While on the campaign trail in August 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump spoke to an auditorium full of evangelical pastors in Orlando. Over the course of the roughly 30-minute speech, he touched on topics from Secretary Hillary Clinton’s emails to the job market, but he spoke most passionately about Christianity in America and its supposed decline. He said to the crowd, “You’ve been silenced like a child. You’ve been silenced, you’ve been silenced. Strong, brilliant, great people that want to do the right thing.” In the same speech, true to character, he bragged about ditching the professionally written speech for the event, claimed to have a heart as big as “almost” anyone in the room, and stated that “nobody’s gotten rich by betting against Donald Trump.”
Since the middle of the 20th century, Midwesterners have prioritized moral character when evaluating politicians and presidential candidates. Most of this is driven by religion—the Bible is still an authority in the homes of millions of Midwesterners, and evangelism, the most right-leaning sect of Christianity, thrives in Midwestern states like Indiana, South Dakota, and Missouri. Driven by faith, these people feel morally obligated to vote for those who promise to uphold traditional family values.
That changed in 2016. Many of those who had voted for composed politicians like Governor Mitt Romney and Senator John McCain cast their ballots for Donald Trump, a man garish in speech and behavior. Eighty-one percent of evangelical Christians voted for him, and his approval rating among them is 28 percent higher than the national average. White Catholics, which comprise relatively large percentages of states like Nebraska and Wisconsin, supported him at nearly 60 percent. How could the same base, and the same party, reconcile its longstanding values with Trump’s obvious affront to traditional conservative morality? How could they embrace someone so antithetical to Christ—a rich man who plates his personal home in gold and admits to groping women?
Trump’s evangelical following shouldn’t be so surprising—in fact, it makes a lot of sense. His evangelical followers’ unquestioning worship is mirrored by their religious practices; like God, Trump embodies a complete authority. Moreover, evangelicals are used to defending their values and beliefs without hard evidence. When Trump says he’ll build the wall, but doesn’t explain how, or promises he’ll defeat ISIS, but won’t offer more details, his opponents hear a man spewing empty promises. But evangelicals, well-trained in putting their faith in a higher power, overcome the difficulty of believing him.
Their faith changes how they approach objectivity, too. Whether from a fake news site or Trump’s mouth, evangelicals accept lies about the country or other leaders because they feel true. There is no way to prove that the Bible is actually the word of God. But Christians, especially the most devoted of them, have faith that it is. Their religion is not based in logic—it’s based in emotional truths they’ve learned to accept.
Evangelicals’ willingness to defend Trump solely because he is Christian makes intuitive sense, but this phenomenon is actually a reflection of changing religious norms. Zack Hunt, a writer and Yale Divinity School graduate, blames widespread misinterpretation of “sola fide” for evangelical Christians’ acceptance of Trump. “Sola fide,” the battle cry of the Protestant Reformation, promises salvation by faith alone. People are no longer required to do good deeds or treat others with kindness; all that matters is resignation to the faith. It doesn’t matter that Trump is a wealth-flaunting braggart and adulterer; all that matters is his verbal, superficial acceptance of Christianity. Entirely alienated from altruism and no longer burdened by the need to behave well in order to get to heaven, evangelical Christians’ support of Trump moves forward freely.
But the most magnetic aspect of Trump’s identity may be the perceived estrangement from society he and evangelicals share. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, evangelicals cite Trump’s role as a “political outsider” as the number two reason for their support. They feel threatened in a country that becomes less religious each year. Their beliefs are scrutinized near constantly. They’re sick of being picked on, and Trump’s unapologetic response to criticism causes them to identify with and admire him.
Their suppressed anger finds solace in Trump’s crude tweets and responses to those that insult him. Though undeniably un-Christlike, he embodies an attitude evangelicals wish they could voice themselves. Trump’s capitalization on this weakness effectively solicits their support; he not only reminds them that they’ve been ostracized, but states that he has been too. But as we have already seen during his first 10 months in office, the symbiotic relationship between Trump and his evangelical constituency is only destructive to the rest of us.
Kelsey R. Thomas ’20 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.