Here is a really obscure fact about American politics that you may not have heard about: Did you know that lots of white evangelical Protestants voted for Donald Trump in 2016?
I know. It's really strange, but it must be true -- because it's in all the newspapers, week after week after week after week.
As I have noted before, it's true that there were evangelical "early adopters" who helped Trump get the 30 percent votes that he needed to gain momentum in the early primaries. As his candidacy became inevitable, many other evangelicals bit their lips and signed on -- many keeping their hard choice private. The best story to read remains this feature at Christianity Today: "Pew: Most Evangelicals Will Vote Trump, But Not For Trump."
Why has the press been so focused on white evangelicals? Trump isn't president today because lots of evangelicals -- for various reasons -- backed him. He is president because lots of blue-collar and labor Democrats voted for him in crucial states. Many of them were white Catholics. Where is the tsunami of coverage of those crucial niches in American politics?
I bring all this up -- again -- because this weekend's think piece is the must-read Michael Gerson cover story at The Atlantic that ran under this double-decker headline:
The Last Temptation
How evangelicals, once culturally confident, became an anxious minority seeking political protection from the least traditionally religious president in living memory
The key part of that headline is the reference to "seeking political protection." Hold that thought, because we will come back to it. Meanwhile, here is the overture:
One of the most extraordinary things about our current politics -- really, one of the most extraordinary developments of recent political history -- is the loyal adherence of religious conservatives to Donald Trump. The president won four-fifths of the votes of white evangelical Christians. This was a higher level of support than either Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, an outspoken evangelical himself, ever received.
Once again, we see the acceptance of the evangelical monolith myth, in this case it is being embraced by a brilliant evangelical who knows better.
But set that aside for a moment and keep reading this long, but crucial, section of Gerson's piece:
Trump’s background and beliefs could hardly be more incompatible with traditional Christian models of life and leadership. Trump’s past political stances (he once supported the right to partial-birth abortion), his character (he has bragged about sexually assaulting women), and even his language (he introduced the words pussy and shithole into presidential discourse) would more naturally lead religious conservatives toward exorcism than alliance. This is a man who has cruelly publicized his infidelities, made disturbing sexual comments about his elder daughter, and boasted about the size of his penis on the debate stage. His lawyer reportedly arranged a $130,000 payment to a porn star to dissuade her from disclosing an alleged affair. Yet religious conservatives who once blanched at PG-13 public standards now yawn at such NC-17 maneuvers. We are a long way from The Book of Virtues.
Trump supporters tend to dismiss moral scruples about his behavior as squeamishness over the president’s “style.” But the problem is the distinctly non-Christian substance of his values. Trump’s unapologetic materialism -- his equation of financial and social success with human achievement and worth -- is a negation of Christian teaching. His tribalism and hatred for “the other” stand in direct opposition to Jesus’s radical ethic of neighbor love. Trump’s strength-worship and contempt for “losers” smack more of Nietzsche than of Christ. Blessed are the proud. Blessed are the ruthless. Blessed are the shameless. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after fame.
All true, of course. That's why many traditional religious believers opposed Trump from Day 1. Many also opposed Hillary Clinton, fearing a reboot of the Clinton White House soap opera. (GetReligion readers know that I was #NeverTrump #NeverHillary.)
The crucial factor in the current political equation was, of course, the U.S. Supreme Court and the very real possibility that the First Amendment's protection of the free exercise of religion would, to one degree or another, be redefined or erased.
That's the threat that Gerson is talking about. To be blunt: He sides with the GOP country club (and the media elites) and says this threat has been overrated. Here is the key passage:
The evangelical political agenda, moreover, has been narrowed by its supremely reactive nature. Rather than choosing their own agendas, evangelicals have been pulled into a series of social and political debates started by others. Why the asinine issue of spiritually barren prayer in public schools? Because of Justice Hugo Black’s 1962 opinion rendering it unconstitutional. Why such an effort-wasting emphasis on a constitutional amendment to end abortion, which will never pass? Because in 1973 Justice Harry Blackmun located the right to abortion in the constitutional penumbra. Why the current emphasis on religious liberty? Because the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision legalizing same-sex marriage has raised fears of coercion.
It is not that secularization, abortion, and religious liberty are trivial issues; they are extremely important. But the timing and emphasis of evangelical responses have contributed to a broad sense that evangelical political engagement is negative, censorious, and oppositional. This funneled focus has also created the damaging impression that Christians are obsessed with sex. Much of the secular public hears from Christians only on issues of sexuality -- from contraceptive mandates to gay rights to transgender bathroom usage. And while religious people do believe that sexual ethics are important, the nature of contemporary religious engagement creates a misimpression about just how important they are relative to other crucial issues.
Whoa. So Obergefell merely raised "fears" of coercion?
The basic idea here is that traditional religious believers -- not Hollywood, academic elites, the editorial page at The New York Times and political activists -- picked sex, marriage and family as the beach on which the First Amendment battles would be fought. #REALLY
Now, there's lots of other material to ponder in this Gerson piece and all kinds of people need to read it. However, they also need to know that it is part of a wider debate.
Whoa. "Perceived threats"?
So what does French have to say to Gerson? Consider this part two of this weekend's think-piece assignment.
While Gerson ably explains that Evangelicals feel as if they’re under siege, he doesn’t give an adequate explanation as to why. He communicates the reality that Evangelicals feel embattled without providing sufficient explanation for that belief, belittling their concerns as hysterical and self-pitying. The effect is to make Evangelicals appear irrational when, in fact, Evangelicals made their political choice in response to actual, ominous cultural and legal developments that jeopardized their religious liberty and threatened some of their most precious religious and cultural institutions.
Yes, some went too far and adopted the “Flight 93 election” rhetoric that helped poison American political discourse, but one doesn’t have to think that the republic was at stake to understand that the issues in play were very serious.
This is an omission of no small consequence. Until the progressive community understands the gravity of its attacks on Evangelical institutions, there is little hope for understanding — much less changing -- an increasingly-polarized American political culture.
French points to a crucial statement by President Barack Obama’s solicitor general, during U.S. Supreme Court arguments:
Justice Samuel Alito: Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax-exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same-sex marriage?
Soliticitor General Verrilli: You know, I, -- I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is -- it is going to be an issue.
So what does that have to do with Gerson's thesis? French notes:
Just after the presidential election, David Bernstein highlighted that exchange and called the Obergefell argument the “oral argument that cost Democrats the presidency.” While there are many things that cost Democrats the presidency, that moment is certainly one of them. Think, for a moment, of the cultural and legal implications.
Lots to think about here. But, for journalists, it's easy to see the bottom line: This story isn't going to go away. And it's bigger than myths about an evangelical monolith.