Fear remains at heart of white evangelical support for Trump
Cultural trends have bothered conservative believers for at least half a century
The 2024 presidential election season is still in its infancy, but I’ve seen enough to reconfirm, at least for me, what has been obvious for some time: White evangelical support for Donald Trump and MAGA-ism is motivated primarily by fear, and the white evangelical propensity toward toxic Christian nationalism isn’t going to change as long as fear dominates the movement.
We can see fear in the way many evangelicals talk about their country, we can see it in the news media aimed at an evangelical audience, and we can see it even in the limited data we have from the entrance polls conducted at the Iowa caucuses on Monday.1
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Fear as part of the evangelical mindset is nothing new; evangelicals were among those most alarmed by atheistic communism during the 1950s and the beginning of the sexual revolution in the 1960s. During the 1972 presidential campaign, a good share of evangelicals were swayed by Richard Nixon’s campaign against the “amnesty, acid and abortion”2 characterized as the position of George McGovern and the Democrats. Within much of evangelicalism, there has long been an antipathy toward changes in modern culture, perhaps beginning with the anti-communism movement followed by rock and roll music in the 1950s.
As I wrote a month ago, the presence of fear was painfully evident in Tim Alberta’s incisive look at the politics of today’s evangelicalism, The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory. There’s fear of changing sexual mores, which many evangelicals see as threatening marriage and the family. There’s fear, some of it racist, of immigrants changing the nature of America. There’s fear of government power, often seen as anti-Christian, at least when non-evangelicals are in charge. While non-evangelicals are quick to observe that evangelicals have political power in Congress that far exceeds their numbers, evangelical leaders simply don’t see it that way. In fact, they claim to be persecuted.
I’ll use one excerpt from Alberta’s book among dozens of choices to point to the fear in evangelicalism. Alberta quotes Philip Ryken, president of Wheaton College, arguably the most prestigious institution of higher learning in evangelicalism, who observed:
Some of us are afraid of suffering harm from a white-majority culture. Or, for some of us, becoming a racial minority in a nonwhite culture. Or, for some of us, becoming a religion minority in a post-Christian culture. We all have our fears. There are things happening in the culture, and also happening in the Church, that only exacerbate them.
And Trump has been an expert at exploiting those fears. Of course, he has played on fears of non-evangelicals as well. But his anti-abortion stance of his 2016 and 2020 campaigns was a politically brilliant way for the serial sexual assailant to exploit the fears of evangelicals with a traditional Christian sexual ethic.
And then there are the evangelical-oriented news media. Following are a few of the headlines I had no trouble finding this morning on home pages of two popular sites aimed at evangelicals, The Christian Post and Harbinger’s Daily (four each from each site, respectively):
Unborn baby killed as Christian mother beaten by co-worker; police refuse to prosecute
John Cooper warns of revolution to tear down American Christian Civilization
Anti-Christian bias in Biden White House
Covenant Eyes CEO warns of porn epidemic, urges churches to stem ‘civilizational crisis’
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Although the publicly available information specifically about evangelicals’ voting patterns among Iowa Republicans on Monday is limited, there is at least one set of numbers that suggests that fear was a greater factor among white evangelicals, who made up about 55 percent of voters, than among others: According to entrance polls, although both groups voted for Trump in about equal proportions (53 percent of white evangelicals and 49 percent of others), evangelicals were about twice likely to vote for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (27 percent) than were non-evangelicals (13 percent). DeSantis has run a far more fear-based campaign, one based largely on the culture wars, than former Ambassador Nikki Haley, who has emphasized her experience and a desire to return to political normalcy. Only 13 percent of evangelicals supported her, about half the support (27 percent) that non-evangelicals gave her.
A final thought
The irony of all this is that evangelical Christians, if they follow the teachings of their own religion, should be among the least fearful. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you [God] are with me,” wrote a Psalmist in a verse that evangelicals have often committed to memory. And we’re told in the second letter to Timothy that “God didn’t give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love and self-control.”
Fear is a powerful emotion, and under the right circumstances it can serve useful purposes. But it can also be an emotion that is easily exploited, which is exactly what the Christian nationalism movement is doing as it works against traditional Christian virtues such as humility and love for the least among us.
Christian college president Ryken, quoted above, has told students that Christians “have a great love that will cast out fear3,” calling on them to emulate the New Testament apostles with kindness, gentleness and humilty. “All of the things tearing us apart are rectified when we understand this message,” he said. “Not just as something that defines people who they are when they receive it, but also defines who we are when we give it.”
I’m aware that not all white evangelicals are allied with MAGA. But the numbers are hard to ignore, considering that, according to the Pew Research Center, Trump won support of 77 percent of voting evangelicals in the 2016 general election and 84 percent in 2020. As a result, the term “evangelical” itself is coming to refer more to a cultural identity than to a theological position.
The amnesty reference is to those who evaded the draft because of the Vietnam War, viewed by many evangelicals as necessary in part because North Vietnam was viewed as an atheistic communist country. I attended an evangelical college near the end of the Vietnam War, and there was markedly less opposition to the war there than at the state university a few miles away. “Acid” was common slang at the time for LSD; Democrats during the ’72 campaign were portrayed as supporters of mind-altering illicit drugs in general, particularly marijuana.
An allusion to 1 John 4:18.