In Cool Takes, S. D. Kelly offers a fresh reflection on hot topics by exploring the intersection of faith with high and low culture.
When it comes to religion, the cultural contrast between rural Ohio and suburban Massachusetts is as great as you might expect. I grew up in rural Ohio but have spent most of my adult life in suburban Massachusetts, one of the states in the Northeast with cities laying claim to the first nine spots of the Barna Group’s “most post-Christian cities in America”. This is one of those statistics that is easy to believe on an anecdotal level. In my community, admitting that one regularly attends church is fraught enough to seem confessional. I had one friend tell her husband in hushed tones that I had accidentally “come out” to her — her words — as a conservative. I don’t know which of us was more shocked: her husband or me. But for a person of faith, the benefits of living in a relatively secular place are many, chief of which is knowing people different from yourself. This has become especially meaningful during this contentious election cycle, which has demonstrated (in spades) the enormous disconnect between the secularism of my Northeast neighbors and the religiosity of my Midwestern home community.In the face of the prospect of being fed to lions, the specter of voting for Trump doesn’t seem so bad.
Experiencing this disconnect has been helpful in understanding why so many evangelicals support the candidacy of Donald Trump. Even if it wasn’t true during the primaries — during which many evangelicals preferred Cruz or even Carson — the reality is that evangelicals support Trump now. They are polling for Trump, and doing so in enormous numbers. At this point, many prominent evangelicals are doing more than just planning to vote for Trump: they are also writing sternly-worded blog posts, columns, and articles cajoling (or berating) other evangelicals to do the same. Hillary Clinton holds a place only slightly beneath Bill and slightly above the devil himself when it comes to the affection of conservatives, and for some evangelicals (a term conflated with conservatives here), it has become nothing short of a moral imperative to keep her out of the Oval Office. A vote for Trump is a vote for not-Hillary.
On a recent sojourn to the heart of it all, rural Ohio, I spent many long, tense minutes discussing the election with friends and family. The crux of the matter finally became apparent to me: a vast gulf exists between the way secular Americans see the role of evangelicals in our culture and the way evangelicals see their role in our culture. This chasm so great, it precludes even a shared language, making conversation about Trump himself, and his claim to the evangelical voting bloc, seemingly impossible.
The key difference between a secular American viewpoint and an evangelical viewpoint has to do with power: who holds it and who doesn’t. Speaking broadly, for a secular person, white Christianity is a hegemony, the cross as the mascot of dominant culture. Even the cultural gains that have been made in the arena of sexual politics would seem to support this: every pro-LGBT ordinance and law has been a victory agains the powerful political will of evangelicals, who continue to offer very vocal opposition to what many secular people consider, wrongly or not, to be basic human rights. The confusion over why gay marriage, for example, is such a big deal to evangelicals is very real indeed, with Christians playing the part of regressive obstructionists, the equivalent of the judge in the movie Footloose outlawing dancing based on a few Bible verses: some weird Christian version of Sharia law, and secularists playing the role of the reasonable adolescents who just want everyone to chill out and put on dance parties (or something — the analogy breaks down). So on one hand secular Americans watch Christians flip out over who can marry each other, because God’s idea of marriage matters so very much, and on the other hand they watch as Christians say they will vote for Trump, who has been married so many times.
To the non-Christian, Trump fails to demonstrate a single virtue that Christians claim to care about. Greed, infidelity, deception, even the inability to control his tongue, an example of a “fire, a world of iniquity” as found in the book of James if there ever was one. Trump epitomizes these qualities and more. So when prominent evangelicals sidle up to Trump, whether eagerly (like Jerry Falwell, Jr.) or resignedly (like the theologian Wayne Grudem), non-Christians are dumbfounded.
From where I stand, shoulder-to-shoulder with my secular neighbors, being dumbfounded makes a lot of sense. Why would evangelicals vote for a man like Trump who not only fails to demonstrate a basic understanding of the foundational ideas of Christianity (sin and redemption) but actively demonstrates opposition to the ethic of Christianity? “By their fruit ye shall know them” indeed. To a secular bystander, evangelical support for Trump can only be construed as a bid to cling to power, the last vestiges of white Christian hegemony in the face of Black Lives Matter and other assorted attempts marginalized people are making to storm the dais, so to speak. Christians are lashing themselves to the mast with this man, because he represents their last best hope to control American culture.
This is where it gets tricky, where the disconnect between the perceived and the perceiver really shows up. Because, far from seeing themselves as powerful, evangelicals perceive themselves to be the marginalized. If the dais is populated with the people in charge — in media, academia, entertainment, politics — from an evangelical perspective there practically isn’t a Christian in sight. Seeing themselves as utterly powerless, evangelicals struggle to navigate the current cultural waters. In the story of the bakers in Oregon who wouldn’t make a cake to celebrate a same-sex wedding, for instance, evangelicals and secularists simultaneously heard two opposing narratives: the one of a culturally-marginalized Christian experiencing persecution, and the other of a cultural powerbroker, a representative of hetero-normative dominant culture insisting on the right to discriminate. Not only do most evangelicals not believe they are the center of power, they consider themselves to be one wedding cake away from jail time. A few years ago, Alan Noble wrote powerfully in The Atlantic about the way evangelicals can “fetishize suffering” in perpetuating a persecution complex, an idea which resonates even more in this election cycle. The evangelical subculture is one steeped in the language of persecution, a framework that colors every public interaction.
Growing up, one of our favorite youth group games was called “Romans and Christians”. The kids were each given the role of a Roman or a Christian — no player knew which category any one else belonged to. We played at night, kids roaming around trying to identify friend or foe through the use of Christian code words and fish symbols as Romans forcibly rounded up Christians and sent them to jail, where two or three teenagers were gathered together, having already been captured, bravely singing hymns in the dark. The goal of the game was for the Christians to get to a Bible Study. Through stealth and courage, kids playing the Christians had to make their way to a secret spot where they would be rewarded with the reading of God’s Word and more secretive, whispered singing. It was strangely exhilarating: terrifying and exciting at the same time. The ensuing church service was the best I ever attended (not really, but close). The game was followed by sober testimonials from members of the youth group, professing to now having at least a small sense of the reality of persecution.
This is powerful stuff, and it is deeply ingrained into the identity of an evangelical. For some evangelicals, being a committed Christian is also a commitment to the possibility of statelessness: the perpetual panic that comes from being strangers in a strange land, a peculiar people. Culturally, the memory of low-church Protestants extends all the way back to first-century Christians; evangelicals remember the man-eating lions and the flames licking upward at the Coliseum as though it all happened yesterday. In short, evangelicals identify with the Puritans, not the Church of England. In the last few hundred years, America has offered respite for us, but we all know that could change at any moment, God forbid.
In light of this, a vote for Trump seems practically expedient, a way of staving off the darkness a little longer. No evangelical I know has illusions of Trump’s goodness, only that he seems to really like Christians, or at least evangelical voters, and will do what he can to make America a place where Christians can sit comfortably in their megachurches instead of being forced to dart, in secret, from place to place under cover of night just to study the bible.
Meanwhile, to many secular Americans, far from being forced into hiding, white Christians in America are the ones trying to force non-Christians to exist in the shadows — nearly every President since Washington has declared himself to be a Christian, which, to someone outside Christendom, would seem to place Christianity in the catbird seat when it comes to the uneasy marriage of religion and politics. I try to offer this perspective — plus a few weak reminders about the example of Jesus when it came to political power, the poor, and material success — to the pro-Trump evangelicals I know and am met with blank stares: the allure of the possibility of persecution is too strong. I try another tack: remember Jesus’ final words from Acts 1: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” I’ve tried to say that the news that the evangelical bloc is heavily in favor of Trump is damaging the church’s witness in the world, just about the most worrisome phrase one can say to an evangelical — people in a subculture where returning library books late could be construed as damaging one’s integrity as a Christian. Yet my plea, the equivalent of a nine-alarm fire in gospel-driven circles, falls on deaf ears.
In the face of the prospect of being fed to lions, the specter of voting for Trump doesn’t seem so bad. He may not be Constantine, evangelicals seem to be saying, but at least he’s not Nero. Remember Nero? He’s the guy who hated Christians, the one who burned down the city, blaming the Christians for the fire, inciting violence against them. We can’t have that happen again, whatever else may befall us, no matter what anyone watching may think as we exit the voting booth and head back out into the world.