Evangelical Fear Elected Trump

The history of evangelicalism in America is shot through with fear—but it also contains an alternative.

White conservative evangelicals in America are anxious people. I know because I am one.

Our sense of fear, perhaps more than any other factor, explains why evangelicals voted in such large numbers for Donald Trump in 2016 and continue to support his presidency.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson once wrote, “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” The great poet of the Jersey shore, Bruce Springsteen, sings, “Fear’s a dangerous thing, it can turn your heart black, you can trust. It’ll take your God-filled soul and fill it with devils and dust.”

Robinson and Springsteen echo verses in nearly every book of the Bible, the sacred text that serves as the source of spiritual authority in evangelical life.

  1. Moses told the Israelites to “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today.” The Hebrew
  2. God told Job: “At the destruction and famine you shall laugh, and shall not fear the beasts of the earth.”
  3. The Psalmist wrote: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.”

The Gospel of John teaches Christians that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” St. Luke writes: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Despite all these scriptural passages, it is still possible to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of a people failing miserably at overcoming fear with hope, trust, and faith in their God. But it is also possible to find evangelicals, drawing deeply from Christian theological resources, who sought to forge an alternative history.
A history of evangelical fear might begin with the 17th-century Puritans in Salem, Massachusetts, who feared that there were witches in their midst threatening their “city upon a hill” and their status as God’s new Israel. They responded to this fear by hanging 19 people.

But other evangelical options were available. As Puritans began to lose control over Massachusetts Bay, they might have turned to their sovereign God for guidance and trusted in his protection to lead them through a new phase in the history of the colony. Or they could have heeded the warnings put forth by those—such as Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, or the growing number of Baptists in the colony—who saw potential problems with such a close relationship between church and state.

Our history of evangelical fear might also include a chapter on the early 19th-century Protestants who feared the arrival of massive numbers of Catholic immigrants to American shores. They translated their panic into political organizations such as the nativist Know-Nothing Party and religious tracts cautioning fellow believers of the threat that such “popery” posed to their Christian nation.

But other evangelical options were available. Biblical faith requires evangelicals to welcome strangers in their midst as a sign of Christian hospitality. While some of the most prominent evangelicals of the era, such as Charles Finney and Lyman Beecher, were spewing anti-Catholic rhetoric, other evangelicals could not reconcile such hatred with Christian love. These evangelicals, as the historian Richard Cawardine has written, “could be found in all evangelical denominations” in the 1840 and 1850s.

A history of evangelical fear might also note that Catholics made up just one front in the battle for a Protestant America. “Infidels” made up the other front. At the turn of the 19th century, evangelicals went to war against unbelievers, deists, skeptics, freethinkers, and other assorted heretics who threatened the Godly character of the republic.

Elias Boudinot, a former president of the Continental Congress, agonized that unless he and his team of evangelical Federalists curbed the influence of the followers of Thomas Paine, the United States would end up like the Church of Laodicea in the Book of Revelation: “Because you are lukewarm [in your faith] … I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”

Jedidiah Morse, a Massachusetts minister and the author of geography textbooks, worried that the Bavarian Illuminati, a German anti-Christian secret society, had infiltrated America to “abjure Christianity, justify suicide, advocate sensual pleasures agreeable to Epicurean philosophy, decry marriage, and advocate a promiscuous intercourse among the sexes.”

When “godless” Thomas Jefferson was elected president of the United States in 1800, frightened New England evangelicals thought the Virginian’s henchmen would soon be arriving in their towns and homes on a mission to take away their Bibles.
But other evangelical options were also available. While Federalists like Boudinot and Morse railed against Jefferson and his followers, frontier evangelicals—mostly Baptists and Methodists—flocked to Jefferson in droves. They understood that Jefferson’s defense of religious freedom would allow evangelical faith to flourish in America. They were right. When religion in America was separated from state sponsorship, it resulted in a massive religious revival which historians have described as the Second Great Awakening.

In the antebellum South, evangelicals, according to some historians, made up close to 80 percent of the region’s population. Southern evangelicals were caught up in a slave system that kept them in constant fear for their lives and the lives of their families. Slave rebellions against their white masters were relatively scarce, but when insurrections did take place they brought paranoia and panic. One South Carolina widow claimed to lie in bed each night fearing that at any moment one of her slaves would break into her house and hack her to death with an axe.

The aggressive moral rhetoric and publishing campaigns of Northern opponents of slavery threatened the white Southern evangelical way of life and prompted fears of a race war. In response, some of the South’s best evangelical minds went to work constructing a complex biblical and theological defense of slavery.

But other evangelical options were available. Modern-day attempts by Southern evangelicals—especially those in the Southern Baptist Convention—to come to terms with its slaveholding and racist past imply that the Northern abolitionists, the thousands of evangelicals who came to South during Reconstruction, and those who fought for racial equality during Jim Crow, were on the religious high ground. They represented a much more consistent evangelical ethic on this moral problem.

The very short history of evangelical fear would certainly need to spend some time in the decades following the Civil War as evangelicals waged intellectual and religious battles against Darwinism and the higher criticism of the Bible. Some of the worst aspects of American evangelicalism converged in the Fundamentalist movement of the early 20th century. It was stridently anti-Catholic, and on occasion worked closely with the Ku Klux Klan to guard the white Protestant character of the country.

Fundamentalists, committed to the otherworldly teachings of the Holiness or “Higher Life” movement, chose to separate from the world rather than engage it. They promoted a theology of the “end times” that led them to spend considerable energy trying to identify the appearance of the Antichrist on the global stage.

In defending the “fundamentals of the faith,” these anti-modernists relied on authoritarian clergymen. These fear-mongers gained followers, built large congregations, and established national reputations by sounding the alarm of the modernist threat whenever they saw it rearing its ugly head. They took on the role of ecclesiastical strongmen, protecting their congregations from outsiders who threatened to destroy their faith and the Christian identity of the nation.

But once more, other evangelical options were available. Those concerned about doctrinal drift could have learned something from the biblical virtues of love and humility. The sense of certainty that defined the fundamentalist movement in America might have been replaced with a sense of mystery and the embrace of a God who could not always be confined to man-made doctrinal formulations and end-times speculations. Perhaps such an approach might have tempered the militancy of the movement and provided fundamentalism with a more respected public platform in the decades following the 1925 Scopes Trial.

Since World War II, evangelical anxiety has intensified. In 1947, in the landmark case Everson v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court announced a “wall of separation between church and state [that] must be kept high and impregnable.” The court drew on this decision when it banned prayer and mandatory Bible reading in public schools in 1962 and 1963 respectively.

The demographic makeup of the country was also changing. The Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 opened American shores to millions of Africans, Asians, and Middle Easterners. Many of these new immigrants brought their non-Christian religious beliefs and practices with them, creating unprecedented religious diversity.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Supreme Court efforts at desegregating Christian academies and colleges led to fierce resistance from Southern evangelicals who viewed the federal government as taking away their local autonomy and the religious freedom to control their own admissions policies. (These arguments were not unlike to those put forth by the Southern states that seceded from the Union in 1860 and 1861.) By the late 1960s, the feminist movement was posing a threat to the long-held conservative evangelical commitment to patriarchal households, and in 1973 the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade. For those who saw all these things contributing to the decline of a Christian culture in the United States, there was much to fear.

Any effort to make sense of the 81 percent of evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump cannot ignore evangelicals’ fear of the Barack Obama administration. Obama was an exotic figure to many white conservative evangelicals. He grew up in Hawaii and spent time as a child in a predominantly Muslim country. He was the son of a white woman and an African man. He had a strange name; that his middle name was “Hussein” did not help.

Obama had a Christian conversion story, but it was not the kind of conversion story from which many white conservative evangelicals would find inspiration. His embrace of Christianity took place in a liberal African American congregation in Chicago under the guidance of a pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who was not shy about calling America to task for its past sins of slavery and racism.
Obama’s social policies alienated conservative evangelicals. Though “pro-life” could be used to describe his views on

  • immigration,
  • health care,
  • the death penalty,
  • the fight against poverty, and
  • civil rights for racial and ethnic minorities,

Obama was “pro-choice” on abortion and, for most evangelicals, that was all that really mattered.

And then there was gay marriage. When Obama ran for president in 2008, he supported same-sex unions, but defended marriage as a union between a man and woman. During his first two years in office, he supported the Defense of Marriage Act, a law that prohibited married same-sex couples from collecting federal benefits.

But in February 2011, he changed his position on the Act and instructed Attorney General Eric Holder to stop defending it in court. In a May 2012 interview with ABC News, Obama announced that he had gone through an “evolution” on the issue. He was now willing to affirm that “same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

In 2013, the Supreme Court, in United States v. Windsor, declared the Defense of Marriage of Act unconstitutional and the Obama administration began extending federal rights and benefits to same-sex married couples. By 2015, when the Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that the United States government would recognize same-sex marriages, the practice was legal in 36 states and Washington, D.C. On the evening after the Obergefell decision, Obama showed his appreciation by illuminating the White House in rainbow colors.

The LGBT community saw the Obergefell decision as the culmination of a long struggle for civil rights. Conservative evangelicals cringed. For them it all happened too fast. In the hours after the decision they turned to their blogs, websites, and media outlets and wrote apocalyptic opinion pieces on how to cope in a post-Christian society.

This history of evangelical fear would come to an end, at least for the moment, with a chapter on Hillary Clinton. After a recent lecture on Trump and his evangelical supporters, a woman approached me at the lectern and identified herself as an evangelical who voted for Trump. “I am part of the 81 percent,” she said, “but what choice did I have?” I have heard something similar many times from evangelicals who voted for Trump.

Evangelicals are not supposed to hate. But many hate Hillary Clinton. The history of that antipathy is long, reaching back at least to Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 1992. But it was solidified among white evangelical baby boomers when revelations of her husband’s marital infidelities surfaced in 1998. Conservatives who challenged Bill Clinton’s character were outraged when Hillary attacked her husband’s accusers and went on The Today Show and claimed that the impeachment charges against her husband were part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”

Hillary Clinton did not help herself among evangelicals in the 2016 election campaign. She lied about using a private email server in her role as secretary of state. She placed Trump supporters in a “basket of deplorables.” She made no effort to court evangelical votes, a strategy that the progressive evangelical writer and Clinton supporter Ronald Sider called “dumbfounding and incredibly stupid.”
On the policy front, Clinton was, for most white evangelicals, an extension of the Obama presidency—a candidate who would steamroll their long-cherished conservative values.

Faced with a choice between Clinton and a race-baiting, xenophobic, lying adulterer who promised to support conservative Supreme Court justices, white conservative evangelicals chose the latter. In 2016, American evangelicals were looking for a strongman to protect them from the progressive forces wreaking havoc on their Christian nation. Donald Trump was the strongman.

Most evangelicals did not believe more traditional candidates of the Christian right such as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or Ben Carson could protect them as well as the bombastic big-talking New York real-estate tycoon. As Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas and early Trump supporter put it, “I couldn’t care less about a leader’s temperament or his tone of his vocabulary. Frankly, I want the meanest, toughest son of a gun I can find. And I think that’s the feeling of a lot of evangelicals. They don’t want Casper Milquetoast as the leader of the free world.”

Ironically, some evangelicals have found a savior. They sought after Trump, he answered them, and he delivered them from all their fears.

But other evangelical options are available. Evangelicals are people of hope, not fear. The practice of Christian hope points us to a life beyond this world, but it also requires us to act in such a way that models God’s coming kingdom. The Kingdom of God is characterized by the love of enemies, the welcoming of strangers, the belief in the human dignity of all people, a humble and self-sacrificial posture toward public life, and a trust in the sovereign God of the universe. Fear is a natural human response to social change, but evangelicals betray their deepest spiritual convictions when they choose to dwell in it.

The Trump era presents a host of new challenges for evangelicals who believe in the Gospel—the “good news” of Jesus Christ. The first step in addressing these challenges must come through a reckoning with our past. Evangelicals have taken many wrong turns over the decades even though better, more Christian, options could be found by simply opening up the Bible and reading it. We must stop our nostalgic gaze into a Christian golden age in America that probably never existed to begin with and turn toward the future with renewed hope. It is time, as the great theologian of hope Jurgen Moltmann taught us, to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.”

Christian Evangelicals and Trump | William R. Black & John Fea

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talking about the rabid Pro Trumper you
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know the
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you know the poll of whites of the world
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Paula white I think firmly believes that
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he’s a Christian and and God is using
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him as a Christian to carry out you know
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the purposes of the gospel or the church
48:49
in the world there’s others for example
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someone like Robert Jeffress from the
48:55
pastor of the First Baptist Church in
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Dallas or even Franklin Graham the son
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of the evangelist Billy Clayton
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evangelist Billy Graham who would say
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sure Trump has his problem sure Trump is
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a sinner I don’t know if Trump has
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accepted Jesus as his Savior or not but
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God like Cyrus God uses imperfect people
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to carry out his plan so so they would
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say it really does you know they would
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say really doesn’t matter whether
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Trump’s a Christian or not he is faith
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friendly and God is using him in this
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kind of incredible way God uses sinners
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and God uses you know people who you
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know have these corrupt lives or immoral
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eyes to carry out his purposes God’s
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ways are not our ways would be the
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arguing and while we well we would think
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that it should be a godly Christian
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leader to help us sometimes God has
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other plans would be the idea here so so
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you get you got a kind of mixed mixed
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views on that depending on which pro
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Trump evangelical you talk to but you
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know and I minded I grew up hearing a
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lot of people who were evangelicals
50:08
saying something those basically the
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reverse about Jimmy Carter were there
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where they would completely grant that
Jimmy Carter was was a you know and
devout then but even even argue that he
was a bad president because he was a
good Christian to be a good president
because he was done you know kick ass
and take names I guess I don’t know
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you’ve encountered during Carter Carter
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is interesting because evangelicals did
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flock to him in 1976 you know he might
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stop supporting that just ants they
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voted for Carter in 76 and 80
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I mean an aphid errol’s Ford
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seventy-six claimed to be some kind of
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an evangelical Christian too so that’s
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very interesting but the Carter was so
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kind of authentic right he he he talked
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about being born again
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even his even his uh even his statement
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about like being tempted to lust from
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you know from women you know was was it
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appealed to certain evangelicals right
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you know that this guy’s honest truly he
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meant they knew at length nobody and I
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think I think what happened was when
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Carter several things I mean one just
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you know you can’t count out the economy
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you know the recession and so forth also
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Carter just did not deliver on the
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things that evangelicals hoped he would
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we talked earlier about the green calmly
to Bob Jones case Jimmy Carter supported
to Bob the supreme court on that he
wanted to desegregate these academies
and this this you know there was
opposition that emerged almost
immediately to Carter when it didn’t
look like he would deliver on abortion
overturn roe v– wade you know try to
try to try to keep the keep the
segregation in place in these academies
so uh you know this is where Falwell and
others so many of you know the story
many our listeners will own story this
is where Falwell and others kind of say
no we thought this guy was was one you
know was going to help our moral cause
and he doesn’t seem to be doing it so uh
so yeah Carter’s a car is a fascinating
character I think it’s probably you know
it’s probably true to say the fact that
he tried to actually live out a kind of
authentic evangelicalism probably did uh
you know hurt his his presidency I mean
he has that famous 1979 malaise speech
in wrench you know he says we are a
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nation that is self-centered selfish we
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only care about each other we don’t
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think about the common good you know and
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then Reagan comes in and just says you
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know do whatever you want right
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individualism freedom right you know
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freedom of religion they love these
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kinds of things no I felt this message
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of self-discipline that Carter puts
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forth which you know is this
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authentically Christian message but you
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know that’s I think
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says a lot about the evangelical
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electorate as well I have one more
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question that you will wrap up but I I
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know you know there’s been debates in
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the Democratic Party about you know
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what’s the right calculus to to defeat
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Trump in 2020 and you know one sidebar
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in that debate is how much should they
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try and win over people who voted for
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Trump yeah yeah and a part of that is
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you know it is it worth trying to talk
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to some evangelicals to vote for Trump
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and to appeal to them you know appeal to
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their values there professor
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what do you think about that yeah yeah I
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mean I wrote a whole book about this so
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I hope yours I hope there’s a
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possibility but I see I see those
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eighty-one percent as as very you know
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there’s there’s diversity within that 81
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percent one of the things I worry about
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with this with the media is that they
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don’t see the diversity of 81 percent
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that 81 percent includes the rabid Trump
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supporters who are evangelicals the
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people who go to the rallies the people
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who supported this guy in the primaries
54:22
when there were other options
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the GOP primaries the people who wear
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the manga hats you know I mean there’s a
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lot of Evangelicals you know I remember
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I remember when Trump came to Harrisburg
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Pennsylvania I’m watching the news
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coverage on it at night you know local
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news coverage and you know I see like
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four or five people from my church in
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line my evangelical church in line right
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so there’s that group what I found after
doing close to 20 or 30 book talks and
and I’m on the road a lot with this book
is that many of those people are just
not going to be convinced by kind of
rational arguments you know politics is
often so much emotional and and and it’s
just gonna be hard to convince those
people however there’s a large large
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number and I don’t know what the
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percentage is but but I also find
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there’s a large number who just don’t
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like Donald Trump they wish
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they didn’t have to vote for him they
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hated Hillary Clinton even more they
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were they they kind of walked the line
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between not voting for the president and
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voting for Trump right or voting for a
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third party candidate and voting for
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Trump and they decided that they were
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going to vote for Trump it’s those kind
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of people that I hope my book is going
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to reach you know and get them to sort
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of rethink you know especially in light
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of everything that’s happened since
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Trump’s been elected all of the kind of
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misogyny and racist Arbenz a comet if
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charlottesville he has an awful
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immigration policy and so forth on the
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other hand you can’t count out the
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economy right the economy is doing
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really really well a lot of youth
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angelica’s may not vote on moral issues
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they may vote on economic issues in 2020
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but when you think about it this way
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right you don’t need too many
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evangelicals to have their minds changed
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for for for a Democrat to win in 2020 I
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mean Hillary won by three million votes
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the popular vote so so you know in
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places like Pennsylvania which you know
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where we saw in the 2018 midterms we saw
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mostly Democratic candidates being
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elected governor senator the the conquer
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Congress seats almost all many of them
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flipped to Democrat you know place like
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Michigan and Wisconsin you don’t need
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too many votes to turn those states back
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towards a Democratic candidate so I’m
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not you know I’m kind of you know a lot
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of people are saying well if the
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economy’s good Trump’s gonna win again
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I’m not entirely convinced about that at
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least if you can turn some evangelicals
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you know you might you might have a
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chance to knock him off in 2020 well
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here’s here’s a question then if if the
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Democrats have a nominee who is more
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likable than Hillary Clinton yeah do you
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think at least there’ll be sizeable you
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know statistically significant number
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vocals who will at
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perhaps not vote for the Democrat but
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feel like they don’t have to vote for
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Khurana
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yeah Hillary Clinton is a problem with
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the problem for white conservative
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evangelicals for two reasons one is one
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is one as she represents everything
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about sort of what white evangelicals
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see as progressivism right pretty
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pro-choice not doing much to defend
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Christian values religious liberty
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particularly marriage you know she’s big
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government and so forth any Democratic
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candidate that runs is going to have
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those same problems with white
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evangelicals unless it’s like a pro-life
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democrat right that’s like Bob Casey
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from Pennsylvania runs who completely
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who evangelicals backed over Rick
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Santorum right and then drove Rick
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Santorum out this is my home state so I
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know these races pretty well the other
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problem the other problem white
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evangelicals had with Hillary Clinton
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was that she was Hillary Clinton you
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know the baggage going back to the bill
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scandals with Monica Lewinsky going back
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to the lying the you know she’s saying
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right-wing conspiracy and blah blah blah
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the deplorable slide you know nobody
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Clinton made a lot of mistakes among
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white evangelicals I don’t think I don’t
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think if she corrected those mistakes
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she would have won over many white
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evangelicals to her side but she may
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have turned some white evangelicals away
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from Donald Trump towards a third party
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candidate or towards just not voting in
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the presidential election so you know
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we’ll see what happens you could have a
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Democrat who and if it’s a traditional
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Democrat on the moral questions that
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Emma Jellico’s hold dear in 2020 I just
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I think I think they’re still gonna
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they’re not gonna vote for that Democrat
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but because it’s not Hillary Clinton
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they may say well we could put up with
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this guy or this one as opposed to you
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know their four years of Trump I heard
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something you said this but someone
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compared Hillary Clinton’s sort of
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relationship as a cultural icon to the
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women’s rights movement to Jesse
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Jackson’s relationship to the civil
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and the argument was that in the same
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way that Jesse Jackson couldn’t become
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president because of just all the
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baggage that comes with being part of
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that generation yeah someone from the
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second generation like Obama didn’t have
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that package
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yeah next woman right is the argument
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that I’ve heard from women’s rights
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movement but not be associated with all
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the baggage came with having to fight
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that fight yeah no no six or seven yeah
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yeah no it’s there’s probably some truth
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to that we’ll see you know I don’t know
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how many women candidates are out there
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you hear about come out Kamala Harris
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Kristin Gillibrand I mean you know we’ll
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see what happens I’m not sure well I I
60:37
forgot to mention the start but I will
60:39
plug you are you run a great blog that’s
60:43
also the title of your first book and
60:46
the title of your podcast which is right
60:48
the way of improvement leads home which
60:53
what’s the URL is it way of improvement
60:56
way of improvement calm way of
60:59
improvement calm or no that’s instead
61:06
Zealand yes I encourage people check out
61:17
your blog your podcast and you tweet at
61:22
John fear one john thea one yep jo hn f
61:28
EI one yeah and i tweet at william are
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black and in your book believe me the
61:39
evangelical road to Donald Trump would
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be a good stocking stuffer when you have
61:47
those conversations at Christmas right I
61:49
did a promo for the book on I tweeted I
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said you just got done with these
61:53
conversations over Thanks
61:55
giving with your pro-trump evangelical
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friends and you wish you had some more
61:58
arguments for when Christmas or the
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December holidays come around right get
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this book you have a month to read it in
62:05
preparation for Christmas dinner or
62:07
whatever it might be well thanks for
62:12
coming on I love to have you on again
62:14
sometime and great thanks for having me
62:17
bill thank you