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In their own words: conversations with Trump-supporting Christians

by
13 December 2019

Angela Denker tells Madeleine Davies about encounters that surprised her

ALAMY

A billboard in Roggen, Colorado, August 2018

A billboard in Roggen, Colorado, August 2018

WHEN Robert Peston asked the Archbishop of Canterbury about Christian support for President Donald Trump in 2017, his response was incomprehension: “I really genuinely do not understand where that is coming from” (News, 1 December 2017).

Before and since that interview, much ink has been spilled attempting to explore this alliance, which goes beyond the 81 per cent of white Evangelicals who voted for the President to encompass 60 per cent of white Roman Catholics and 26 per cent of Hispanic Catholics (Features, 10 November 2017).

But, for the Revd Angela Denker, a sports journalist turned Lutheran pastor, something niggled: a sense that too much reporting skimmed the surface, sought out the most extreme voices, and failed to engage with the part played by churches in communities.

In her book Red State Christians: Understanding the voters who elected Donald Trump, she notes that her subject has been stereotyped as “a backward lot — uninformed, out of touch, and uncaring about the broader world, beyond their congregations and rural enclaves, clinging to their guns and religion, a basket of deplorables”. The truth, she suggests, “is quite different”.

To explore this truth, she spent most of 2018 crossing the United States, visiting many of the “reddest” (Republican-voting) states, but also taking in megachurches in Orange County, a vast pro-life march in Washington, DC, Fourth of July celebrations in Dallas, and a trip across the border to Mexico.

“All across America, people are doing surprising things that don’t fit into our prescribed boxes,” she writes. “Evangelicals are not a monolith . . . and Red State Christians defy categorisation.”

 

SPEAKING from her home in Minneapolis, Denker describes a three-fold motivation for writing the book.

“The first one was my reporting past and my deep call and desire to tell people’s stories in their own words,” she tells me. “I felt like that really hadn’t been happening with telling the stories of Christian Trump voters.

“Another motivation was my role as a pastor, and just my sense that, in neglecting to teach the story of Jesus among American Christians, we have enabled this trend of Christian nationalism to take place, where people understand patriotism and being a good American much more than they understand the story of Jesus.”

The third motive was personal: “My in-laws and some of my extended family members were really strong Trump supporters. Even though they had been Republicans, it sort of surprised me how much they became enamoured with Trump and attended the rallies, and had hats. I wanted to start a conversation that people could use within their own families as well.”

Her tour began with the pro-life March for Life, reported to have brought 100,000 marchers to Washington, DC, in January 2018. In her account, she describes how, for many Red State Christians, “voting with gritted teeth for Trump, their decision came down to a simple, heartfelt belief: he will save the Supreme Court.” It was a means not only to overturn Roe v. Wade (the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling which legalised abortion in all 50 states), but to “build a bulwark against a liberal Court”.

During the march, Denker found some of her expectations challenged. She was accompanied by a grandmother from Maryland, Pam Nicholson, a first-time marcher who had arrived at her pro-life convictions later in life, “not by politics or culture but rather by introspection, prayer, and Bible study”. Ms Nicholson’s ambivalence towards Mr Trump — she had not voted for him — was echoed by other marchers: Denker spotted just five “MAGA” (Make America Great Again) hats during the day.

The opening prayer at the march denounced racism, oppression, and hatred as “the tearing of the tunic”, and, when writing up the day later, Denker found herself struggling to use the word “foetus” rather than “unborn baby”.

“Even for a feminist Christian, I found it difficult to argue with the movement’s rhetoric,” she writes. “The pro-lifers were doing their darnedest to be a positive, family-friendly movement.” It was later in the day that she encountered “horrifying graphic posters of aborted foetuses”.

Today, she argues that failure to articulate how a pro-life position might align with voting for a Democratic candidate is a “major weakness” of the Democrats.

“I watched the Democratic primary debate last night, and I noticed that, when they talked about abortion . . . even somebody like Elizabeth Warren, who’s from the Bible Belt . . . [and] was a Sunday school teacher, she didn’t seem to know how to talk about abortion in a way that might invite Christians who are pro-life to consider how their pro-life position might fit with the Democrat Party,” she tells me.

“I think that we can find ways, as a country, to support women while still talking about some of the horrors of abortion, even though that might be the right choice for some women. I think we also need to be more balanced in how we talk about abortion, to invite religious voters to consider a wider path.”

 

ONE of her observations during the January march was that the Red State Christians she met had “taken on the mantle of ‘deplorables’, and they knew that people were looking down on them. So they wanted to stand up and be counted.”

In a later chapter, she contrasts Mr Trump’s 2016 visit to Altoona, Pennsylvania, when he promised to stand up for American jobs, with a gala held by Hillary Clinton in New York, at which she suggested that “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the ‘basket of deplorables’.”

PAPresident Donald Trump listens to Paula White during a dinner for Evangelical leadership at the White House, August 2018

The “fatal” Democratic mistake, Denker suggests, was “misunderstanding and underestimating the Christian antipathy towards Hillary Clinton. More than guns, abortion, gay rights, small government — the Red State Christians I spoke to across the country were unified more in their hatred of Hillary than in any other way.”

Many Red Christians, she suggests, see their relationship with President Trump in “transactional” terms: he is “tolerated” rather than adored. She identifies a “ruthless pragmatism. . . Red State Christians were more afraid of losing than they were afraid of Trump.” One voter told their pastor that after voting for Mr Trump, “I took a shower.”

But Mr Trump also ignited an “identity-based vote”, Denker tells me, and now enjoys a solid base of people for whom being a Trump supporter is “a more important part of their identity than being a Christian, than being a Republican”.

 

A SIGNIFICANT component of the book Red State Christians is an analysis of Christian nationalism. Denker’s contention is that, not long ago, Americans spoke a shared language. She points to John Cougar Mellencamp’s 1983 song “Small Town” (“Ain’t that America, home of the free”), played at both Republican and Democrat events. Today, she writes, Red State Christians consider their country to be one “under siege. . . Churches today must defend not just Jesus, but also America. . .

“They want to be the ones who get to define what America is, and, for them, it must be conservative, and it must be Christian. Otherwise the country — and their Christian faith — will utterly collapse.”

It is this “new civic religion” of Christian nationalism, “with its unique blend of nostalgia, plus a little misogyny and dog-whistle race politics on the side” — which President Trump has been able to tap into, she suggests.

During her research, she met critics of Christian nationalism within the Southern Baptist Convention, including Dean Inserra, the founder of City Church, Tallahassee, who warned that, for many in the denomination, “their entire faith is built on being a proud American. If you take that away from them, it shakes their whole faith.”

But she also met religious leaders who were instilling this new civic religion in their congregations. In her first chapter, she describes a visit to Prestonwood Baptist Church, a Dallas megachurch where the Fourth of July celebrations began with the pledge of allegiance, the national anthem, and honouring servicemen in the congregation, before a sermon on America as a “divinely appointed” country, and a warning that America was now “in the last days”.

The pastor of Prestonwood, Jack Graham, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, is, she concludes, like the religious leaders condemned by Jesus: “He leads people away from God. . . He uses hatred of the other, fear, and submission to gain power — a distortion of the true gospel of Jesus, grounded in love, acceptance, forgiveness, and the absence of fear.”

High-profile megachurch pastors have “sacrificed some of their gospel beliefs to have access to political power”, she tells me. “I don’t think it’s as true for your average local parish priest or local church pastor, because I think that they are really trying to serve their congregation and community.”

When I ask her about polling that suggests that there has been a dramatic shift in white Evanglicals’ beliefs about the importance of politicians’ private conduct (in 2016, only 20 per cent said that private immorality meant that someone could not behave ethically in public, down from 60 per cent in 2011), she suggests that this illustrates “the shallowness of the ways that morality was taught in Evangelical churches”.

“There’s been a veneer of personal morality that’s been covered up by churches, really giving passes to white wealthy men who tend to be pastors and church leaders,” she explains. “Trump is just another part of that.”

 

IN HER final chapter, Denker speaks warmly about the welcome that she received on her travels, and seeks to highlight the nuanced conversations that ensued. She also notes that, when she heard people say things that sounded “intolerant, racist, or mean”, this “usually happened when they were telling her about something they had heard on TV or on the internet”.

A polarised media is another strand of her story. “While many liberal Americans watch news networks and read articles decrying the lack of empathy in Trump’s politics and his indecorous language, conservatives are reading stories about Trump’s nascent Christianity,” she notes.

In a chapter that explores politics within Roman Catholic communities, she observes that, for one devout interviewee, “conservative media proved even more trustworthy than the Holy Father.”

Among her own family and friends, she tells me, a “steady diet of Fox News, in particular,” has resulted in a greater ridigity when it comes to political beliefs.

She is also conscious, she writes, of the power of a “shared language” between Mr Trump and Red State Christians, to whom Democrats “sounded like foreigners”. In a chapter on “the Evangelical intelligentsia”, she observes that some voters are “expats from mainline churches” where “so fuzzy had progressive theology become that anyone seeking an absolute moral authority found they could locate one only in conservatism”.

“Churches that are so progressive and so traditional practically have a limited audience,” she writes. The mainline Church is “mired in intra-church battles, clinging to its outmoded and overprice institutions and institutional structures, bleeding money and parishioners daily until churches, seminaries and ultimately denominations fold entirely”.

The anti-Trump Evangelical voices with influence often come from the African-American church, she notes, suggesting that Evangelicals looking for “hope outside Trump” look to the “Poor People’s Campaign” run by the Revd William J. Barber, a minister and prominent civil-rights campaigner.

 

AMONG the most surprising episodes in Denker’s book is her visit to the Florida church of Paula White, a former televangelist who gave the invocation at Trump’s inauguration, became chair of his Evangelical advisory board, and was, last month, appointed as special adviser to the Faith and Opportunity Initiative at the White House. Denker was taken aback to find herself at a “humble” building down a rural road.

Sports journalist turned Lutheran pastor, the Revd Angela Denker

Ms White is “a good example of this tendency, particularly for progressives in the US, and probably around the world, to sort of paint all Evangelicals with a wide brush,” she tells me. “I was anticipating hearing prosperity gospel, but she had this minister come up and address the congregation, and, instead of promising people yachts and mansions, he simply asked people to donate money for a nursery. . .

“When I spoke with her congregation, which is predominantly African American and not Trump supporters, what I heard from them is that they really felt like she personally loved them, and they didn’t really agree with her political positions but that she had genuinely tried to lead them to Jesus.

“I found her to be genuine. I found her to be somewhat naïve in this way that she thought ‘I am going to tell Trump about Jesus!’ But I also think that, especially for me as a feminist, and as a Christian female leader, I felt that a lot of the complaints against her were really tinged with sexism. They were about what she looked like, and I just think that, as people who want to be really mindful of the way that that happens on the Right, we need to be more nuanced in our understanding of how we talk about other women, even on the other side.”

 

DENKER did not find it hard to persuade people to talk to her, she tells me. “I really find it important to find something that I can connect with with everyone. . .

“In the midst of those conversations, I felt it was most important for me to really seek to understand the person I was talking to before I fired back with my own opinions.”

In her conclusion, she pays tribute to her compatriots’ “remarkable gift for acceptance”. But she also makes clear her refusal to “whitewash” her encounters, noting that, in addition to “wise, kind, and genuine” Red State Christians, she met others who were “committed to division, destruction, and perversion of the story to Jesus to support their own wealth and power”. Most of these were pastors, she notes.

She is also conscious that, while her book contains a call for engagement and conversation, “at a time when America feels pulled to its extremes, when our first national impulse is to block and unfriend anyone who disagrees with us”, her own position is one of privilege.

“I am a Christian, I am white, I am a Cis-gender woman,” she tells me. “I know that some of my friends who are people of colour, or who are from the LGBTQ community, may not have had as easy a time as I did walking into these places.”

During her travels, she met teenage siblings wearing Trump buttons who describe Mexicans’ “coming in with gangs and drugs”; a young RC graduate who suggested that gay men should not be priests; and African-American mothers whose children were “tormented” in school the day after Trump’s election.

In Cole Camp, Missouri, she met Millennial Trump voters who were attracted to his independence — “the idea that he could not be bought or influenced by any political party” — and his promise to run the country like a business, but were also defensive when it came to discussing race.

“I could go in and have some of these conversations where other people would not have been safe in the same way that I was,” she tells me. “I think it’s really a balance for all of us. There’s a Bible passage where Jesus talks about sending out the disciples. . . He tells them to go into every house, be open to conversation with everyone you meet, but if people do not accept you then you need to wipe the dust off your feet and walk away. . .

“My bias is always on having dialogue and conversation, but there will be times and there will be people with whom conversation is impossible.”

 

IN HER conclusion, Denker states her conviction that “the voices that I believe will heal America’s wounded heart are the voices that can speak truth to power in places far from seats of power”. American Evangelicalism is “beginning to break out of its cage”, she suggests.

Among those whom she interviewed is Dee Reardon, a Mexican-American pro-life conservative Evangelical minister in El Paso, who had memories of flashing her porch light to welcome families crossing the border; and Rose Mary Guzman, a pastor on the border who lost the financial backing of a large mid-western church after she wrote a letter critical of President Trump’s immigration policies.

At Mariners Church, a megachurch in Orange County, she met Wes Tameifuna, a young pastor of Tongan/Mexican heritage, who preached about humility, informing his congregation that there was “no such thing as a self-made person”. He described his feeling of “betrayal” after Mr Trump’s election, and the tensions that it had sparked in the megachurch movement: some staff were crying and others were celebrating: “The hard part is that the burden is always placed on minorities to speak up and explain ‘why you should care about me’.”

Denker also laments that American politics “leaves out voices that could lead to consensus”, such as the conservative Liberty graduate football coach she met in Florida, who spoke of his support for the #MeToo movement and of feeling confused about the 2016 vote, explaining that, as a Christian, he could not defend Trump — even if he was “the best choice at the time”.

Her advice for people seeking to put into practice her call for dialogue is, she says, “to start within their own circles, within their own families, especially within local churches” rather than “big national organisations”.

For many people, her recommendation to “start conversations with people who you already know who you disagree with” will mean a dialogue in their own families, she tells me, particularly for those, like her, from the Mid-West.

“Some of my friends from California are like, ‘I don’t want to understand Trump voters; I’m just so sick of it, I don’t want to think about it,’” she says. “And that’s an easy choice to make when you don’t know anyone personally.”

Writing the book has strengthened her commitment to challenging those who caricature Trump voters, she says. “These Trump voters are my family, too, and I know my family and I love my family, and I know that the worst parts of Trumpism are not represented within my family members, and are not represented within every single Trump voter.”

If nothing else, she says, the 2016 result illustrated that “this idea of trying to make it look like people are crazy is a failed idea of how to run an election.”

America is in desperate need of conversation, she says, concluding our interview. “And we desperately need openness to understand that Donald Trump is really a mirror of America. I think once Trump is gone from office . . . we are going to have a huge need in America to rebuild.”

 

Red State Christians is published by Fortress Press at £18.99 (Church House Bookshop £17.10).

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