Everyone in the world knows – or thinks they know – that American evangelical Christians are purveyors of industrial scale hypocrisy. They have more sex with a greater range of partners than David Bowie in his pomp. Jimmy Swaggert. Ted Haggard. Jim Bakker. The dozens – literally dozens – of lesser names committing fraud and adultery and drug crimes and sometimes all of these things in one afternoon.
And now look at them all fawning over Donald Trump, the foul-mouthed, pussy-grabbing pagan president.
And be filled with righteous contempt; file this love-in under ‘evangelicals doing what evangelicals always do’ … and move on to more interesting topics?
The world has tended to. But brilliantly and thoughtfully, in the audio documentary and in articles across this site, the mapping of a more subtle view of the white evangelicals’ love for Trump has begun.
It needs to be said loud and clear: white American evangelical Christians are not all hypocrites. Again and again, in my many years reporting around the USA for the BBC, I met evangelicals who were not just decent people but committed to helping and loving those around them. I had no personal brief for them – I am an atheist – but in soup kitchens, in prisons, in places where most Americans do not go, I met them and talked to them and came to admire them. They believe things and live by them and those values led them to pull the lever for Trump and, mostly, not regret it.
Faith, after all, is about belonging and culture as much as actual religious prescriptions and proscriptions. Sometimes, indeed, it is about little else. On the other things: the actual teaching on abortion, or homosexuality, or the right balance of distributional justice, some evangelical Americans have very strong views, but it’s their sense of community – of ties to one another – that create the strongest feelings.
So with that in mind let us revisit 2016. Was it so strange or hypocritical for white evangelicals to vote as they did? As Michael Wear – a former adviser to Barack Obama on faith – says in the documentary, they found in Donald Trump a candidate, “who was not cut from their cloth but who nevertheless insisted that he was the one to protect them that he’d be a bully for them.”
And boy they felt they needed a bully. It is difficult to over-emphasise the degree of dripping disdain that trendy metrosexual citizen-of-nowhere America has for these rubes. The smugness of the liberal elite who have been telling Americans what they can and cannot say, what they can and cannot believe, how their bathrooms should be labelled, how their lives should be led; that smugness is matched only by condescension. In news coverage from the main networks. In comedy shows. In academic commentary.
They felt they were done for if Clinton won. Nothing they valued would be valued any more.
The one thing every evangelical knew (and it was true) was that a new Supreme Court Justice needed to be chosen, and probably a second as well before the end of an eight-year presidential term. This would (will) alter the balance of the court and as such it would change the social mores of the nation. Perhaps forever. In these terms, 2016 just wasn’t a difficult choice. In fact I slightly differ with those in the documentary who express surprise that the religiously literate Hillary Clinton did not do more to woo white evangelicals. I think, deep in the heart of her soulless, joyless, data-driven campaign, they knew these voters were lost. Even those who had voted Democrat as recently as 2012. As Michael Wear points out in the documentary:
“Barack Obama won 26 or 27% [of white evangelicals] in 2008; he won 23% in 2012 as the first major candidate to support gay marriage after the Catholic Church had accused him of a war on religion …. Hillary Clinton won 7 points less which accounts for millions of votes.”
What made the difference between 2012 and 2016? It was the Supreme Court: that single fact that candidate Trump promised to appoint a conservative justice was enough to swing it for a huge number of evangelicals. They felt – quite rightly I think – that they were about to be cut out of the place where all the long-term decisions are made that reflect America’s sense of itself. Justice Scalia, the conservative whose death caused the vacancy, had been their spokesman. He had often lost, but as Peggy Noonan of the Wall St Journal had noted:
“With his fierce dissents Scalia helped people accept decisions with which they disagreed. At least our view is spoken. At least it’s respected by someone.”
Flattening, or being ready to flatten your opponents is never a good look in a democracy. It can come back to bite you. As it did with Trump. Arguably it did in the UK with immigration concerns too quickly conflated with racism and dismissed as such.
But having made the mistake, do the Democrats have the intellectual and political flexibility to learn from the catastrophe of 2016? Or do they just wait? Sitting it out, assuming that demography is still on their side.
The second of those options is deeply dangerous. On a trip to Texas last year I was struck by how vocal many Hispanic people were about why they had not voted for Hillary Clinton, or had done so with misgivings. Almost always those misgivings were about social liberalism. Hispanics are indeed the coming wave in American politics – they may well make up 30% of the population by 2050 – and one day that wave will break. But how? Can anyone be sure about how these people will vote? Demography is unclear destiny.
So how about good old compromise? Big church stuff. Run firebrand socialists in San Francisco but keep the gun-friendly candidates in Montana. Find a presidential candidate who can knit them together. And Bob – and Billy Joe – is your uncle.
Ah: would that it were so simple. The problem is so much deeper than running from the centre. You have to be there. You have to walk the walk. And that walk needs to appeal not just to the white evangelicals but more widely to others who feel that America is leaving them behind.
I sat on a porch last year in the tiny Texas town of Luling, famous locally for its watermelon pip spitting competition. Luling was once the toughest town in Texas, made rich by railways, then by oil, but now left behind by both. And what comes next? Nothing. The modern economy and the media outlets that reflect modern values are all based miles from Luling. There is huge wealth in America and huge energy but none of it is coming to Luling or a thousand towns like it. For me it’s the biggest question in modern American politics: how do you knit together a nation in an age where nothing needs to be local.
Answering that question – or having a go – will take the Democrats back to the people of Luling and they’ll hoover up some evangelicals on the way. Repent! Atone! And, in 2020 or 2024, win…