Earlier this year at a huge “Evangelicals for Trump” rally in Miami, Florida, a pastor welcomed the President by shouting a prayer that sounded like the introduction to a heavyweight title bout: “Lord I thank you,” he bellowed. “America did not need a preacher in the Oval Office, did not need a professional politician in the office. It needed a fighter and a champion for freedom and Lord that’s exactly what we have.” Cheers of adoration resounded.
This moment captured much of what is complex, confusing and disturbing about the highly politicised religious landscape of America today and the bearing it will have on the presidential election. Eighty-one per cent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and that figure looks like holding. That statistic is the accentuation of a pattern that has existed since the 1980s when an alliance emerged in the Republican Party between big business, populism and the religious right.
You can’t understand America without understanding its religion and that, you might say, is something of a riddle. The non-conformist origins of the US spawned a bewildering array of denominations and expressions of belief. Even the term “evangelical” means so many different things depending on who is using it. Traditionally it signified a devout faith that, as historian David Bebbington describes it, prioritises conversion, the Bible and a personal relationship with God. But in popular usage today it most often simply means “politically conservative Christian”.
The Republican Party has most successfully captured those who self-identify as evangelical. (That’s if the person is white. Black protestants, themselves often theologically conservative, reliably vote Democrat to the tune of nine to one). The widely held perception among believers is that the Democratic Party has become secularised to the point where there is no room for the specific commitments of religious adherents.
Andy Crouch, former editor of Christianity Today Magazine, a leading evangelical publication, believes the brutally contested nature of contemporary American politics signifies something much deeper than the surface issues surrounding presidential elections and the appointment of Supreme Court judges.
“The best word I can think of is respect or recognition,” he tells me. “The recognition of parts of our society that feel very unseen, or when seen, feel held in contempt … And the people who feel least respected and feel least included by the systems and institutions of American life … are looking for someone to validate them, and say, I see you. I recognise you. You matter.” Crouch says this is by no means limited to religious people but says all kinds of groups who feel left behind in American life are looking for someone in their corner.
When it comes to evangelicalism as a cultural and historical movement, Kristen Kobes Du Mez, author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation believes this desire for a strong leader to offer protection and power has led to a distorted faith that favours rugged masculinity, of the John Wayne-type, alongside a misplaced Christian nationalism. “Love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek” can start to sound a bit awkward in such an environment. “Jesus becomes the warrior Christ and he’s going to slay his enemies,” says Du Mez. “And so they actually change the Jesus of the gospels to fit this ideal and in doing so, I argue, change Christianity itself.”
A figure like Donald Trump fits perfectly the image of tough masculine protector uninhibited by virtues of kindness or self-control.
But not all believers buy it. Christians against Trumpism and Political Extremism is a recently birthed movement of influential Christian leaders who are calling for an end to the poisonous rhetoric and “extreme and dangerous methods of civic engagement” they see as characteristic of the current administration. The movement says it stands against political extremism of both “left” and “right” that uses “violence, chaos and degrading language”, seeking instead justice, truth and unity.
Christianity at its best centres on its founder who defied easy categorisation.
Amy Black, professor of political science at Wheaton College in Illinois, the former college of Billy Graham, points to the cross of Christ as the ultimate act of sacrificial love that she says should confound the politics of self-interest no matter which party you support.
“Christian faith … [is] about what’s best for the marginalised, what’s best for the oppressed, what’s best for my neighbour, what’s best for my community? … When we apply that to politics it gives us a very different prism through which to think about issues and … make our decisions.”
It remains to be seen exactly what role religious communities will play in the election. But Christianity at its best centres on its founder who defied easy categorisation – being socially conservative and politically radical, as he was. The American church would do well to remember Jesus as less a “prize fighter for my interests” and more a clarion call and inspiration to live for others.
Simon Smart is the executive director of the Centre for Public Christianity and co-presenter of an historical documentary, For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined.
This article first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.