken and cold beer. They believe in big guns and bigger trucks. And they believe in Donald Trump.
Misunderstanding or misrepresenting who their people really were and what they really wanted is why the conservatives lost the culture war so badly. They used cultural change, from the arts to our demographics, as a way to keep people in the flock, while ignoring their own contributions to developing modern culture. Damn those godless hippies and their rock and roll. Hey, it’s July 4th– let’s play “Born in the USA” on the radio! Immigration is undermining Christian values. Can we order Chinese for this week’s Bible study? Liberals are destroying America with their concept of relativism. Donald Trump isn’t that immoral if you are comparing him to Hillary.
These hypocrisies are deeply encoded to modern evangelical life. They elected Donald Trump and lost the culture war. And no number of travel bans, impossibly stupid border walls, damaging trade tariffs, or insipid tweets from our commander-in-chief can reverse it. The continued cultural “slide” away from “traditional” or Biblical values is inevitable because white Christian evangelicals have been in on it the whole time. And nothing Trump or Robert Jeffress can say or do will make a damn bit of difference.
They won’t change people’s reading habits. Interesting works of fiction that challenge our preconceptions and make striking commentary about the world around us will continue to fill the shelves of our bookstores and libraries– real or virtual. They won’t make the public abandon “liberal Hollywood” in favor of Kirk Cameron’s latest cinematic abortion. Professors in science and history won’t wake up tomorrow and stop teaching evolution or the importance and hellishness of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in favor of creationism and the myth that slavery was relatively unimportant to the development of America (and slaves had it pretty good anyways!). Taylor Swift won’t be putting out a string of albums of her favorite hymns (though I’m sure she could sell the shit out of that too). Bro-country musicians won’t stop writing songs about getting drunk and hooking up with young girls in the back of their trucks. This culture we share– high and low– wasn’t foisted upon you by liberals and isn’t going away anytime soon. Moral relativism, crass consumerism, mass consumption, greed, sex, and violence seem here to stay.
We have all the proof we’ll ever need. This culture gave us Donald Trump.
This culture is dying. Good riddance. A new culture forged in the experiences of a new millennium awaits. It looks like a future that will be less interested in fighting over people’s sexual habits or place of birth. Greater gender and racial equality seem likely to be on the agenda. As will freedom of religion– for all faiths. There is a place in this new culture for religious values– the enormous numbers of young people who identify as “spiritual, but not religious” underscores this claim– but there will be little space for the rank hypocrisy of the modern evangelical movement. Christianity will have to better adapt if it wants to remain relevant. It will have to show the next generation what it’s value add is. My advice to these churches– start preaching more about the words and deeds of Jesus Christ. Care for the poor (locally), regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or creed. Stop trying to impose your supposed traditional life on others and get back to living your Biblical values in both the public and private sphere. If you don’t, you won’t just face losing control of this country (you already have). You risk extinction.