This won’t be pleasant…but we need to talk about Donald Trump. A petty, childish, huckster with no political experience who retweets racists and makes arrogant, absurdist, pandering promises—and was until recently a Democrat and was pro-choice—has a comfortable lead in the presidential polls leading up to the GOP primaries. While most of us are tired of him and his charade and would rather pretend this is all a reality-TV prank in horrible taste, we have an obligation as a nation, as evangelicals, and as conservative evangelicals (for those of us who identify as such) to understand how this could happen—especially since Trump’s popularity among evangelicals has been a key to his success.
Already many sharp minds have offered explanations for Trump’s rise and continued dominance despite all predictions that he would fail (including my own—which I stand by). But I’d like to ask a more pressing question: What next? What does the future of evangelical political engagement look like post-Trump?
Trump’s appeal is that he tells many frustrated, scared, and defensive (mostly) white, middle and lower-class Americans what they want to hear: that the reason their lives aren’t better is because immigrants, Muslims, and the elitists in government have weakened our country, and he can make America (and their lives) Great Again, by force.People don’t support Trump because he would be good for the country; they support him because he’d be good for “me and my people.”
If we can’t understand this appeal then we cannot begin to offer an alternative; no matter how revolting we find Trump’s candidacy, many of his supporters are responding to deeply felt concerns, some of which are valid. The modern world is terrifying. We do feel impotent in the face of the global evil and suffering that modern media makes us hyperaware of. Maybe being helpless was okay for medieval serfs, but for individualist Americans living in a democracy where we define ourselves by our power to choose, powerlessness is terrifying. We need to know that we can do something.
And that’s what Trump promises to do: something. Specifically, something for white, middle and lower class Americans. He even recently went so far as to promise to give Christians “power” if he gets elected. In this way, his campaign is mirroring the identity politics of the left. People don’t support Trump because he would be good for the country; they support him because he’d be good for me and my people.
This kind of self-interested power shouldn’t be tempting to evangelicals. Our hope is in a sovereign God who overcomes the chaos and evil of our world, and our model is Christ, who denied Satan’s offer of power in exchange for submission. But just like the rest of society, we can get overwhelmed with fear, and the promise of secured power becomes more attractive when we are afraid.
Part of Trump’s appeal seems to be that his rhetoric is diametrically opposed to Obama’s. Obama negotiates, moves slowly, won’t call a mass shooting by a Middle Eastern man a “terrorist attack” until days after the event, and seems afraid to call radical Islamic terrorism “radical Islamic” terrorism. Then there was his so-called “apology tour” after his first election. Obama is perceived as soft and effeminate.
It’s true that Obama has sought to be conciliatory, at times perhaps to a fault. But the idea that Obama is weak is also the result of several conservative publications that consistently choose a bad faith reading of Obama’s strategies. In part because of the horrific persecution of Christians by radical Muslims across the world, evangelicals are very sensitive when our leaders respond to radical Islam with anything but a direct show of force, sometimes misinterpreting legitimate strategy for “weakness.”
For example, Obama’s reticence to call Islamic terrorism “Islamic” stems not from a spirit of “political correctness,” but a desire to undermine radical Islamic propaganda that the West is at war with Islam and therefore all Muslims. Admittedly, this strategy may not be the most effective way to address radical Islam (some major critics have argued that we need to identify terrorism as “Islamic” in order to encourage Islamic reform from within). But to suggest that Obama is too cowardly to call it what it is is to privilege web traffic over the duty to tell the truth.
The uncomfortable reality is that a sizable portion of the conservative media have actively and relentlessly pushed these exaggerated fears about our nation’s loss of identity, our apparent weakness, and the existential threats of immigration and Islam. In some cases, these outlets have spread outright lies, making up entire stories; but in most cases, it has been the relentless stacking of evidence and the promotion of demagogic voices that have had this effect. (Look at FOX News’s willingness to make Ann Coulter and Pamela Geller frequent guests, for example.) And evangelicals have sometimes joined in this fearmongering, as in the case of Todd Starnes’s reports on the “war” on Christianity or Franklin Graham’s calls to end Muslim immigration.
Make no mistake: There is big money in selling fear. And much to the shame of evangelical conservatives and conservatism broadly, we have been tolerant of this demagoguery for years as long as it suited our purpose. But in the end, it really hasn’t. Paranoia about Obama being a secret Kenyan Muslim working for the Muslim Brotherhood didn’t make our country better or safer; instead, it helped shape the imagination and desires of Republican primary voters who now believe that Cruz is ineligible to run for president and that we need to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it.
So let me say this again, because it is absolutely critical: Trump’s rise to political prominence is in large part the result of a failure on the part of mainstream conservatives to clean their own house—a failure that has led to a movement of conservatives, driven chiefly by paranoia and powerlessness, who latch on to the only candidate willing to fully pander to their fears. Which means that the way we fix this mess is not primarily by defeating Trump (although we pray for that, too!), but by beginning the hard work of showing a better way forward.
But this “better way forward” can’t just be for “us.” Conservative evangelical politics must reflect a desire for the good of all people. A politics for the good of our neighbors does not require us to turn a blind eye to problems in the name of standing up to “political correctness.” We don’t need worse vision; we need much better vision.
We don’t need to ignore the problems created by illegal immigration, for example; we need a more robust understanding of those problems and a more humane response. It is not enough only to acknowledge that the current system is profoundly broken and encourages the poor and helpless to risk their lives to come to this country illegally, encourages criminals to prey upon illegal immigrants who are too afraid to report abuse, and encourages companies to underpay their employees. We also must never lose sight of the fact that each immigrant is a human being striving to create a better life for themselves and their family, and that the violence, government corruption, poverty, and hopelessness immigrants are fleeing would drive many of us to risk our lives for the promise of America, too. Any immigration policy that sees immigrants primarily as a threat—or, even worse, an invading force of societal destruction—fundamentally denies the shared humanity of immigrants, and is therefore opposed to biblical teaching.Trump’s rise to political prominence is in large part the result of a failure on the part of mainstream conservatives to clean their own house.
Similarly, Trump’s brute-force approach dealing with radical Islam and elements like ISIS will not make the world or the US safer. Targeting Muslims just for being Muslim, banning them from our country, monitoring mosques, and going after the families of terrorists might sound like strength, but the consequences would be the loss of trust and help from the wider Muslim community and a dramatic rise in sympathies for ISIS. The better way forward is a cautious use of force, surveillance limited by just cause, and close work with Muslim leaders to help stop radicalism, promote reform, and encourage just, economic flourishing in the Middle East. These policies have in common a concern for the rights of American Muslims and the good of people in the Middle East in addition to our own security. Realistically, they won’t completely stop global terrorism; but they will give us the best chance to create stability, whereas brute force will undoubtedly create more chaos.
Related to both the immigration and radical Islam question is the fear that our nation is undergoing a profound change in its character—that soon all of our essential American virtues will be gone. This fear is particularly acute among evangelicals who have watched our country grow increasingly secular. The solution offered from characters like Ann Coulter and Donald Trump is to stop the flow of foreigners into the US, especially when they will not assimilate. A better conservative evangelical response is to recognize that our culture will not be saved by keeping out foreigners or forcing them to assimilate. It will be conserved through our mediating institutions. If we are worried about the loss of our culture, we would do better to look at how our churches are embodied in their communities than to rail against immigration. We’d do much better by supporting Christian schools that devote a significant portion of their space to underprivileged students (rather than acting as de facto segregation) than rail against the problems with foreigners flooding our schools. This political vision does not neglect our families, communities, or culture; rather, it adds to these good things a love and concern for the foreigner in our midst.
What is needed, then, is an intentional effort by conservative evangelical institutions to offer a better, truer, more just vision of our country. Conservative evangelicals need to holistically display this vision and teach the ways it can be pursued, not merely in our policies or think-tanks, but in all of our rhetoric: on our radio shows, in our campaigns, through our slogans. That vision must be defined not by the conservation of cultural Christianity, but through the active promotion of the good life for all citizens, the opportunity to flourish within communities, the unrolling of justice and uprooting of discrimination, and national humility.
Donald Trump isn’t going to be the next president. But we need to understand why so many evangelicals felt attracted to Trump so that in the next four years we can offer an alternative, more compelling vision of what America should be—one that addresses the challenges of immigration, racial tensions, and the lack of shared values clearly, but ultimately desires and pursues the good for everyone.
Image by DonkeyHotey via Flickr.