Interrogation

Why White Evangelicals Abandoned Their Principles for Donald Trump

Supporters bow their heads in prayer before a Trump rally.
Supporters pray before a Trump campaign event in Pensacola, Florida, on Nov. 2, 2016.
Carlo Allegri/Reuters

In a new cover story for the Atlantic, the conservative commentator Michael Gerson examines why America’s white evangelicals have gone all in for a president that you might have once thought they would find grotesque. Despite his terrible conduct toward women, his racism, and his disregard for basic human decency, Donald Trump has managed to convince many evangelicals that he will protect what they see as their endangered status in modern-day America. He has also delivered to them a policy agenda rich in social conservativism. Gerson, a harsh Trump critic, looks at the complex history of America’s evangelical communities, and comes to the conclusion that the embrace of Trump will ultimately be corrupting and catastrophic. As he writes, “This is the result when Christians become one interest group among many, scrambling for benefits at the expense of others rather than seeking the welfare of the whole. Christianity is love of neighbor, or it has lost its way. And this sets an urgent task for evangelicals: to rescue their faith from its worst leaders.”

I recently spoke by phone with Gerson, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and a columnist for the Washington Post. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed why American Catholics have been less likely to embrace Trumpism than evangelicals, whether the Bush administration helped set the stage for our current situation, and why so many evangelicals are blind or dismissive of racism.

Isaac Chotiner: I am curious about the degree to which you look at the phenomenon you’re writing about and see two strands. The first is people making a practical calculation and essentially saying, “I know this guy’s got flaws, but we have Neil Gorsuch, etc.” And the second is people who have really bought into Trump and Trumpism in some way.

Michael Gerson: Interesting question. I would say that the argument, the basic utilitarian argument—the president is not a pastor, a certain amount of compromise is necessary to get conservative judges—you might be able to make that case in some limited circumstances. The problem is that that does not demand that you be a sycophant. It doesn’t demand that you defend him in every scandal or defend any kind of vile social behavior, so there’s something else going on here than a reluctant political calculation.

As I worked on the piece and read a lot of these [evangelical] leaders, it really dawned on me that a number of them were happy that Trump was hitting back at people who disdained him. They feel they’ve been bullied, and they want powerful pushback. I find that psychologically understandable, but it has literally nothing to do with Christianity, or the ethical tradition of Christian social engagement.

You said that people vote for Trump because they feel this disdain and they want to fight back. They must also recognize that Trump is going to further a caricature of them. I’m wondering if you’ve noticed any sort of awareness of that, and either perverse pleasure in it or just like who gives a damn at this point?

I think that part of this is a broad anti-elitism, the idea that there’s been cultural condescension against them. That actually goes back a long way. We’re not talking about just the last couple of decades. We’re talking about the Scopes Monkey Trial, where evangelicals were in a very prominent position in American culture and a very positive one in many ways—not in every way, but many ways—and lost that rather precipitously and went into an internal exile that they have only emerged from in the last couple of decades. There is this notion that the broader liberal culture turned against them, and not just recently, and that that needs to be resisted.

Now, that’s totally different from an approach that says, “Well, here are Christian-first principles, moral principles, and how do we apply them to a range of issues and arguments,” OK? Instead what you get is this defensive reaction to the perceived aggressions of modernity, and that actually determines what issues they pick rather than having an argument from basic principles.

You worked for the Bush administration, and as you point out in the piece, the Bush administration took stances that you define as more Christian in intent and execution, such as the effort to combat AIDS in Africa. But the Bush administration made other, more political decisions to more closely align white evangelicals in a very partisan fashion with the GOP. Do you think that helped lay the groundwork for this total, unthinking evangelical support for Trump?

Well, I guess that’s a hard argument for me to make, because I went down to Austin early in 1999 with the intention, which was also then-Gov. Bush’s intention, of shifting the ideological framework of the Republican Party significantly, and doing it in a direction of, for want of a better description, in the direction of Catholic social thought.

He rejected libertarianism very strongly and talked about an innovative [role for] government in supporting the private and religious institutions that serve the poor. I believe we talked more about the poor in that election than Al Gore did.

That was, from my perspective—the communication, speechwriting perspective but also the policy perspective, because I was involved in that process—intended as an outreach to religious people, but we intended to do it in a different fashion. In fact, Bush gained a lot of support among Catholics, if you look at the numbers. In 2004 it went up. I think we won Catholics over a Catholic candidate. Now, does that mean that you don’t have a political operation that strokes key leaders? Well, of course not. I mean, any administration would do that, and I don’t think that’s necessarily cynical.

I was thinking more about things like the gay marriage initiatives on the state ballots, which I thought were more cynical, perhaps in part because I didn’t think Bush himself really believed in that, and it felt like stoking some of the resentments and fears of evangelical voters that you’re writing about here.

It was a very tough issue, because it did at the time represent President Bush’s view on the nature of marriage, so in that sense it was not inauthentic. I don’t know if that’s changed or not. A lot of people have changed in their view of this, including me, but at the time we were essentially taking a variant of the position that Barack Obama won the presidency on. It looks different because social change has been so swift and total. I never saw it as an attempt to whip up disturbing sentiment. I didn’t see it that way. It was a very tough choice where there were arguments both ways, where the president came out in a certain position that might be different today.

In the piece, you write: “Here is the uncomfortable reality. I do not believe that most evangelicals are racists, but every strong Trump supporter has decided that racism is not a moral disqualification in the president of the United States, and that is something more than a political compromise. It is a revelation of moral priorities.” What does this make you think about a group of people that you have an enormous amount of sympathy for, and care for?

Yeah, it’s a very complicated topic. There were people like Billy Graham who were inclusive in his mass meetings and had Martin Luther King Jr. speak at his New York Crusade, so there were people in the evangelical tradition, but it’s tough to deal with the fact that an institution that has a tradition that had been the backbone of abolitionism was largely absent in the civil rights movement, and in certain parts of the country was not just absent but resistant. I think that is a huge deal and a difficult thing to explain. I refer in the piece to this as kind of the central moral drama of American history, from slavery to segregation, and to some extent a lot of white evangelicals have not felt the urgency on that set of issues. In fact, it was white evangelicals that the letter from the Birmingham jail was written to. I value the evangelical tradition, but I think there’s been a significant blind spot in the mainstream.

This gets back to my question at the beginning about pragmatism vs. belief, because some people might say, “Yeah, the way Trump’s talked about race is bad, but he is delivering on policy.” And other people might say, “No, I think this guy’s speaking up against political correctness,” or whatever the euphemism is regarding Trump.

I think that the political case is inadequate. I think there are short-term benefits from this alliance, but I think the association of evangelicalism with ethnopopulism in the medium to long term is absolutely disastrous from the perspective of issues that evangelicals care about. I mean, it undermines pro-life argumentation to associate with misogyny. It undermines basic arguments like family values if you’re engaged in nativist exclusion. These things are related to one another. From a purely political perspective, this is foolish, but ultimately if you’re a leader, an evangelical leader, there’s something more at stake here. You’re discrediting a set of views that are really important. You’re associating your faith with bias and white grievance, and that is a very serious matter.

In the piece you talk about the difference between Catholics and Protestants here, and argue that Catholics worship, broadly speaking, under one church, and this church has a more coherent set of values, and those sets of values line up in such a way, thanks to things like  immigration and poverty, that cut across partisan lines. And this has kept Catholics from becoming more partisan in the present-day U.S. Is the diffuse nature of evangelical belief and evangelical communities going to make the present situation harder to fix?

Well, I am a Protestant, and so I think that the decentralized authority is very much the Protestant tradition, and you see that with also just the multiplicity of denominations, and you’re absolutely right.

I think there are inherent problems because evangelicals do not have a centralized teaching authority, but this is very different from accepting the circumstance in which the main source of advice and input on Christian public engagement is Fox News and talk radio. That is a disturbing element of this, and that is a failure to some extent of the teaching authority, of the teaching role of the church. There are in fact theories of social engagement that pastors and others can talk about without being politicized, and those are not effectively communicated to people in the pew. Many of them really do get their main source of information and their main philosophic structure from partisan media.