Are the dominant voices of white evangelical Christianity in the United States destined to be angry and defensive? Is President Trump making sure they stay that way?
I found myself asking these questions after I read my Post colleague Elizabeth Bruenig’s revealing and deeply reported essay about her journey to Texas to probe why evangelicals have been so loyal to Trump and are likely to remain so.
Hers was a venture in sympathetic understanding and empathetic listening. What she heard was a great desire to push back against liberals, to defend a world that sees itself under siege and to embrace Trump — not as a particularly good man but as a fighter against all of the things and people and causes that they cannot abide. Even more, they believe liberals and secularists are utterly hostile to the culture they have built and the worldview they embrace.“I think conservatives for decades have felt bullied by the left, and the default response was to roll over and take it,” said the Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of Dallas’s First Baptist church and one of the very earliest and most vocal leaders of Trump’s evangelical bloc.
I confess I don’t really see the “roll over” part. Conservative politicians, Fox News commentators and talk-radio hosts have engaged in plenty of bullying of their own. But I have no doubt that Jeffress was telling the truth about how he and like-minded folks feel.
This means that the nastiness that makes Trump so odious to many of us comes off to his evangelical Christian supporters (even when it makes them uneasy) as a hallowed form of militancy against what one evangelical whom Bruenig interviewed called “a den of vipers” engaged in what another called “spiritual warfare.”Bruenig summarized the approach to politics she kept running into as “focused on achieving protective accommodations against a broader, more liberal national culture.” She wondered whether conservative evangelical Christians will “continue to favor the rise of figures such as Trump, who are willing to dispense with any hint of personal Christian virtue while promising to pause the decline of evangelical fortunes — whatever it takes.”
What struck me in reading Bruenig’s chronicle is that the undoubtedly serious faith of those she encountered was less central to their embrace of Trump than a tribal feeling of beleaguerment — remember: Defending a culture is not the same as standing up for beliefs about God. Their deeply conservative views are not far removed from those of non-evangelical conservatives.
Above all, there was a Republican partisanship that has been around for a long time. In some cases, it goes back to 1964, when Lyndon B. Johnson’s embrace of civil rights incited many white Southerners, including evangelicals, to bolt the Democratic Party. In other cases, Republican loyalties were cemented by Ronald Reagan in 1980.We keep coming back to Trump’s white evangelical base because it seems so strange that religious people with strong moral convictions could embrace someone whose behavior violates so many of the norms they uphold. But party is a big deal these days, and there was nothing extraordinary about Trump’s share of the white evangelical vote. He won what Republican presidential candidates typically win. His 80 percentamong white evangelicals in 2016 was hardly a surge from Mitt Romney’s 78 percent in 2012.
In the end, party triumphed over any qualms evangelicals may have felt about the “Access Hollywood” candidate. Long-standing conservative desires (for sympathetic Supreme Court justices) and inclinations (a deep dislike of Hillary Clinton) reinforced what partisanship recommended.
I get why those with strongly held traditional religious views feel hostility from centers of intellectual life and the arts. More secular liberals should consider Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff’s suggestion in “Religion in the University” that religious voices be welcomed at institutions of higher learning in much the same way the once-excluded perspectives of feminists and African Americans are now welcomed. One of the academy’s purposes is to bring those with different backgrounds and experiences into reasoned dialogue. Religious people must be part of that conversation.
But reasoned dialogue is far removed from what’s happening in our politics now, and the irony is that the Trumpification of the evangelicals will only widen the gaps they mourn between themselves and other parts of our society. In her recent book “America’s Religious Wars: The Embattled Heart of Our Public Life ,” Kathleen M. Sands, a University of Hawaii professor, writes of a long-standing conflict between “anti-modernist religion and anti-religious modernism.” Trump has every interest in aggravating and weaponizing mistrust that is already there. And judging from Bruenig’s account, he’s succeeding brilliantly.
The flawed assumption underlying both sides of the intra-conservative debate kicked off by Sohrab Ahmari
We get your holidays off. Most TV shows have a Christmas episode. I’ve heard about “the spirit of Christmas” more times than I can count. There are churches everywhere. The most-watched news network and some of the most popular websites denounce “happy holidays” while issuing fever dream warnings of Sharia law. Visit Israel or a Muslim country and you’ll see what it looks like when Christianity is culturally weak.
But that’s not the type of power culture warriors and defenders of conservative Christianity are talking about.
To get to the supposed crisis, we have to dismiss a lot of political and cultural power. Even then, examining specific instances of encroaching secular culture shows that “no longer dominant in every area, but still powerful overall” is more accurate than “under immense threat and headed for annihilation.”
The Actual Threat
There are, of course, incidents of religious Americans facing discrimination. There are also incidents of non-religious Americans facing discrimination. The question is not “do religious conservatives face any opposition?,” but whether that opposition is so powerful, and conservative Christians so weak, that the threat is existential.
Consider some of the most prominent cases:
Universities and Free Speech
David French cites a lawsuit in which he defended “a conservative Christian professor who was denied promotion because of his faith.” That’s wrong — it’s religious discrimination — and he won in court. There are many universities where no professors were denied promotion because of their religion, and others, such as Bob Jones in South Carolina, that are allowed to utilize religious criteria.
French also cites the work of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which he used to lead. I share some of their criticisms regarding campus censorship — see, for example, my article on free speech — but it hardly amounts to social conservatives’ impending annihilation.
As an example of threats to free speech on campus, FIRE maintains a database of disinvitations, in which activists tried to prevent someone they dislike from speaking. From 1998 through 2019, FIRE identifies 427 incidents. Of these, 257 cases involve protests coming from the speaker’s left (not all of which involve religion). That means an average of 11.68 cases per year over 22 years. With about 5,300 colleges and universities in the United States, about 0.2 percent see a disinvitation attempt prompted by the left in a given year.
That’s not the only illiberal activity on campus — and I think many of them deserve criticism — but an existential threat it is not.
Obamacare required health insurance plans to cover contraception, and the owners of Hobby Lobby, a privately-held chain of stores, objected. They’re conservative Christians, and argued that being forced to pay for contraceptives violated their religious freedom.
But they weren’t forced to pay for contraceptives. They compensated their employees with health insurance, and then, if the employee chose to buy contraceptives, the insurance company paid for it. Millions of employees spend their paychecks on things their employers disapprove of, but the employers can’t stop it. There’s no reason non-cash compensation should be different.
What the owners of Hobby Lobby wanted is the type of power Ahmari craves — the ability to impose religious beliefs on others. No one forced them to use contraception. No one even forced them to buy someone else’s contraception. But the possibility that employees might choose to use their health insurance for something the employers didn’t like was too much.
In a 5–4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby. As a result, if you work for a private company, and the owners are religious, they can tell you what you can and cannot do with some of your compensation.
You may be more sympathetic to Hobby Lobby’s position than I am. Either way, no existential threat here.
Gay Wedding Cakes
The 2015, 5–4 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage in the United States. That’s probably the biggest example of social conservatives losing the power to impose their beliefs on others. However, while no church has to perform a gay wedding, and no one has to attend any wedding if they don’t want to, legalization created some situations that impose on religious Americans.
Should religious wedding vendors have to sell to gay couples? It’s a fascinating question, because two fundamental rights come into conflict: equal protection for the couple; freedom of religion for the vendor. In Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Supreme Court ducked the larger question, deciding 7–2 that the Commission displayed religious animus in its treatment of Masterpiece.
For me, it comes down to what the vendor’s being asked to do. Refusing to sell a standard product — something off the shelf they’d sell to other couples — is blatant “we don’t serve your kind here” discrimination, like banning black people from the lunch counter at Woolworth’s. But if it’s a custom product — something not unreasonably called art — then the government making the vendor do it is coerced creative labor. (I tackled this in greater detail here).
The 2018 fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s conformation to the Supreme Court looms large in social conservative narratives of existential threat. For Ahmari, it’s proof they “face enemies who seek our personal destruction.” Dreher says it “radicalized” him. French agrees that it shows conservative Christians under threat, but argues that Kavanaugh’s confirmation demonstrates why the principles of classical liberalism, such as due process and presumption of innocence, are the best response. (As I said, their debate’s primarily over strategy, not the threat’s existence).
Underlying all of these claims is a staggering presumption of bad faith. Ahmari, Dreher, French and many other conservatives don’t consider the possibility that at least some of the opposition to Kavanaugh might’ve been opposition to Kavanaugh himself, not to American Christians in general.
To get there, you have to assume Christine Blasey Ford was lying, deluded, and/or put up to it, that people who say they believe her allegations of sexual assault are also lying, and that the women who poured their hearts out over their own sexual assaults were crisis actors out of Alex Jones’ imagination, or at least manipulators exaggerating how they feel because of their secret anti-Christian agenda. And you also must dismiss concerns from Americans who think Kavanaugh’s previous experience as a partisan operative isn’t a good fit for the nation’s highest supposed-to-be-impartial body.
Most importantly, you have to ignore the recent Supreme Court confirmations of Neil Gorsuch (conservative and Catholic, like Kavanaugh), Samuel Alito (conservative, Catholic), and John Roberts (conservative, Catholic), none of whom faced accusations of sexual assault. You have to concoct a story where the left wasn’t angry during Gorsuch’s nomination in 2017 — even though they were openly furious that the Senate blocked Obama’s 2016 nomination of Merrick Garland — but developed such fury over the subsequent year that they decided to invent and then pretend to care about accusations of sexual assault.
A lot of people care passionately about the Supreme Court, with many on the left strongly opposed to right-wing positions on abortion, prayer in schools, and other issues involving religion. And there’s no doubt some political operatives oppose every Supreme Court nomination from the other party and will latch onto whatever they can to fight it. But this does not add up to Christians under existential threat.
The Kavanaugh case reveals the fuzziness of the distinction between cultural and political power. According to right-wing culture warriors, winning elections is not a sign of lasting power, because it’s political, not cultural. However, nearly losing — but still winning — a Supreme Court seat is a sign of cultural weakness so menacing that Christians must adapt a crisis mentality.
Social conservatives worrying about cultural annihilation may find all the above examples unconvincing. They all involve institutional power — court rulings, Senate votes — and one of the cultural warriors’ arguments is that conservatives must do anything to hold institutional power as a bulwark against the cultural threat.
Consider, then, the case of Chick-fil-A.
In 2012, the family-owned fast food chain came under fire when the chief operating officer publicly opposed same sex marriage, and it came out that the family’s foundation donated millions to organizations fighting against legalization. In response, LGBT rights activists called for protests and a boycott..
So it went out of business, right? Or if it didn’t, it’s because a court came to the rescue?
Nope. Conservatives rallied to the restaurant’s defense. Sales rose 12% in the aftermath of the controversy, and the chain has continued expanding, growing larger than Burger King or Wendy’s. Activists fought the expansion — here’s one warning of “Chick-fil-A’s creepy infiltration of New York City” — but failed.
It’s Not a Crisis
The Chick-fil-A case encapsulates my argument. Social conservatives face motivated opponents that have some cultural power. But religious conservatives have quite a bit of cultural power too. Plus a lot of judicial and political power. Ahmari’s frame of existential danger is divorced from reality. French’s “immense threat” is overstated.
There’s no question that Christianity is weaker in the United States in the 21st century than it was in the 20th or 19th. Mainstream movies, television, and pop music often portray social conservatives negatively (if at all), and portray things social conservatives disapprove of positively. But what this all adds up to is competing in American society as a large, powerful bloc — not impending annihilation.
The slope isn’t slippery.
Conservative Christians hold the keys to statehouses, House and Senate seats, electoral votes. There’s a friendly majority on the Supreme Court, and friendly judges throughout the system. Christianity has an enduring cultural power, because it’s deeply embedded in American life, and because millions of Americans practice various versions of it every day.
The narrative that religious conservatives face cultural apocalypse is one of the most toxic in American politics. It is one of the biggest causes — not the only cause, but a big one — of zero-sum, no-compromise, fight-over-everything hyper-partisanship. Because after all, if you’re facing extermination, you have no choice.
This logic bears enough resemblance to racist theories of “white genocide” that it should give social conservatives pause.
But it’s also good for political mobilization and media consumption. And a lot of people seem to like thinking of themselves as victims. So I wouldn’t expect it to stop.