Since Ronald Reagan’s defeat of Jimmy Carter in 1980, evangelical Protestants have been a seemingly solid segment within American conservatism. “Seemingly” is important, because conservatives often scratch their heads at evangelical habits of mind. Some of the pundits who have had the biggest platforms during the Trump years, for instance, are Michael Gerson, Peter Wehner, and David French. All have been overwhelmingly critical of Donald Trump. Their objections are almost always moral.
In August of 2018, for instance, Gerson wrote in The Atlantic about Trump’s many moral failings, from support for partial-birth abortion to boasts about his genitalia, as a way to plead with evangelicals not to support but to “exorcize” the president. French tallied Trump’s wickedness in a publicized debate with Eric Metaxas at a Q Summit (not to be confused with QAnon) in the spring of 2020. For good measure, he called Trump “malicious, cruel, corrupt, incompetent,” attributes not exactly identical to the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Meanwhile, Wehner’s reason for writing his book The Death of Politics (2019) was to help fellow evangelicals see that “Trump is precisely the kind of person our system of government was designed to avoid.”
The fairly obvious point they all make—along with the vast majority of opinion writers and cable TV commentators—is that Trump is not much of a Christian. The point that inevitably follows is that evangelicals are hypocrites to support such a wicked man. Disagreeing with these estimates is hard, since Donald Trump is no Boy Scout. But equally difficult is figuring out what value these assessments have for American politics.
Evangelical critics of Trump may perform a spiritual function by reminding Christians of the demands of God’s law. They could even help with the seemingly Jesuitical calculation of supporting a lesser evil for the sake of a larger good, though evangelical ethics rarely enter those halls of moral calculus. These critics might even be useful for evaluating the Christian norms out of which the United States emerged, and what the country’s contemporary religious diversity means for current policies. But usually evangelical analysis of policy matters and politicians involves a moral verdict, with infractions on matters of sex, marital infidelity, and abortion rising to the level of unpardonable sins.
That obsession with sex and the family seems to have shifted over the last 15 years. When Frances FitzGerald was preparing for her big book, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (2017), she wrote a story about progressive evangelicals for The New Yorker. She noticed a shift from the family-values, strong-on-defense, small-government evangelicalism that characterized Jerry Falwell the elder and James Dobson to an outlook that regarded government as a force for making the world a better place. One indication of that shift was the National Association of Evangelicals’ “For the Health of the Nation” statement, which included proposals on climate change that drew fire from Reagan-era leaders like Dobson.
One pastor who helped with that statement was Joel C. Hunter, who in 2009 prayed at a pre-inaugural worship service for Barack Obama. His book Right Wing, Wrong Bird (2006), was a harbinger of evangelical critiques to come. He faulted the leaders of the Religious Right for being negative, narrow, and moralistic, and called for Christians to support policies that extended faith beyond the home to the national and international community. Hunter thought he was speaking for a younger generation of evangelicals who were still conservative in private morality but “won’t put up with a government that deprives the needy by cutting taxes on the rich and whose foreign policy is directed only toward enhancing American power.” That political estimate was in itself remarkably moralistic, since it relied on distinguishing between selfish and loving policies.
Although the shift among evangelicals during the Bush years emerged from frustrations with the Iraq war and the banking crisis of 2008, the difficult relationship between evangelicalism and conservatism was much older and more basic. In a review of Michael Gerson’s book, Heroic Conservatism (2007), Ross Douthat could not resist quoting the former Bush speech writer’s Washington Post column in which Gerson chided conservative opponents of immigraiton reform for betraying Jesus and not recognizing that “our common humanity is more important than our nationality.” That led Douthat to wonder what qualified Gerson as a conservative, since his “heroic” conservatism was indistinguishable from LBJ or Jimmy Carter. It relied, Douthat wrote, on a moral zeal in which “noble, high-minded elites like himself use the levers of government on behalf of ‘the poor, the addicted, and children at risk.’”
It has yet to be determined whether the Bush era “evangelical crackup,” as New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick called it, predicted the divide between the 81 percent of evangelicals who voted for Trump and the 19 percent who did not (and felt superior about it). But whatever statistical models may reveal, leading figures in the evangelical world show signs of either discomfort with or ignorance of American conservatism.
One important source of evangelicals’ uneasy relation to the right is the low-church Protestant habit of seeing politics as an extension of personal devotion, which means that these believers have to write first as Christians before acknowledging any other affiliation or membership. This tendency could produce the approach of 19th-century revivalist Charles Finney, who regarded any number of social reforms from anti-slavery to temperance as the fruit of conversion. The demands of personal holiness refuse compromise with sin in society or its political structures.
Not many Reagan-era evangelicals were reading Finney. But they were reading Francis Schaeffer, an apologist with a small educational commune in Switzerland, who emerged as an intellectual guru in the 1960s before becoming what Garry Wills called “the father of the Christian right.” Jerry Falwell made Schaeffer’s books required reading for freshmen at Liberty University. Part of what made Schaeffer so appealing was the idea that faith colored a person’s entire outlook. In Europe, Schaeffer had become familiar with the Dutch Reformed Protestant notion of worldview popularized by pastor and statesman Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper, who founded the Anti-Revolutionary Party in the Netherlands in 1879, understood European politics as a Manichean contest between God and the French Revolution’s godlessness. For Schaeffer, American politics (along with all human endeavors) made sense according to the divide between faith and unbelief. As America strayed from its Christian heritage, it implemented laws or tolerated immorality that reflected a rejection of God.
The drive to integrate faith and understanding set American conservatism up to be a failure for the better educated segments of evangelical conservative Protestantism. One recent example of this comes from the political theorist David Koyzis, for many years a professor at Redeemer University College, a Dutch Reformed institution in Ontario. His book Political Visions and Illusions (2003), much indebted to a Kuyperian outlook, finds political conservatism wanting. “As a possible Christian political theory,” Koyzis writes, “conservatism fails on two counts. First, there is nothing intrinsically Christian about it. … Second, it offers nothing in the way of a coherent view of the state as a specialized, differentiated community within human society.” The second reason indicates a level of reasoning that is worth hearing. The first is a surefire indication of what evangelical elites were bound to make of a political figure like Donald Trump.
A demand for a politics grounded in Christianity, popularized by neo-Calvinists in the Netherlands and the United States, likely explains reactions to Rod Dreher’s Live Not By Lies (2020) by the likes of Presbyterian pastor Gregory Thompson. In Comment, a publication of Dutch Reformed provenance, Thompson calls Dreher’s warning of soft tyranny in America “egregious” and “dangerous.” Dreher’s book, he says, “is reflective not of the theological imagination of the Christian church” but of “the self-protective imagination of the American cold warrior.” The book is “histrionic, misleading, and vindictive,” driven by “Dreher’s central theme: fear.”
Whatever the merits of Thompson’s larger set of comments, he is someone who learned the ropes of Christian reflection at Covenant Seminary (PCA) in St. Louis, which is home to the Francis Schaeffer Institute. Thompson also served as pastor of a PCA congregation in Charlottesville, Virginia, with strong ties to the Center for Christian Study. Created in 1975, that parachurch ministry works to do for students at the University of Virginia (where Thompson earned his Ph.D. in religion) what Schaeffer had done during the 1950 and 1960s in Switzerland for baby boomers in search of meaning.
Charles E. Cotherman’s new book on the study center phenomenon, To Think Christianly: A History of L’Abri, Regent College, and the Christian Study Center Movement, ends on a curious note. Even though Schaeffer’s version of neo-Calvinism gave intellectual ammunition to the evangelical culture warriors who became part of the Moral Majority, the apologist’s heirs have found a home increasingly in support for social justice. Cotherman writes that Christian faithfulness not only means learning how to think in Christian ways but also “working more proactively . . . to address the social, racial, and gender disparities that mark a movement whose leadership has always skewed heavily male and white.”
A commitment to political engagement informed by faith has, for the past four years, come with a temptation to gain favor and plaudits for criticizing Trump. If you can echo the talking points of NPR and The Washington Post, add a Christian twist, and separate yourself from the Trump-supporting evangelical rabble, you can increase your visibility in the mainstream press and academy.
What you might not realize is that your prophetic denunciations of a crude and sometimes vicious president put you in the same camp as Jerry Falwell, Sr. Because character matters, back during the Lewinsky scandal, Religious Right figures like Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson egged on Ken Starr’s investigation of President Bill Clinton. The press and professoriate were not so impressed as they are today. In a piece for The New York Times Magazine, Andrew Sullivan denounced the moral standards that evangelicals (with help from others) had moved to the mainstream of Republican politics. “The new moralism,” he complained, was “a wholesale assault on the beliefs and practices of an entire post-1960’s settlement.”
If evangelical pastors and professors today faced criticism like Sullivan’s, if opposition to Trump on biblical grounds was risky, if their appeal to Christian moral standards for public officials produced objections of “Christian nationalism,” those Protestant writers might be more reluctant to opine about religious norms for good rulers.
Without serious opposition in their sphere of Christian activity, evangelicals opposed to Trump have done what comes easily to believers who grow up learning the song “I’m Going to Let It Shine.” They have refused to hide their disgust with Trump under a bushel. They have convinced themselves that they are simply letting the light shine. They have forgotten that dying to sin and living to Jesus, also known as sanctification, was never supposed to be easy.