Theorizing Religion in the Age of Trump: Justin K.H. Tse

The election of Donald Trump has given rise to new kind of politics that has already increased tensions between competing groups, including religious groups over issues such as public education, science funding, and a proposed travel ban impacting several Muslim majority countries. In this new series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars how they might go about theorizing these issues from the perspective of the study of religion. For other posts in this series, see here

At least we know what evangelicalism is now: reflections on religion in the age of Trump

by Justin K.H. Tse

If the coherence of the terms ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ have been doing badly in religious studies for the last few decades, then a case can be made that ‘evangelicalism’ has done far worse. Until the last presidential election in the United States in 2016, no one seemed to know who or what an ‘evangelical’ was, aside from the fact that they were a subset of Christians who derive their theological legacy from the Protestant Reformation. Even evangelicalism’s supposed binary opposite, the ‘mainline,’ shed little light on this quandary because those of evangelical convictions were said to inhabit mainline Protestant denominations.

Numerous attempts, of course, have been made to describe evangelicalism. There were the doctrinal characteristics that generally centered on biblical literalism, missionary activism, personal conversionism, and a belief in substitutionary atonement centered on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. These traits have gone by the names of many a polygon: the Bebbington Quadrilateral, the Larsen Pentagon, and so on and so forth. Others preferred a more sociological approach, pointing out the social characteristics of evangelicals in their therapeutic moralism, emphasis on individual spirituality, general disdain for established structures, and tendency to focus on single issues. Still others spoke of the demise of evangelicalism because of its anti-intellectualism, while some intellectual historians authored surveys and studies of persons that might be associated with an evangelical intelligentsia. But the point is that no one really agreed on who or what an evangelical was, and the modus operandi of those who fancied themselves experts on the movement was to harp on how the central characteristic of evangelicalism was that it is fragmented.

But with the election of Donald Trump to the American presidency, things have certainly cleared up, at least for white evangelicals in the United States. If the 81% of white American evangelicals who reportedly voted for Donald Trump to be president was not an indicator at least of some racial unity among a large segment of evangelicalism, then the Pew Research Center’s reports that frequent churchgoing was a more likely indicator of Trump voting is especially damning. Pew’s associate director Gregory A. Smith (2017) puts the matter starkly:

In the months before Election Day, about three-quarters (77%) of white evangelical Protestant registered voters who attended church at least once or twice a month (including 78% of those who attended church weekly) said they would vote for Trump over Hillary Clinton. Among evangelicals who attend church less often, about two-thirds (67%) said they intended to cast their ballots for Trump.

In addition, the majority of those self-identifying as evangelical Protestant do indeed attend church regularly. The same holds true for white American Catholics: those who attend mass more regularly (61% of those surveyed) tend to be more approving of Trump’s performance.

How baffling such an evaluation of Trump’s objectively bizarre presidency (and even stranger Twitter feed) has been pointed out by a number of commentators. After all, aren’t committed evangelicals (and Catholics, for that matter) supposed to be committed to a set of moral and theological values that Trump hardly practices, what with his misogynistic comments directly addressing his extramarital sex life, his string of divorces, his series of bankruptcies and possible business ties to organized crime, not to mention to extra-American states like Russia and Saudi Arabia?

If Jerry Falwell, Jr., is to be considered in any way to be a spokesperson of white American evangelicalism, perhaps his comments on Fox News’s Justice with Judge Jeanine on April 29, 2017 about evangelicals having found their ‘dream president’ might be enlightening. Falwell lists a variety of social and political issues–among them, a strengthened alliance with Israel (at least at the time of the interview–this is now a bit more dubious due to Trump’s imprudent ouster of a covert Israeli agent to Russian officials), the appointment of Neil Gorsuch as a conservative justice to the Supreme Court in a hope against hope to overturn Roe v. Wade, the appointment of ‘people of faith to his cabinet in almost area,’ and stepping up the battle against the Islamic State to prevent the further killing of Middle Eastern Christians. However, Falwell emphasizes that the values are no longer the point; the problem, he says, are the ‘moderate Republicans’ who ‘make my blood boil’ because they ‘pretend to be conservatives, they woo conservative voters, and when they get into office, they’re not conservative,’ especially on issues of border security and the fight against sanctuary cities. Here, it seems that Falwell’s open hostility to liberalizing immigration policy and helping to keep undocumented migrants in the United States is still not the main issue. The problem is, simply put, the veneer of integrity: moderate Republicans don’t have it, and at least Trump says exactly what he is going to do and does what he said he would. Contrasting the oft-repeated criticism that Trump is a serial liar, Falwell is willing to give Trump a pass because at least he is consistent – or at least seems that way.

While this view of integrity might seem strange to those outside of white American evangelicalism, the way that some prominent white American evangelicals supported Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign might give this some sense of evangelical normalcy. Focus on the Family’s founder, Dr. James Dobson, publicly asserted, presumably on reports from prosperity gospel preacher Paula White, that Trump had become a ‘baby Christian’ and therefore should be cut some slack because he is only now learning the ropes as a faith infant. While Dobson has himself walked back his stronger claims about this conversion, this form of evangelical conversion is premised on the core concept of forgiveness: the slate has been wiped clean, and Donald Trump has been given a second chance. Placed in sharp contrast to a faithless, unforgiving world outside of evangelicalism, forgiveness is taken as a matter of individual faith, which means that God not only judges what is in the heart, but can also create a new reality where past actions do not matter based on the simple spark of belief.

To be forgiven goes ideologically hand-in-glove with integrity. Dobson’s famous case study of conversion long before he ever commented on the Donald’s faith was the serial killer Ted Bundy, whom he famously led to a personal faith in Christ moments before his execution. Dobson’s comments at that time mirror his commentary on Trump: Bundy’s past actions were now irrelevant to his eternal security. Integrity, then, is not primarily about one’s actions; at least within Dobson’s strain of evangelicalism (which is no small faction), it is about having been forgiven so that action is ultimately irrelevant. In this way, evangelicals in this strain can have their ideological cake and eat it too: Trump is not exactly a man of integrity, but having been forgiven, he is now coming through on his big campaign promises while getting used to new Christian habits in the small things. Cut the guy some slack, the evangelical commentary seems to be.

If the white American evangelical approval rating of Trump remains above 70%, my claim is that we now finally know what an evangelical is. It is not as politically and theologically fragmented as previously thought, and it certainly is not based on a set of abstract values. Instead, it is a theological system that banks on a mechanism of forgiveness to create the semblance of integrity. In this sense, everyone else may think that Donald Trump is a sleazy slimeball who conned himself into the presidency. Such talk, however, will likely only serve to alienate Trump’s evangelical supporters because this is the talk of a world that does not know how to extend what they might call the grace of forgiveness to the Donald.

Justin K.H. Tse is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Asian American Studies Program at Northwestern University. He is the lead editor of Theological Reflections on the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement (Palgrave, 2016). He is currently working on a book manuscript titled Religious Politics in Pacific Space: Grounding Cantonese Protestant Theologies in Secular Civil Societies.

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