DONALD TRUMP won the United States presidency in 2016 with the support of more than 80 per cent of Americans who self-identified as Evangelical Christians and who have remained his most enthusiastic supporters. Since his election, historians, pundits, and the general public have scrambled to explain why Evangelicals adopted President Trump, a thrice-married serial adulterer with no discernible religious convictions, as their champion.
Roberts and Whittock argue that Evangelical support for President Trump is an efflorescence of American Puritanism. “Modern US politics”, they write, “owes more to the seventeenth-century Puritan heritage than to any other single factor.”
Trump and the Puritans begins with the pre-history of contemporary American Evangelicalism, from the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a Puritan theocracy through the Great Awakenings that followed, and 19th-century revivals, which occupies just under one third of the book. Then, relying on journalistic sources, the authors chronicle the rise of the Religious Right, the ascent of Mr Trump, and Evangelical involvement in his administration’s politics and policies.
Their account is detailed and historically accurate, but their thesis is questionable. Rigorism, asceticism, and iconoclasm — lower-case puritanism — has, historically, figured in all religious traditions; Puritanism, upper-case, was a moment in the history of English-speaking peoples and, in the US, was short-lived. By the 18th century, many churches established by New England Puritans had become Unitarian, and the leading lights of the American Revolution were, at best, deists. By the eve of the Revolution, fewer than 20 per cent of American adults were churchgoers.
American-style political Evangelicalism is rooted in Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the early 20th century, which led to schisms in most American Protestant denominations. It gave rise to a minority conservative Christian subculture, with its own churches and seminaries, apart from the liberal “mainline” Churches that dominated American Christianity until late in the century.
Red State Christians is a kinder book than Trump and the Puritans and one that is, in many respects, more informative, because it does not have a thesis to promote. Angela Denker, a Lutheran minister, interviews white Evangelicals in rural America and the Rust Belt, and other religious conservatives. Fortified with empirical results, her reflections are illuminating, but leave unanswered the question why Evangelicals became President Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters. Readers are left to draw their own conclusions.
Arguably, Evangelicals who look to President Trump as their saviour are not driven by religious conviction, Puritan or otherwise. African Americans — theologically literate, religiously committed, and, by and large, members of conservative Evangelical churches — are Democratic Party stalwarts. It is white self-identified “Evangelicals”, a category in the US which includes individuals who are not churchgoers, who became the Republican “Base”. And it is not hard to see why.
American “Evangelicals”, along with socially conservative “white-ethnic” Roman Catholics, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of European immigrants, constitute the white working class in the US. They are the same demographic as support secular populist movements elsewhere.
And they support President Trump for the same reasons. They are economically strapped and, increasingly, locked out of secure jobs that pay a living wage, most of which now require a college degree. Meanwhile, political leaders on the Left, preoccupied with LGBTQ+ rights, abortion, and other “lifestyle issues”, and with promoting zero-tolerance environmentalist agendas that wipe out working-class jobs, have done little to address their legitimate concerns. Mr Trump, they believe, speaks for them.
In polls that survey the political landscape, members of traditionally black conservative churches are not counted as “Evangelical”. “Evangelical”, in the US, has become a code for “white working class”. And white working-class Americans, increasingly insecure economically and culturally marginalised, identify as “Evangelical” to affirm their membership in a group that shares their anxieties, aspirations, and political concerns. It is a marker of working-class solidarity which, where socialism is taboo, dare not speak its name.
American Evangelicalism is not the religion of William Wilberforce or John Stott, or Evangelicalism as it has historically been understood in the Anglican tradition, or anything rooted outside the US.
Evangelicalism in the US is currently not a theology, but an American social-racial-political category. And we will probably soon be speaking of “secular Evangelicals” in the way that we speak of “secular Jews” and have begun to speak of “secular Muslims”. Pace Roberts and Whittock, it is not religious conviction that drives the “Evangelicals”, but legitimate class resentment.
Dr Harriet Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, California, in the United States.
Trump and the Puritans
James Roberts and Martyn Whittock
Biteback Publishing £20
Church Times Bookshop special offer price £15
Red State Christians: Understanding the voters who elected Donald Trump
Fortress Press £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10